It's been 7 years today (at 3:37 pm, our time, I might add) since Pope John Paul II went to his Father's house.
Two years ago I wrote the following article for his fifth anniversary of death, which coincided with Good Friday. Much of it is still relevant today.
As the world watched, stomach in knots, tears streaming from sorrowful eyes, lips silently moving in prayer, faces lit by the glow of the television set, the cry of “Santo Subito!” was already heard. Whether we knew the Italian phrase or not, millions of people accompanying John Paul II on his journey home to the Father on April 2, 2005, considered him a saint.
Many of us predicted that our beloved late Holy Father would be beatified on the fifth anniversary of his death. Little did we realize that April 2, 2010, is Good Friday, a day hardly appropriate for recognizing a new saint. Rather than be disappointed, however, I think we should view this timing as a reminder of the meaning of John Paul’s life. Instead of focusing on the late Holy Father, we will be devoted to the One to whom John Paul pointed during his life and death.
Images and video footage of John Paul in the early years of his pontificate show a vibrant, strong man, lifting high the papal crucifix and proclaiming the message of Christ’s love for the world. As time went on, one can see that John Paul gradually moved from lifting the cross to leaning on it for support.
The suffering of John Paul’s life, and especially in his pontificate was not without great significance. Most noteworthy are four key signposts of suffering through which he taught the world what it means to give our lives to Jesus Christ out of love for Him and love for our brothers and sisters in Christ.
On October 16, 1978, Karol Wojtya’s world changed in an instant. As the cardinals approached him to ask if he would accept the responsibility the Holy Spirit had inspired them to choose him for – to lead the Church by serving her – he realized life would never be the same. His beloved Poland, his friendships, his ski trips, his ability to control his own schedule could not be the same anymore. And in that instant, he had to choose whether or not to accept God’s will for his life.
Notice that this decision did not involve him alone. Can we even imagine how different the Church and the world would be today if John Paul had responded, “No, thanks.” He heard God’s call and he accepted. His yes to Jesus Christ’s request that he be the 263rd Peter entailed adventures, sufferings, joys and decisions he could not possibly have known or foreseen in that moment.
In our lives too, we are met with moments of encounter with Jesus Christ, who asks us to give Him everything – even what we don’t know or realize might be entailed in our gift of ourselves to the Lord. These moments of Christ asking us to give Him all can be frightening or exciting, but we can rest assured, that like He did for John Paul, the Lord is always standing right by us, holding our hands to lead us along His path for our lives.
On May 13, 1981, John Paul was about to give another general audience as part of his Theology of the Body messages and to announce the founding of the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family. He was shot. He nearly died.
Persecution and suffering – though not necessarily assassination attempts – are part of our journey in following Christ. Many times they signal that we are exactly where God wants us. If God leads us on a particular path, then Satan will be hard-pressed to trip us in an effort to frustrate our desire to follow God’s plan. In these moments too, we can take the suffering offered to us and return it, in all of its pain and strain and offer it as a gift to God.
Above all, this requires trust that God remains with us and will not leave us orphans. Whether we can see clearly or not what God’s purpose is in allowing our suffering, our challenge is to focus on Him and surrender ourselves to His care, knowing that “all things work for the good of those who love Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:28).
Trusting that suffering is not meaningless but can be part of God’s plan for our lives and the salvation of the world can be seen in the third signpost.
In 1994, the world was dangling on the precipice of falling headlong into the culture of death, as the United Nations’ Cairo Conference on Population and Development prepared to meet, with potentially disastrous consequences for families. John Paul was adamant in his defense of the family and of life. It was during this battle that he fell and required hip surgery that was not adequately performed. During the same year, he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s.
On the Sunday following his hip replacement, John Paul addressed the Church and the world, explaining that he saw his suffering as a gift:
“I understood that I have to lead Christ’s Church into this third millennium by prayer, by various programs, but I saw that this is not enough: she must be led by suffering, by the attack thirteen years ago and by this new sacrifice. Why now, why this, why in this Year of the Family? Precisely because the family is under attack. The Pope has to be attacked, the Pope has to suffer, so that every family and the world may see that there is … a higher Gospel: the Gospel of suffering, by which the future is prepared, the third millennium of families, of every family and of all families” (Witness to Hope, 721).
Certainly we can all learn from this lesson. In the midst of our ministries, or family life, or career challenges, we can transform our difficulties by “offering it up,” allowing the suffering to be meaningful and a blessing in our particular circumstances. We can offer our sufferings as the fertilization for the soil of the conversion of those around us, in whatever capacity God may call us to intercede.
And for the remaining 11 years of his life, John Paul suffered. He suffered physically as his tremors became stronger, his face began to lose its power of free expression and he was no longer able to walk. He suffered emotionally from the loss of his physical abilities, from the ache of having to decrease travel and interaction with his flock. Above all he suffered spiritually – he suffered for Christ, for us.
John Paul was our Peter – the man whom Jesus Christ chose to lead His Church. It is no coincidence then that John Paul was a living witness of this encounter between Christ and Peter:
When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, "Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?" He said to him, "Yes, Lord; you know that I love you." He said to him, "Feed my lambs." A second time he said to him, "Simon, son of John, do you love me?" He said to him, "Yes, Lord; you know that I love you." He said to him, "Tend my sheep." He said to him the third time, "Simon, son of John, do you love me?" Peter was grieved because he said to him the third time, "Do you love me?" And he said to him, "Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you." Jesus said to him, "Feed my sheep. Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you girded yourself and walked where you would; but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will gird you and carry you where you do not wish to go." (This he said to show by what death he was to glorify God.) And after this he said to him, "Follow me." (John 21:15-19)
This brings us to the final witness of John Paul’s life – his death. Everything happened so quickly in that Easter week of 2005. With peace, surrender and great love, John Paul offered his life, lovingly lived, back to the Father, in the final act of surrender in death.
The fact that the fifth anniversary of John Paul’s death coincides with Good Friday is another reminder that the purpose of the late Holy Father’s life was to point the world to the love of Jesus Christ. What a profound witness for each of us, all called to offer the entirety of our lives, and finally our death, in surrender to God who has given us everything and who loves us beyond measure.
John Paul lived and died in this way – as we are called to as well – because of what happened on Good Friday. That our God became man because He loves you so immensely that He gave everything in order to offer you a life of communion with Him forever.
Let’s pray this Good Friday that we can offer our lives as a gift to the Lord. We can be assured that John Paul will be interceding for us.