On John Paul II’s centenary

George Weigel

As the world and the Church mark the centenary of the birth of Pope St. John Paul II on May 18, a kaleidoscope of memories will shape my prayer and reflection that day. John Paul II at his dinner table, insatiably curious and full of humor; John Paul II groaning in prayer before the altar in the chapel of the papal apartment; John Paul II laughing at me from the Popemobile as I trudged along a dusty road outside Camagüey, Cuba, looking for the friends who had left me behind a papal Mass in January 1998; John Paul II, his face frozen by Parkinson’s Disease, speaking silently through his eyes in October 2003, “See what’s become of me….”; John Paul II, back in good form two months later, asking about my daughter’s recent wedding and chaffing me about whether I was ready to be a nonno[grandfather]; John Paul II lying in state in the Sala Clementina of the Apostolic Palace, his features natural and in repose, wearing the battered cordovan loafers that used to drive the traditional managers of popes crazy.

Each of these vignettes (and the others in my memoir of the saint, Lessons in Hope), has a particular personal resonance. Two, I suggest, capture the essence of the man for everyone on this centenary.

It was March 2000 and I was in Jerusalem with NBC to cover the papal pilgrimage to the Holy Land. For weeks, a global controversy about the Pope’s impending visit to Yad Vashem, Jerusalem’s Holocaust memorial, had raged. What would he say? What should he say? What could he say?

I found out two days before the event, when, on a drizzly Tuesday evening, I walked past the Old City’s New Gate to the Notre Dame Center, where the papal party was staying. There, a friendly curial official slipped me a diskette with the texts of the Pope’s speeches and homilies during his visit. Back in my hotel room, I went immediately to the remarks prepared for Yad Vashem. As I read them, I felt a chill run down my spine.

At Yad Vashem itself, on March 23, the sight of the octogenarian pope bowed in silent prayer over the memorial hall’s eternal flame quickly muted the world’s pre-visit argument and speculation. And then came those unforgettable — and stunningly appropriate — words: “In this place of memories, the mind and heart and soul feel an extreme need for silence. Silence in which to remember. Silence in which to make some sense of the memories that come flooding back. Silence because there are no words strong enough to deplore the terrible tragedy of the Shoah[the Holocaust].”

Some days later, I got a phone call from an Israeli friend, Menahem Milson, a former soldier and distinguished scholar who had seen a lot on his life. “I just had to tell you,” he said, “that Arnona [his wife] and I cried throughout the Pope’s visit to Yad Vashem. This was wisdom, humaneness, and integrity personified. Nothing was missing. Nothing more needed to be said.”

The second emblematic memory from that papal pilgrimage came on March 26 when John Paul walked slowly down the great esplanade before the Western Wall of Herod’s Temple, stopped at the Wall, bowed his head in prayer, and then — like millions of pilgrims before him — left a petition in one of the Wall’s crevices: God of our fathers, you chose Abraham and his descendants to bring your Name to the nations; we are deeply saddened by the behavior of those who in the course of history have caused these children of yours to suffer, and asking your forgiveness we commit ourselves to genuine brotherhood with the people of the Covenant. Amen. Joannes Paulus PP. II.

These two episodes give us the key to understanding Pope St. John Paul II. He could preach solidarity, embody solidarity, and call people to a deeper solidarity because he was a radically converted Christian disciple: one who believed in the depth of his being that salvation history — the story of God’s self-revelation to the People of Israel and ultimately in Jesus Christ — is the deepest truth, the inner truth, of world history. John Paul II, who was likely seen in person by more people than any human being in history, could move millions because the grace of God shone through him, ennobling all whom its brightness and warmth touched.

That was the key to the John Paul II effect: radiant, Christ-centered faith.

COMING UP: St. Benedict’s wisdom for our times 

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“Let us get up then, at last, for the Scriptures rouse us,” the Rule of St. Benedict urges us. “Let us open our eyes to the light … and our ears to the voice from heaven that every day calls out. … ‘If you hear his voice today, do not harden your hearts’” (Ps 95:8). On July 11 the Church observes the memorial of St. Benedict, and his words from 1,500 years ago seem perfectly fitting for our challenging and changing times.

The Rule of St. Benedict was written some time around 530, a time when the Roman Empire had collapsed and Christianity’s existence in Europe was threatened. Given our current cultural situation and its parallels with his time, I believe we can find fruit in St. Benedict’s teachings.

Saint Benedict grew up surrounded by a culture that was morally corrupt but with the grace of God lived a virtuous life. After spending some time in Rome for studies, he fled its moral decadence to pursue a more solitary life. St. Benedict lived the life of a hermit for several years before he eventually founded several monasteries, which became centers of prayer, manual labor and learning.

St. Benedict begins his rule by urging the monks to “Listen carefully to the master’s instructions and attend to them with the ear of your heart” (Rule, Prologue 1). For us, this means establishing a daily time to listen to the Lord, both in reading the Scriptures and in conversational prayer and meditation.

Our sure foundation during these trying times should be God’s will for each of us, not the constantly changing messages that bombard us in the news or on social media. For some, every online trend has become a form of gospel that must be adhered to with religious conviction. But the faith handed down to us from the Apostles is the only true Gospel, and only it can save souls. Although the times and technology were different, St. Benedict understood the importance of listening to “the master’s instructions.”

In his book, The Holy Spirit in the Life of Jesus, the preacher of the Papal Household, Father Raniero Cantalamessa, addresses the need for priests to arm themselves for battle “with the world rulers of this present darkness” (cf. Jn 10:12). At the heart of his reflection is the insight that “Jesus freed himself from Satan by an act of total obedience to the Father’s will, once and for all handing over his free will to him, so that he could truly say, ‘My food is to do the will of the one who sent me’” (Jn 4:34, The Holy Spirit in the Life of Jesus, p. 36).

The question we must ask ourselves is, “Do I put the Father’s will first in my life in every decision I make and in all that I say and do?” If we place the Father’s will at the center of our lives and truly listen to him with “the ears of our hearts” as St. Benedict taught, we will be prepared for whatever happens and always give witness to the love of God and others. We live in a world that has removed God from culture. History, both salvation history and world history, shows clearly what happens when this occurs. When God is removed, something else becomes “god.” Societies decline and eventually fall and disappear unless they return to the true God and become cultures that promote a life of holiness and virtue.

There is at least one additional lesson from St. Benedict’s rule that is applicable in these times of societal disunity and division. The monks and sisters of the Benedictine spiritual family are known for their hospitality. The Rule teaches this virtue in this way: “All guests who present themselves are to be welcomed as Christ, for he himself will say: ‘I was a stranger and you welcomed me’ (Mt 25:35). Proper honor must be shown to all, especially to those who share our faith (Gal 6:10) and to pilgrims” (Rule, #53).

Let us make it our prayer to be able to see others as Christ himself coming to us, even if they are clothed in what St. Mother Teresa called, “the distressing disguise of the poor.” If we continually seek the will of the Father and ask in prayer for our hearts and will to be conformed to his, then we will be able to weather any challenge.