The gift of John Paul II on his 100th birthday

Well, I’m not in Poland.

As you may recall, last winter I told you I was leading a pilgrimage to celebrate St. John Paul II’s 100th birthday in Poland. I was really excited about it. I love him, and I couldn’t imagine a better way to celebrate his centenary than to visit his homeland, walk in his footsteps and bask in everything about his life.

But COVID-19 is a destroyer of dreams, and this one bit the dust early in the course of the pandemic. So, instead of waking up today to the first morning of our Polish adventure, I woke up to another day at home, in my sweats. Day 400,000 of quarantine…or so it seems, anyway.

But all things work for the good for those who love Him. Apparently the good Lord had his own ideas about how we should be celebrating the birthday of his beloved servant. And He certainly delivered.

A few weeks ago, I received an invitation to participate in the Theology of the Body Virtual Conference. Over 50 speakers, all giving talks on St. John Paul II’s beautiful meditations on our creation as image and likeness of God.

I enthusiastically agreed. And went to work preparing, recording and submitting my talks.

Meanwhile, the participant count grew. I believe there were 10,000 registered when I signed on. That’s a LOT of people for a conference. But then it was 20,000, then 30,000. They sent us graphics with registration numbers to promote the conference on social media. They kept sending new versions. 40,000. 50,000. The last one I received said 68,000. The final email reported a grand total of over 77,000 participants!

That, my friends, is a lot of people to be interested in the message of a 100-year-old pope.

Why? What is it about his message that still resonates so strongly, 15 years after his death?

For some insight into that, let’s look at some of the talk topics. I gave three: Sex, Love and the Theology of the Body; The Theology of the Body and the Feminine Genius; and the Theology of the Body and Work. Others spoke on the TOB and: healing, the afterlife, same-sex attraction, marriage, the family, single life, justice, infertility, sports, vocations, COVID-19, prayer . . . need I go on?

St. John Paul II was beloved for many, many reasons. He was accessible. He was the first Pope to really travel the world. It has been said that he was likely seen in person by more people than any other human being. Ever. And when he saw those people, he brought love. Not just his own love, but the love of Christ. He radiated it. It seemed to ooze from every pore of his being.

But those who have delved a little deeper into his writings have found deeper reasons to love him. He met us “where we live.” He talked about things that matter to us — not in a shallow, superficial way, but with a combination of depth and accessibility that can only come from the grace of God. And he presented truths that still apply, 40 years later, in circumstances he could have never foreseen during his earthly life.

I discovered the Theology of the Body in 1985, shortly after he finished giving the talks. And as I have written many times before in this space, it changed the course of my life. Those beautiful meditations on our humanity revolutionized my understanding of God’s plan for sex, love and marriage. But, as you can see from the list above, their impact doesn’t stop there. They touch virtually every area of our lives. And, thanks to the efforts of speakers, authors, teachers and theologians all over the world, that message is still spreading from its origins in St. Peter’s Square 40 years ago and reverberating throughout the world. And it is being applied to every area of life. Not because it is some kind of new theological invention. But because it is a fresh presentation of the eternal truths of Scripture, the truth about our creation, our dignity and our redemption by the God who loves us.

I have spilled a lot of ink on these pages over the years, trying to unpack for you the wisdom of St. John Paul the Great, and to help you apply it to your daily life. God willing, I will spill many gallons more in years to come. But for today, I simply want to offer encouragement, and thanks.

First, the encouragement. Papal biographer (and fellow Denver Catholic columnist) George Weigel has said that the key to understanding St. John Paul II’s effectiveness was “radiant, Christ-centered faith.” He was a “radically converted Christian disciple.” It wasn’t him. It was God, working through him, because he had turned himself over completely. His life offers us an example of what that looks like, and the reminder that we are called to do the same. I want to encourage you to do that.

A good start along that path would be to immerse yourself in the works of that great example. Read his encyclicals and apostolic letters. Learn about the Theology of the Body. Sign up for the TOB Virtual Conference — access to the talks is still available. Let his mind transform your mind — and your heart.

And finally, I want to offer thanks to God, for bringing this amazing man into our Church and our lives. The good Lord spared his life many, many times, so that he could lead us to the fullness of life in Christ. Countless lives were changed. The 77,000 who signed up for our conference were a good start, but I’d be willing the bet that figure is merely a drop in the bucket. He touched the hearts of millions. Hundreds of millions.

Thank you, Lord, for the great gift of St. John Paul II.

St. John Paul the Great, pray for us. And Happy Birthday!!!

COMING UP: On John Paul II’s centenary

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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.