More than 70,000 people gathered at Candlestick Park in San Francisco on Sept. 18, 1987, for a Mass during the U.S. visit of Pope John Paul II.
CARRIE McCLISH/the Catholic Voice
Beyond doctrine and politics
Brother John M. Samaha, SM
Karol Wojtyla (1920-2005) served as Pope John Paul II (1978-2005) in a lengthy, whirlwind and remarkable papacy. He passed to eternity April 2, 2005. In 2011 he was beatified by his successor, Pope Benedict XVI. Oct. 22, the date of his installation as pope in 1978, has been assigned as his festival day in the liturgical calendar. And now our current Holy Father, Pope Francis, has raised him to sainthood.
What do you recall about this remarkable pontiff?
St. John Paul II was born to lead and to inspire, to bridge the human and the divine. More than one observer characterized him as "man of the century" during his lifetime. And even before his passing some commentators were assigning to him the encomium "John Paul the Great."
But John Paul II also drew a considerable share of criticism and a wide variance of opinion. Looking beyond doctrine and politics we see the 263rd successor of St. Peter as a truly extraordinary person.
Above all, he mattered in his period of history. He changed the face of Europe, stopped several wars and protested others, traveled the equivalent of 3½ times to the moon. He has been seen in person by more people than anyone else in history. John Paul II most certainly must be numbered among the titans of his time. This pope was a magnet for humanity.
As a "sign of contradiction" and one who mattered in human and church arenas, he also divided. The wide range of varying opinions might be the most convincing sign of his impact. John Paul II made more than 100 trips outside Italy, canonized about 500 saints, beatified about 1,400, and authored more than a dozen landmark encyclicals and numerous other instructions. He worked to bring together East and West.
The list of his activities seems endless. He exhibited boundless energy for work and for engaging people. All of this made him famous, but it also made him controversial. His was a bruising, polarizing pontificate.
In the final analysis, we can confidently say that John Paul, deeper than his politics and his Polish Catholic cultural formation, was an extraordinary person of sterling character, a genuine mensch (honorable person). He was a strong, intelligent, caring human being. His integrity and dedication to duty present a standard by which other leaders can be measured.
Above all, John Paul was a selfless human being in a me-first world. Cardinal Roberto Tucci, who planned the pope's trips and briefed him hundreds of times on trips long and short, observed that never did the pope ask what conveniences or creature comforts to expect. That indifference to himself was noticeable every time he entered the public stage. The very motto of this dedicated apostle of Mary indicated this: "Totus tuus" (I am all yours).
This is the key to his personal magnetism that drew enormous crowds everywhere, even in places where his political or doctrinal stands were unpopular. Deeper than either secular or religious concerns was his personal integrity — goodness and holiness, the qualities we prize most highly in others. A person may be regarded as liberal or conservative, avant-garde or traditional, but let that person be decent, and that suffices.
John Paul II's authentic humanity was the source of his appeal. The most important lesson he offered is the coherence of his own life. When he urged Christians, in the words of Jesus, "duc in altum" (set off into the deep), that resonated even with those who sought different shores.
St. John Paul's admirers and critics alike can say of him what Shakespeare's Hamlet said of his father: "He was a man. Take him for all in all, I shall not look upon his like again."
(Marianist Brother John Samaha is a retired religious educator who worked for many years in the catechetical department of the Oakland diocese. He now resides in Cupertino.)
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