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Pope John Paul II: Model of Heroic Faith
By Jack Wintz, O.F.M.
In more than 26 years as pope, John Paul II accomplished phenomenal things on many fronts. His greatest achievement was in boldly proclaiming Christ, the dynamic center of our faith.

Q U I C K S C A N

Three Facets of Heroic Faith
Christ: The Key to Understanding the Human Person
His Heroic Faith Carried Us Into the New Millennium
The Final Years
Chronology of John Paul II
John Paul II by the Numbers
Encyclicals

Pope John Paul II

Painting by Dina Bellotti

The date is January 21, 1998. The place is Havana’s Jose Marti International Airport. Pope John Paul II has just flown in for a five-day pastoral visit to Cuba. Standing only a few yards away from Cuban President Fidel Castro, the pope is delivering his arrival speech. After introductory greetings to the president, the Cuban bishops and other dignitaries, Pope John Paul II assures the Cuban people that he feels “closely bound in solidarity” with them.

Just a few sentences later, the pope tosses in a seemingly harmless one-liner that is really a subtle bombshell for all those listening: “You are and must be the principal agents of your own personal and national history.” The words, heard by Catholics and others sitting next to their radios and TVs across this island nation, bristle with powerful innuendo for people living under a political system that often sacrifices individual freedom on the altar of the State. Many of those listening remember that this pope, in the view of many, played a key role in the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe and in Russia.

Besides speaking out boldly for human rights, the pope places another strong, faith-filled challenge before the Cuban people: “From the very first moment of my presence among you, I wish to say with the same force as at the beginning of my pontificate: ‘Do not be afraid to open your hearts to Christ.’ Allow him to come into your lives, into your families, into society....” Later still, John Paul follows up with a prayer that Cuba “may offer everyone a climate of freedom,...social justice and lasting peace.”

In a way this vignette from the pope’s first day in Cuba provides a thumbnail sketch of his entire papacy. If there exists a single phrase that best summarizes what John Paul II was for the Church, it would be “model of heroic faith.” How he came across at the Havana airport is how he came across, I believe, during most of his life. “Heroic faith” describes, in a nutshell, what his life communicated to the Church and to the human family at large.

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Three Facets of Heroic Faith

Three major strands of the pope’s heroic faith—clearly evident in John Paul II’s visit to Cuba—were also observable throughout his papacy as a whole.

First of all, there was his heroic Christian witness as a bold evangelizer. Closely related to this was his deftness in using the mass media to get his message across. In the days preceding John Paul’s visit to Cuba (where the state carefully controls the mass media), there was considerable doubt as to whether his speeches, eucharistic celebrations and other major events would be carried by the nation’s radio and television stations. As it happened, the pope had full access to such media outlets from beginning to end. This kind of media coverage was typical of the pope’s pastoral and evangelizing visits throughout his entire pontificate.

Secondly, once the pope’s health began to fail, he manifested heroic faith by the way he dealt with personal illness and suffering. Already in Cuba, telltale signs of the pope’s Parkinson’s disease were apparent. John Paul walked with a shuffle, his hand often trembled and his speech was so slurred and weak at times that it almost faded into silence. This was an amazing contrast to Pope John Paul II’s robust health during his first visit to the United States in 1979. John Paul’s faithful carrying-out of his papal ministry—despite the assassination attempt and his serious health problems—enhanced the authenticity of his mission. John Paul II’s unpretentious and unembarrassed acceptance of suffering, especially throughout the second half of his pontificate, was itself a heroic form of witness.

Thirdly, John Paul II built his bold faith on Christ. This was part of his spiritual profile long before his Havana airport speech. I personally recall hearing via radio John Paul II’s words the day he was installed as pope, October 22, 1978: “Brothers and sisters,” he proclaimed from St. Peter’s Square, “don’t be afraid to welcome Christ and to accept his power.” It was the same heartfelt message he proclaimed to the men and women of Cuba and to vast audiences in many other countries he visited.

Pope John Paul II’s heroic faith was so anchored on Jesus Christ that, before we go on, it would be good to explore how central Christ was to his spiritual vision. Significantly, the very first line of John Paul’s very first encyclical, Redeemer of the Human Race (1979), is, “Christ is the center of the universe and of human history.”

In talks and addresses from early on, the pope often affirmed that Christ is the model of our humanity. Indeed, in answer to the questions, “Who am I? What is my value and meaning as a human being?” the pope would respond by saying that Jesus Christ is the one who reveals to us our meaning and great dignity as human beings. The pope taught repeatedly that Christ is the pattern for our humanity.

Thus Pope John Paul II, quoting Vatican II in his Redeemer of the Human Race, wrote: “Christ...fully reveals man to himself and brings to light his most high calling.” The pope added, “In Christ and through Christ,” all are enabled to come to “full awareness of their dignity...and of the meaning of their existence.”

In his travels, the new pope lost no time before courageously proclaiming this important aspect of Christ’s message. During his first trip to Poland as pope, in June 1979, John Paul II made an amazingly bold statement that hammered his point home. In the center of Warsaw’s Victory Square, the pope said words that greatly encouraged Polish Catholics while sending signals of alarm to the Communist Party leaders: “To Poland, the Church brought Christ, the key to understanding the great and fundamental reality that is man.” And because of this, the pope continued, “Christ cannot be excluded from human history in any part of the globe, from any latitude or longitude of the earth. Excluding Christ from human history is a sin against humanity.”

John Paul brought a similar message to American youth at New York’s Madison Square Garden on October 3, 1979: “When you wonder about the mystery of yourself, look to Christ who gives you the meaning of life. When you wonder what it means to be a mature person, look to Christ who is the fullness of humanity.”

John Paul II was only 58 when he was elected pope in 1978. Quite obviously, an important part of his role would be to help the Church prepare for the Great Jubilee—the 2,000th anniversary of the birth of Christ. Indeed, John Paul would go on to fulfill the prediction of his friend and mentor Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski, primate of Poland, at the time of his election: “If the Lord has called you, you must lead the Church into the third millennium.”

The pope’s faith-filled exhortation—“Be not afraid to open the door to Christ”—became the watchwords for the Catholic community and others during those years and days when as a Church we were approaching, celebrating and crossing over into the new millennium.

Pope John Paul II’s heroic faith was evident during the Great Jubilee Year of 2000 itself, when, for example, he boldly decided to hold a Day of Pardon (March 13, 2000) at St. Peter’s Basilica, whereby the Catholic community publicly confessed its sins and failings. “The public act of repentance,” reported The New York Times, “was an unprecedented moment in the history of the Roman Catholic Church, one that the ailing 79-year-old pope pushed forward over the doubts of even many of his own cardinals and bishops.” This was heroic faith in action.

So was John Paul’s pilgrimage to the Holy Land the same year, when he personally visited, preached and prayed at the key sites of Jesus’ earthly life, especially those marking his incarnation, birth, death and resurrection.

During his homily at Bethlehem’s Manger Square on March 22, 2000, the pope suggested that his coming to Bethlehem in the year 2000 was the culmination of his papacy, and indeed of his whole faith journey. “Bethlehem,” he said, “is the heart of my Jubilee pilgrimage. The paths I have taken lead me to this place and to the mystery it proclaims.”

It was as if he was born to lead us—and all God’s people—back to Bethlehem to contemplate and absorb the meaning of the Incarnation and the whole mystery of Jesus Christ, upon whom the Holy Father’s life was centered.

In 2002 and 2003, John Paul II helped to reinforce further the Church’s faith in Christ through two major groundbreaking papal documents. The first was his apostolic letter The Rosary of the Virgin Mary (October 16, 2002) in which the pope strengthened the Christ-centered nature of that popular prayer by adding five new mysteries, highlighting Christ’s public ministry. Then on Holy Thursday (April 17, 2003), the pope released his encyclical on the Eucharist, Ecclesia de Eucharistia. In this document John Paul asserted: “The most holy Eucharist contains the Church’s entire spiritual wealth, Christ himself, our passover and living bread.”

Pope John Paul II began his pontificate boldly focused on Christ. The pope’s body may have weakened in time, but not his spiritual focus or resolve. After 26 years, five months and 17 days as pope, he died on April 2, 2005. Most of us who followed his activities, I’m sure, would clearly affirm that this believer “stayed the course.” Till his final moments among us, Pope John Paul II clung to the same heroic faith with which he began—and without removing his gaze from Jesus Christ, “the model of our humanity.”

Some personal and quite honest words from Pope John Paul II’s 1999 Letter to the Elderly make a most appropriate ending to our final salute to this great pope and heroic man of faith, who has passed on into the presence of the risen Christ. Writing in 1999 to all those who shared with him the challenges of aging, Pope John Paul II confided:

“Despite the limitations brought on by age, I continue to enjoy life. For this I thank the Lord. It is wonderful to be able to give oneself to the very end for the sake of the Kingdom of God!

“At the same time, I find great peace in thinking of the time when the Lord will call me: from life to life! And so I find myself saying, with no trace of melancholy, a prayer recited by priests after the celebration of the Eucharist: In hora mortis meae voca me, et iube me venire ad te (At the hour of my death, call me and bid me to come to you). This is a prayer of Christian hope, which in no way detracts from the joy of the present, while entrusting the future to God’s gracious and loving care....

“Grant, O Lord of life,...when the moment of our definitive ‘passage’ comes, that we may face it with serenity, without regret for what we shall leave behind. For in meeting you, after having sought you for so long, we shall find once more every authentic good which we have known here on earth, in the company of all those who have gone before us marked with the sign of faith and hope....Amen.”

—Pope John Paul II, Letter to the Elderly (#17-18)   

Visit our online feature for more on Pope John Paul II.

1920

Born Karol Jozef Wojtyla in Wadowice, Poland (5/18).

 

1929

Emilia, his mother, dies.

 
 

1932

Edmund, his only sibling, dies at age 26.

 
 

1938

Moves to Krakow with his father and enrolls in the Jagiellonian University.

 
 

1939

World War II begins; formal studies suspended; starts working in a quarry.

 
 

1941

Karol Wojtyla, his father, dies.

 
 

1942

Starts underground seminary studies.

 
 

1946

Is ordained.

 
 

1948

Does doctoral studies at the Angelicum in Rome; earns a doctorate in theology from the Jagiellonian University in Krakow.

 
 

1953

Begins teaching at the Catholic University of Lublin, Poland.

 
 

1954

Earns a doctorate in philosophy from the Jagiellonian University.

 
 

1958

Appointed auxiliary bishop of Krakow (archbishop there in 1964; named a cardinal in 1967).

 
 

1962-1965

Participates in all four sessions of Vatican II and works especially on the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World.

 
 

1978

Is elected pope and takes the name John Paul II (10/16).

 
 

1979

Visits the Dominican Republic and Mexico; Poland; Ireland; United Nations and the United States; Turkey.

 
 

1980-2004

Makes pastoral visits to Italy and another 123 countries, including Pakistan (1981), Great Britain and Argentina (1982), Cuba (1998) and Azerbaijan (2002).

 
 

1981

Shot in St. Peter’s Square by Mehmet Ali Agca; publicly forgives him four days later.

 
 

1983

Visits Ali Agca in Rebibbia Prison.

 
 

1983

Promulgates Code of Canon Law for the Western Church. Code for the Eastern Churches is promulgated in 1990.

 
 

1985

Holds first World Youth Day in Rome.

 
 

1986

Visits the main synagogue of Rome. In Assisi, hosts the First World Day of Prayer for Peace, an ecumenical gathering that includes representatives of the world’s great religions.

 
 

1989

Meets Russian President Mikhail Gorbachev at the Vatican.

 
 

1992

Signs the apostolic constitution authorizing publication of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

 
 

1993

Establishes diplomatic relations between the Holy See and Israel.

 
 

1995

Sits side by side with Patriarch Bartholomew I during the Liturgy of the Word at a Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica. They both preach.

 
 

1999

Opens the Holy Year at St. Peter’s Basilica (12/24).

 
 

2000

Welcomes many groups during the Jubilee Year; visits Egypt and later Israel and the Palestinian Authority’s territory; Third Secret of Fatima published.

 
 

2001

Concludes the Holy Year (1/6); visits a mosque in Damascus.

 
 

2002

Announces the rosary’s five new “Mysteries of Light.”

 
 

2003

Celebrates 25th anniversary of his election as pope; beatifies Mother Teresa and names 30 new cardinals.

 
 

2004

Visits Switzerland and France; proclaims the Year of the Eucharist.

 
 

2005

Undergoes tracheotomy; silently participates in Holy Week liturgies; dies April 2.

 

130 countries visited

748,568 miles traveled in pastoral visits

482 saints canonized

1,338 people beatified

87 countries established diplomatic relations with the Holy See for the first time (1979-2005)

317 parishes visited in Rome (more active than his predecessors in this regard)

20 synods held

233 cardinals named

5 books written during his pontificate

7 languages spoken fluently


1979

Redeemer of Mankind (Redemptor Hominis)
(Jesus is the foundation of human rights and dignity.)

 

1980

Rich in Mercy (Dives in Misericordia)
(Mercy is basic to God’s nature.)

 
 

1981

On Human Work (Laborem Exercens)
(Workers have dignity and basic rights.)

 
 

1985

Apostles of the Slavs (Slavorum Apostoli)
(Saints Cyril and Methodius link the East and the West.)

 
 

1986

On the Holy Spirit in the Life of the Church and World
(Dominum et Vivificantem)
(The Holy Spirit makes conversion possible.)

 
 

1987

Mother of the Redeemer (Redemptoris Mater)
(Mary is part of the mystery of Christ and the Church.)

 
   

Social Concern of the Church (Sollicitudo Rei Socialis)
[dated December 30, 1987; released February 19, 1988]
(Human development is economic and much more.)

 
 

1990

Mission of Christ the Redeemer (Redemptoris Missio)
[dated December 7, 1990; released January 22, 1991]
(Missionary evangelization remains important.)

 
 

1991

On the 100th Anniversary of Rerum Novarum (Centesimus Annus)
(Every economic system has moral consequences.)

 
 

1993

Splendor of Truth (Veritatis Splendor)
(All moral theology must be based on the truth.)

 
 

1995

Gospel of Life (Evangelium Vitae)
(We need to protect and promote human life.)

 
   

That All May Be One (Ut Unum Sint)
(Ecumenism is basic to the Church’s identity.)

 
 

1998

Faith and Reason (Fides et Ratio)
(Theology and philosophy need a creative relationship.)

 
 

2003

Church of the Eucharist (Ecclesia de Eucharistia)
(The Eucharist is the center of the Church’s life.)

 
 

Jack Wintz, O.F.M., is the contributing editor of St. Anthony Messenger and editor of Catholic Update. Father Jack covered John Paul II’s first visit to the United States in 1979 for this publication, as well as the pope’s visit to Cuba in 1998. He has written A Retreat With Pope John Paul II: Be Not Afraid (St. Anthony Messenger Press, 2001).


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