John Paul II: Pope and Saint

By Nwachukwu Egbunike

TO SKETCH a portrait of John Paul (JP) II is arduous, for it is difficult to capture the essence of this man, poet, intellectual, priest, bishop and Pope. His life was a riddle of love spiced with the cross. And his death was similarly an exponential continuation of his discipleship and witness to the truth. It was therefore no surprise that his predecessor Pope Benedict XVI will beatify this world leader and greatest saint maker, on May 1, 2011.

Holiness has always been clothed with exclusivity – the preserve of a privileged few. Besides in a world that lays prostrate on the altar of might, being holy can most times be interpreted as being stupid. As such, the general approach amongst many Christians is to catch first the glitz that normal life extends and at the twit light of their earthly sojourn to seek the things of heaven. Sanctity is therefore not so appealing, bearing in mind that most often it is viewed through the lenses of deprivations. This is what the life of JP II totally contradicts; that essentially the saint has the better of two worlds – happiness on earth and eternal bliss in heaven.

The Catholic Church by the mandate extended to her by her founder, Jesus Christ, in declaring a person a saint – through beatification or canonisation – holds that such a person is beyond all doubt contemplating the face of God in heaven. Of course this declaration is not a process of sentimental expression but one which is entrenched in the triumph of reason and faith. For one to be made ‘blessed’ or ‘saint’ his life has to literally pass through a microscope. He/she must have lived the virtues to a heroic degree. Besides, a miracle is needed to confirm the saints’ odour of sanctity. Bear in mind that these miracles have to pass the test of medical science and theological investigation. This is to ensure that no human explanation can be found for the cure attributed to the intercession of the saint.

The Beatification of JP II
In line with the programme released by the Vatican Press Office, the beatification – the first step before the definitive declaration of a person as a saint – will be a three day event. The first day there will be a Vigil in Circus Maximums (30 April, 2011). This celebration will dwell a great deal on the words and actions of John Paul II. Also privileged accounts will be given by Joaquin Navarro-Valls and Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz, both of whom worked closely with the Pope, and by Sr. Marie Simon-Pierre, whose miraculous recovery opened the way for the beatification process. To conclude the vigil, Benedict XVI shall recite the final prayer and impart the apostolic blessing to all participants, in live transmission from the Apostolic Palace.

The Mass of Beatification will hold on May 1, 2011, (Sunday after Easter or of Divine Mercy) in St. Peter’s Square. Pope Benedict XVI will preside. The next day (May 2) there will be a Mass of Thanksgiving to be officiated by the Secretary of State, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone in St. Peter’s Square.

A Disciple and Witness
Karol Wojtyla, can only be understood by a due consideration of his personality. The man, who was elected to the Chair of Peter, was forged from a perspective that transcended the usual and often improvised category of labels – conservative or liberal. It was the sense of discipleship that spurred JP II. As the shepherd of the Universal Church, those words of St Paul were a grave responsibility: “the love of Christ urges us.”
George Weigel, his biographer explains further:

to understand Karol Wojtyla from inside is to understand him as a disciple. To understand that for him, hope for the human prospect is rooted in faith and that faith is not the assertion of one religious option in a supermarket of possible truths. It is to his mind, the truth of the world. It is the truth that has seized him in his youth and has formed his adult life. It is the truth to which he was obliged to bear witness.

John Paul II was born in Poland on May 18, 1920. He lost his mother when he was only nine and his only brother, Dr Edmund died from scarlet fever. He witnessed the invasion of his country by the Nazis and later by the Red Army. It was during the Nazi occupation that his father fell ill and later died. As such he was molded in an environment that stifled freedom, a totalitarian fist, from nineteen to fifty-eight year of his earthly life.

His early years had a great influence on his papacy. As such he re-echoed those words of his Gospel – “Be not be Afraid” during his Inaugural Mass as the Servant of the Servants of God on October 22, 1978. This zeal for souls was the defining focus of his Papal ministry, for he made over 104 visits outside Italy and wrote widely.

John Paul the Great
JP II was convinced and strived throughout his ministry in the Chair of Peter to transmit the teachings of the Second Vatican Council. Top on his priority was therefore the universal call to holiness. Asides pushing through many of his apostolic interventions, JP II also was the greatest saint-making Pope. He beatified and canonised over 1,000 people.

Many saw JP’s election as Pope as the death of communism. Truth be told, he was influential in the fall of the Iron Curtain in Eastern Europe. A polyglot, JP II papacy spanned 27 years that was filled with joy and sorrow. As he entered St Peter’s Square for an audience on May 13, 1981, JP II was shot and critically wounded by Mehmet Ali Agca, a professional Turkish assassin. The Pope forgave Agca and attributed his survival in these words:

Could I forget that the event in St. Peter’s Square took place on the day and at the hour when the first appearance of the Mother of Christ to the poor little peasants has been remembered for over sixty years at Fatima, Portugal? For in everything that happened to me on that very day; I felt that extraordinary motherly protection and care; which turned out to be stronger than the deadly bullet.

He was also a long suffering patient of Parkinson disease – which affected his physical features. He had difficulty speaking more than a few sentences at a time, as well as trouble hearing. He also developed severe arthritis in his right knee following a hip replacement, and therefore rarely walked in public. Nevertheless, he continued to tour the world. Those who met him late in his life said that although physically he was in poor shape, mentally he remained fully alert.

John Paul the Saint

Where did the Pope find this courage? He found it in a faith nourished by continual prayer. They have told me that, during his repeated and tiring voyages all over the world, John Paul II rose in the morning before everyone else and prostrated himself in prayer before the tabernacle… — Angelo Comastri in  ‘Let Me Go to The Fathers House’. 2006, p 108.

JP II went to the Fathers House on the April 2, 2005 and was buried on April 8, 2005. His funeral was a testament to the fruitfulness of his life. It was the single largest gathering in history of heads of state outside the United Nations with four kings, five queens, about 70 presidents and prime ministers. More than 14 heads of different religions attended. It remains the largest single gathering of Christianity in history. The mourners were in an excess of four million people.

During the funeral, the crowd reverberated with chants of “Santo subito!” (“Make him a saint right now!”). Pope Benedict – taking advantage of his prerogative – dispensed with Church rules that normally impose a five-year waiting period after a candidate’s death before the beatification procedure can start.

In January this year, Benedict formally endorsed the decree of beatification of John Paul II following a miracle that was attributed to his intercession. A Polish nun was miraculously cured of Parkinson Disease. The Polish pope, who himself suffered from the condition, interceded for the miraculous cure of Sister Marie Simon-Pierre, a Frenchwoman in her late forties. She has said her illness inexplicably disappeared two months after John Paul II’s death, after she and her fellow nuns had prayed to him. No medical reason could be attributed to the cure, since Parkinson is incurable.

His beatification will once again prove that holiness is possible,  hip and cool. Blessed John Paul II, pray for us!

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