Pope John Paul the Great

April 4, 2005

This Saturday, my brother seminarians and I lost one of our greatest heroes. For most of us, John Paul II is the only pope we ever knew. For all of us, he is our Michael Jordan. Every boy growing up wanted to “be like Mike.” Well, here at the seminary, we all want to “be like JP.” He was one of our greatest inspirations and the living embodiment of everything we hoped to be one day as priests. In our eyes, he is truly “John Paul the Great.”

For the most part, the media just don’t get it, even though they have had almost nothing but glowing words to say about the Holy Father these past few days. They speak of his amazing charisma, his fluency in many languages, his jet visits to hundreds of countries. They speak of his ability to touch the hearts of those of all faiths and to draw enormous crowds wherever he went. They speak of the pivotal role that he played in the peaceful liberation of Poland from Communism and the collapse of the Soviet Empire. And the list goes on.

Yes, such qualities and accomplishments all made John Paul a truly gifted and unique individual, but they are not what made him such a marvelous gift from God. One can have all the charisma in the world without ever becoming a true spiritual father. One can visit hundreds of countries without ever bringing them closer to Christ. One can speak every language on the planet without ever preaching Jesus Christ as powerfully as John Paul did. There is only one reason that explains the greatness and the universal appeal of John Paul II: he was like Jesus Christ.

John Paul II was a living saint, a true disciple of Jesus Christ. That is what made him so special. Everything else is just icing on the cake. We are all called to love God with all of our heart and strength, and John Paul responded to this call so generously that God worked a miracle in his soul. We become like those who we love, and John Paul loved Jesus so strongly that when people met him, they met Christ! That is why millions of people, young and old, came to see him wherever he went. They came because he radiated the joy and the love of Jesus Christ.

The source of this union with Christ was John Paul’s profoundly intense spiritual life. He was a man of intense prayer, a true mystic. On an average day he would spend up to seven hours in prayer, often rising in the very early hours of the morning to begin praying for his millions of spiritual children. His relationship with God was as rich and as tangible as the love between the happiest husband and wife. It is this spiritual union that gave John Paul his seemingly endless energy over this past decade, even as his body was increasingly decimated by Parkinson’s disease.

Already we are hearing speculation in the media that perhaps the next pope will be more “enlightened” and will change the Church’s position on issues such as abortion, contraception, and homosexuality. But he can’t. It’s like hoping the next pope will try to change the law of gravity—impossible! John Paul cannot change the teaching of the Church, and neither can the next pope, because its truth is the truth of Jesus Christ. The truth is not his to change, nor is it ours to change.

So the pope was not great “in spite of” his unwavering teaching on these moral issues, as some commentators are remarking, but rather he was great because of his courageous proclamation of these truths to a culture of death! Like Christ, John Paul proclaimed the truth even when his listeners found it painful to hear. The world desperately needs truth; the world desperately needs Christ. This man brought us both. With all my heart I thank you, dear God, for giving us Pope John Paul the Great.