Sunday, April 27, 2014

Saint John Paul II: My Tribute To An Extraordinary Soul

Karol Józef Wojtyła - Saint John Paul II

Saint John Paul II has profoundly influenced my life in so many ways that to include the complete details would entail the publishing of a series of blog posts. My post of today and my previous posts under the new label "Saint John Paul II" have already begun to create that series. It would take several more posts to capture the vast contributions he has made to the Church and the world. To do so, would be part of a fitting tribute for such an extraordinary soul whose life example shall forever remain as a treasure for humanity to draw from.

For those of us who have come to know this wonderful saint and have benefitted from his life example, his canonization has been a time for joy and gratitude. Today's post is an expression of my joy and gratitude, my tribute to an extraordinary soul. It is one that I unite to all Catholics and Christians alike and all people of good will, who are remembering the life of a great man, a friend to humanity. 

In my view, one of the most intriguing aspects of Saint John Paul II's life has been his positive response to the negativity and evil of this world, which he personally experienced in so many ways. As a teenager and young adult, he responded to the circumstances of his life as an actor, philosopher, poet, playwright, but his greatest response to the enormity of evil that he witnessed was, as a priest. The ministry of the priesthood allowed him to broaden his reach and in a greater and more fundamental way, live his life in communion with others as a sincere and total gift of self. It was because he positively responded with love that he effectively tackled the many evils facing the Church and the world: war, totalitarian regimes, secularism, consumerism, the trappings, lies and deception brought on in part by modernity and the attacks on the family, the dignity and respect for the human person and the value and inviolability of human life. 

Saint John Paul II's life was one deeply rooted in prayer. He had complete trust in Divine Providence, one that was centered on Christ and strengthened through the maternal intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary. So great was St. John Paul II's trust in God and devotion to Mary that it had permeated his entire life and pontificate. He revealed this in many ways. His papal moto, Totus Tuus (Totally Yours), was borrowed from St. Louis De Montfort, another great saint in the history of the Catholic Church whose devotion to Mary produced two Marian classics: True Devotion to Mary and The Secret of The Rosary

One of the most inspiring examples of his trust in God and devotion to Mary was when he commented one year after being shot in St. Peter's Square, "In the designs of Providence, there are no mere coincidences." His statement was an acceptance of God's plan that was fostered by his firm belief in the Blessed Mother's intervention in deflecting one of the bullets that otherwise would have caused massive internal bleeding and his death within a few minutes. Saint John Paul II's trust in Divine Providence was nourished, strengthened and sustained by his prayer and devotions, by his relationship with the Holy Trinity and Mary that can be aptly described as Divine Intimacy. The result of which was a blessed and grace filled life that allowed him to tackle the many challenges he faced, both on a personal level and in his priestly ministry, from his first parish assignment at St. Florian's in Kraków to his election as Pope in Rome in 1978. 

Karol Józef Wojtyła, better known to the world as Saint John Paul II was born on May 18, 1920 in Wadowice, Poland which is several kilometers south west of Kraków. Early in his childhood, he experienced tragedy on two fronts: the first was the death of his mother when he was nine, the other was the death of his older brother Edmund in 1932 a doctor who contracted scarlet fever from a patient he was treating. With such losses, the principle figure in the young Karol's life was his father, the elder Karol Wojtyła, who was known to everyone in Wadowice as "the Captain." The elder Karol was a retired army officer whose profound Catholic faith and integrity left a lasting impression on the young Karol as an example of manly piety.

During his exceptional years in high school, he had a through interest in literature of Polish Romanticism, which began to nurture a life long interest with the theater. In 1938, the young Karol and his father moved to Kraków where he began his studies in Polish philology at Jagiellonian University. Although his university life was interrupted by the double occupation of Nazi Germany and Communist Russia, he continued with clandestine studies at the same university, which for a while had become an underground institution. There was some benefit to this interruption. During World War II, Karol spent his war years as a manual labourer. Forced to acquire a work permit, he worked in the Zakrzówek rock quarry in Kraków, then in the Solvay chemical factory in the southern part of Kraków. The experience gave him a profound understanding of manual labour and the dignity and rights that should be accorded to labourers.

Part of his university days were not only a time of study, but also a time discovery of Polish culture, which he helped to spread and promote through reading, poetry and acting. The Jagiellonian University sponsored the Rhapsodic Theater, a five member troupe that without costumes or props, practiced theater ensuring that classic Polish drama and poetry was not forgotten. This was vital in the effort to keep Polish culture alive in the minds and memories of Poles. It was a culture that was under attack by the Nazi occupiers who were attempting to eradicate all Polish culture and thus, any tangible reality of Poland. It was at this time that he also took on the role of leader in the Living Rosary groups and discovered Carmelite spirituality.

Further trying times entered the young Karol's life. First, he narrowly escaped capture on two occasions from the Gestapo, the official secret police of Nazi Germany. Then, one night while walking home, he was hit by a truck and suffered a broken shoulder and concussion, left in a roadside ditch, only to be rescued by a local woman and German officer who took him to the hospital. The wartime experience was a vocational struggle that was accelerated by the death of his father in the fall of 1942. After some time and a lot of prayer, he discerned that his life was not mean to be lived as a lay person in the theater, but instead he was being called to a greater dramatic role, that of a Catholic priest.

After resolving his vocation struggle over months of prayer, Karol Wojtyla presented himself to archbishop of Kraków, Adam Stefan Sapieha, who accepted him as a candidate for the priesthood. In 1942, Sapieha gave Karol a place in the clandestine seminary he was conducting. It was young Karol Wojtyla's "yes" to the priesthood that officially began a life long journey as a pastor to many parishes in Poland and eventually throughout the world.

Saint John Paul II's vocational discernment and correct response to God's call to became a priest, began a life of service to Church which all of humanity has benefited from. His meteoric rise in the hierarchy of the Church was a clear sign of the greatness of his life response to God's call. Saint John Paul II's deep faith, moral courage, heroic virtue, unwavering refusal to make any compromise against the truth, and firm belief in the power of God's word to cut through the world's lies, in my view has left us with one of the most important examples in recent Church history for millions around the world to follow.

I think it is most fitting to include in my tribute today an encouragement to learn more about the extraordinary life of Saint John Paul II. The Vatican web site has a dedicated section, Holy See - Pope John Paul II, that provides a complete list of his documents, speeches, homilies and travels during his pontificate. In addition there is the Vatican Biography page of His Holiness John Paul II. You may want to consider reading a book or two on his life. I would like to recommend George Weigel's Witness To Hope and the sequel, The End and The Beginning. George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a Catholic theologian and one of America’s leading public intellectuals. He holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies. He was also personally selected by Saint John Paul II to write his biography.

As we endeavour to better understand Saint John Paul II's life and learn from it, let us set out anew following his words of encouragement to the world from his inaugural homily in October'1978, "...To all people of today I once again repeat the impassioned cry with which I began my pastoral ministry: “Do not be afraid! Open, in deed, open wide the doors to Christ!..."

Saint John Paul II, pray for us.


  1. Dear Dom,

    This is a great post about a great new saint and man of prayer. I also remember those powerful words of his you quote because they are my favourite: "Do not be afraid. Open, in deed, open wide the doors to Christ!..." And along with prayer he was man of action. He wasn't afraid to live the faith. He wasn't afraid to defend the faith. He wasn't afraid to evangelize. He told the world not be afraid to transmit the faith to children and to bring it to the public square. Thank you God for the gift of Saint John Paul II.

    Thank you,

    1. Saint Pope John Paul II's vocational discernment and correct response to God's call to become a priest, was a pivotal decision in his life, whose significance would be understood many years later by the Church and the world.

      George Weigel who has been in Rome these past few days, provided a brief comment on MSNBC that in essence captured the significance of Saint Pope John Paul II's pontificate when he stated that, Popes John XXIII and John Paul II can be viewed as "book ends of Vatican II." The first saint initiated it, the second, gave it an authoritative implementation.

      As you have so correctly stated, Saint Pope John Paul II is a gift from God. I hope that this and other blog posts on his life will help many understand and appreciate the wonderful example he has left Catholics and Christians alike as well as to all people of good will. His vast contributions are a treasure for humanity to draw from.

      Saint Pope John Paul II, pray for us.


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