Pope Saint John Paul II's 100th birthday gift to us, and our gift to him
May 18, 2020
Today, May 18, 2020, marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of St. John Paul II. The witness of that sainted pope’s life, how he lived totally for Christ, continues to speak to us 15 years after his death and 100 years after his birth.
From Pope John Paul II’s inauguration in 1978 until his death in 2005, he traveled to nearly 130 countries and preached the Gospel to millions of people around the world, and the goal of every trip, and every one of his homilies, talks and writings, was to lead people to Jesus and ultimately to heaven.
Through the words he spoke and wrote, St. John Paul II continues to speak to us, especially now as the world is gripped by the fear, anxiety, sickness and death of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020.
In the homily at the inauguration of his pontificate that he delivered in St. Peter’s Square on Oct. 22, 1978, the new Pope John Paul II said words that resonate today more than ever: “Do not be afraid. Open wide the doors for Christ.”
St. John Paul II noted that man is often “assailed by doubt, a doubt which turns into despair.” He urged people to trust in Christ, because “He alone has words of life, yes, of eternal life.”
That faith, that unbreakable confidence and trust in Jesus, helped the young Karol Wojtyla endure the death of his mother and later his older brother, helped him clandestinely study for the priesthood while he worked in a quarry and chemical factory during Nazi occupation of his native Poland, and helped him serve as a priest and bishop fearlessly proclaiming the truth of Christ’s Gospel during Communist domination of his home country.
Pope John Paul II’s courageous witness of faith helped inspire the people of Poland and ultimately the people of Eastern Europe peacefully to topple Soviet control of their countries, because he emphasized the true freedom that Jesus offers to those who follow Him.
The pope’s words “Do not be afraid” echo the words that the angel Gabriel spoke when he announced to Mary that she would be the mother of Jesus, and the words that the risen Christ said to His fearful disciples. Significantly, Pope John Paul II followed that phrase by saying, “Open wide the doors for Christ… who alone has words of life, yes, of eternal life.”
Now as a modern-day plague has engulfed the Earth, with the novel coronavirus so far killing an estimated 316,000 people and infecting nearly 4.8 million people worldwide, including at least 89,000 deaths and almost 1.5 million diagnosed cases in the United States, it’s important to remember those words spoken by the angel Gabriel, by the risen Christ and later by St. John Paul II. As the COVID-19 pandemic has caused death, physical and economic suffering, sorrow and anxiety, we can transform fear into faith, when we open our hearts and our lives to Christ.
St. John Paul II entrusted his life to his heavenly mother Mary, which was reflected in the motto that he chose, “Totus Tuus” (Latin for “all yours”). Fittingly on May 1, Washington Archbishop Wilton Gregory joined bishops from across the United States and Canada in reconsecrating their nations to Mary’s protection during the coronavirus pandemic, and individuals and families can likewise turn to Mary, whose “yes” to God’s plan for her life offers a roadmap for us to follow her example and help bring Jesus to the world.
Catholics in the Archdiocese of Washington had the blessing of a two-day visit by Pope St. John Paul II in October 1979, one year after he became pope.
In Washington, Pope John Paul II became the first pontiff to visit the White House, celebrated a Mass for clergy at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle, met with women religious at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, addressed Catholic educators at The Catholic University of America and met with ecumenical leaders at Trinity College.
The highpoint of St. John Paul II’s visit to Washington came when he celebrated a Mass on the National Mall for 175,000 people on Oct. 7, 1979, and in his homily offered a clarion call for the dignity of all human life and the sanctity of marriage.
“I do not hesitate to proclaim before you and before the world that all human life -- from the moment of conception and through all subsequent stages -- is sacred, because human life is created in the image and likeness of God,” St. John Paul said.
The pope issued words about the defense of human life that resonate more than four decades later, as he said, “And so, we will stand up every time that human life is threatened. When the sacredness of life before birth is attacked, we will stand up and proclaim that no one ever has the authority to destroy unborn life... When freedom is used to dominate the weak, to squander natural resources and energy, and to deny basic necessities to people, we will stand up and reaffirm the demands of justice and social love. When the sick, the aged or the dying are abandoned in loneliness, we will stand up and proclaim that they are worthy of love, care and respect.”
As the coronavirus has disproportionately affected the elderly, the sick, the poor and people of color, we need to heed St. John Paul II’s words from his homily on the National Mall, now more than ever.
And at a time when families have been sequestered together in their houses during local governments' “stay at home” orders, Pope John Paul II in his Washington, D.C., homily offered a message for families that rings true today, as he said, “To maintain a joyful family requires much from both the parents and the children. Each member of the family has to become, in a special way, the servant of the others and share their burdens (cf. Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2 :2). Each one must show concern, not only for his or her own life, but also for the lives of the other members of the family: their needs, their hopes, their ideals.”
St. John Paul II’s homily at the National Mall during his 1979 Washington visit previewed the message of his 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae (“The Gospel of Life”), when he called on the world to counter a “culture of death” with a civilization of life and love. Just days before his death, when the frail Pope John Paul II offered a final Easter blessing to the world from the balcony of St. Peter’s in 2005, he offered a living witness to the “Gospel of Life” that he had preached throughout his pontificate.
One more homily that Pope John Paul II gave especially resonates in 2020, from when he addressed hundreds of thousands of young people gathered for the closing Mass of World Youth Day at Cherry Creek State Park outside Denver on Aug. 15, 1993.
At a Mass with the Rocky Mountains as his backdrop, the pope encouraged young people to be Jesus’s disciples in today’s world.
“Do not be afraid to go out on the streets and into public places, like the first Apostles who preached Christ and the Good News of salvation in the squares of cities, towns and villages,” St. John Paul II said, adding, “This is no time to be ashamed of the Gospel (Cfr. Romans 1,16). It is the time to preach it from the rooftops (Cfr. Matthew 10,27). Do not be afraid to break out of comfortable and routine modes of living, in order to take up the challenge of making Christ known in the modern ‘metropolis.’ It is you who must ‘go out into the byroads’ (Matthew 22,9) and invite everyone you meet to the banquet which God has prepared for his people. The Gospel must not be kept hidden because of fear or indifference. It was never meant to be hidden away in private. It has to be put on a stand so that people may see its light and give praise to our heavenly Father.”
Those too, are words to remember, as people follow “stay-at-home” orders and eventually emerge from their homes as coronavirus restrictions loosen in jurisdictions. St. John Paul II’s encouragement for today’s faithful not to be afraid, to open our hearts to Christ and to share Jesus's love and Good News with the world is that pope's 100th birthday gift to us, and can be our birthday gift to him.
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