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St. John Paul II: As Relevant to the Times As Ever

June 8, 2020


The Church recently marked the centenary of the birth of St. John Paul II, who came quietly into this world on May 18, 1920, in Wadowice, Poland. I have no hesitation in saying that, apart from my parents, the person who influenced my life most was Pope John Paul II. He was the pope I grew up with and so I looked to him as a spiritual father throughout my teens, early adulthood, and as I discerned a vocation to the priesthood. He was the priest I wanted to be like, for he held up ideals and spoke of God in a way that lit a fire in my heart.

There are so many reasons to thank God for this man, and so many reasons why I looked to him for inspiration. I admired his courage, his spirit of mission, his uncompromising defense of the dignity of the human person, his love for young people, his work for peace, and his contribution to the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe. I drank in his teachings and writings and shared his love for the Blessed Mother. But for me, the golden thread that united all these qualities and the virtue that imbued everything he stood for, was hope. Pope St. John Paul II was and continues to be, as identified by his major biographer, George Weigel, a “Witness to Hope.”

To the thousands of young people gathered in Toronto Canada in 2002 for World Youth Day, he spoke these words: “Although I have lived through much darkness under harsh totalitarian regimes, I have seen enough evidence to be unshakably convinced that no difficulty, no fear is so great that it can completely suffocate the hope that springs eternal in the hearts of the young. . . . Do not let that hope die! Stake your lives on it!”

These words help us see why St. John Paul II was a witness to hope. On this occasion and so many others, he did precisely what St. Peter asks us to do in one of the most significant verses of the New Testament—namel, to “always have your answer ready for people who ask you the reason for the hope you have” (1 Peter 3:15).

St. John Paul’s hope was grounded in the conviction that the ultimate victory belongs to Christ, a victory he has already won on the cross. It was a hope founded on the promise of Jesus at the Last Supper: “In the world you will have tribulation but take courage for I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).

John Paul II lived through the loss of all his family, the horror of the Second World War, Communism, being shot and almost killed, bowel cancer, Parkinson’s disease, and many more trials. Yet he never lost hope.

In an interview published towards the end of his life, he looked back on the cruelty of the Nazi and Communist regimes that he lived through, describing them as ‘“ideologies of evil” that emerged because of the rejection of God as Creator and source determining what is good and what is evil. Yet through all of this, John Paul looked back on this period and spoke about the limits that God imposed upon evil at that time of European history. These limits were imposed by the divine good made visible by Christ with his life, heroic battle with sin, death and victorious Resurrection. For John Paul II, this was the divine power that had entered history once and for all and would forever be the source of hope for those who believe in him. With Christ, he explained, evil would be overcome and hope would triumph in every place and circumstance (Memory and Identity, 2005).

Here was the unshakable source of John Paul’s hope as a priest, bishop, pope, and one of the great world leaders of history.

Today, we need hope. The whole world needs hope. There are worrying signs in our societies that people are losing hope; they are numbing themselves with drugs, falling into despair, and with alarming frequency, dying through suicide. We are tempted to lose hope when confronted with the many challenges we face today—the scourge of demonic racism and a worldwide economic recession caused by a pandemic we cannot yet address medically.

So then, what can we hope for? What may be the reason for our hope? The same as it was for St. John Paul II: that Christ has already overcome all things and is still present and active in the world, even through all the passions, pandemics, and social tensions of this age. His love will overcome all evil, darkness, and despair.

This is what John Paul witnessed to all his life as a Christian of Easter hope.

But how can we nurture and share this hope in simple and everyday ways? First by daily prayer, especially the Prayer of the Church found within the Liturgy of the Hours and through psalmody, which connects us to that wellspring of hope and enables us to face every day with fresh heart. Through prayer, we allow the Spirit of hope to become alive in our hearts—the Spirit that St. Paul described as being “poured into our hearts as the love of God” (Rom. 5:5). Through prayer, our hope is founded in God and not some shallow optimism that things will return as they were before.

Here is what everyday hope looks like:

Hope for the elderly who feel lonely in these long days—that you are still loved and remembered by all of us; that those in nursing facilities are remembered every day, even if we cannot visit.

Hope for those who have lost jobs—that you will get your job back or find another that suits you even better.

Hope for young people and students—that this time of uncertainty may lead you to discern, in faith and trust, the plan God has for your lives.

Hope for the earth—that it recovers and heals in this time when we humans have slowed down our travel.

Hope for our communities—that the great kindnesses being undertaken for others that have been highlighted during this crisis become a lasting and valuable lesson in how much we need each other.

Hope for the whole human family that we have become aware of in these months and with whom we have been united in suffering and in patience.

Hope that we will get through all 2020 has dealt us—and holds before us still—and be better people because of it.

As St. John Paul would remind us, God has imposed limits on evil.

It was my deep privilege to meet St. John Paul twice in Rome toward the end of his life. On those occasions, I shook the hands that sanctified work by breaking stones in a quarry outside Krakow and had blessed the world for almost quarter of a century. I heard the voice that had inspired millions around the world to fresh hope. And as I looked into the smiling eyes of a man who survived the Nazis, Communism—the twin jackboots of the twentieth century—an assassin’s bullet, cancer, and everything in between, the thought struck me: “If he still has hope, what excuse do we have not to hope like him?’”

Let me conclude with a quote from St. John Paul II, son of Poland and witness to hope who came into this world one hundred years ago:

“I plead with you. Never ever give up on hope. Never doubt, never tire, and never be discouraged. Be not afraid! There is no evil to be faced that Christ does not face with us. There is no enemy that Christ has not already conquered. There is no cross to bear that Christ has not already carried for us and does not bear with us now. Be not afraid!”

St. John Paul II, pray for us and teach us to hope! 

Photo by Rob Croes (ANEFO) – [CC BY 4.0]