On Sunday May 1, 2011 I had the singular honor to participate in person with my wife, 19 month old daughter, mother-in-law and 1.5 million faithful as Pope Benedict XVI formally beatified John Paul II in St. Peter’s Square. For most of my life he incarnated the papacy. His globetrotting “personal mission” to fulfill Christ’s command to bring the Gospel to all nations – he visited 129 nations as pope! – seemed to be the “normal” state of affairs. Only gradually did I realize what a unique gift from God he was.
Karol Wojtyla was forged as a pillar of strength in the great totalitarian convulsions starting with fascism and continuing with communism. His faith and resolve were deepened by the suffering of his beloved Poland. After his shooting in St. Peter’s Square in 1981, he not only recovered from four wounds that would have killed most men, but went on to have the most vigorous pontificate in history.
In many ways, John Paul II defined his era, not least in coining the phrase “culture of death”. This did not contribute to his popularity, but the Catholic Church is called to denounce the dominant errors of every age. The paradox is that she is so often called “backward and behind the times,” but the champions of “progress” – the Arians, Iconoclasts, Cathars, Communists, radical feminists, etc. – are the ones who end up in the ash heap of history, not the Church.
No one could do or write as much as John Paul II did without generating controversy among many of the world’s more than 1.1 billion Catholics. At the same time, his giant personality and ability to touch the hearts of people everywhere created a real temptation of “santo subito”- proclaiming him a saint instantly – without a thorough study of his life and heroic virtues. That is one reason why I am grateful the Church requires an objective miracle for beatification and a further one for canonization: These important checks remind us that God has ultimate control of who is proclaimed blessed or a saint.
Great figures emerge in periods of crisis, and who can deny that the Church and the world are in the midst of a decades-old tribulation? John Paul II was not granted the joy of taking us out of our troubles. Still, his decisive contribution to the Soviet Communist Empire’s downfall was a tremendous victory that left worldly observers astonished.
I cannot regard it as a mere coincidence that John Paul II was elected in 1978, a few months after Italy legalized abortion, and died only two days after Terri Schiavo. The morning of the assassination attempt he had met with French pro-life hero Dr. Jerome Lejeune. The defining moments of his pontificate were impressed with the signs of our anti-life times.
The “Pope of Life” gave us a constant example in word and deed of what it means to be pro-life to the end. John Paul II inspired and encouraged our work to achieve respect for innocent human life and to triumph over the unprecedented killing fields of the last half century.
Please join me in praying that we will be sustained and strengthened by Blessed John Paul to finish the urgent task he laid out for us all, and which he so mightily began.
Joseph Meaney is the director of international coordination for Human Life International (HLI).