Pope John Paul II had a remarkable impact on the Church and on the world during the 26 years he served as successor of St. Peter. For me he is a giant of faith and freedom. He is credited with having a major role in the collapse of Communism. He is described as the most ecumenical of Popes having engaged other faiths in an attempt to heal the divisions of Christianity. One of the things I think he will be most remembered for was to reach out to the Jewish People, calling them “our elder brothers”. Likewise his approach to Islam and his opposition to the war in Iraq made people realise that a Christian crusade in response to 9/11 was not on the Church’s agenda.
Pope John Paul only grew in stature when he asked pardon for the mistakes the Church has made in its long history. He was a champion of freedom for those living under oppression. He forcefully reminded Europe that it wouldn’t exist apart from its Christian origins. When he visited Australia he stood up for Aboriginal land rights and gave the clearest rebuttal to the idea that when Europeans first arrived in Australia, the land belonged to no-ne.
Perhaps the central conviction that was at the basis of everything he stood for was that every human being has enormous dignity because we have an eternal destiny. From this followed his courageous opposition to tyranny and the culture of death. He constantly reminded the world of God. His belief in the importance of every human being also meant that he loved us.
That is why he had so much time for young people and challenged them not to be sucked in by the false philosophies of these times, but to be sentinels of the dawn of a new age of Christ. He loved them and they responded in the same way. He made World Youth Days a modern phenomenon of faith.
All the people who have met Pope John Paul II remember the meeting. I had the privilege of meeting him in 1994 and celebrated Mass with him in his private chapel. There were about twenty of us and he spoke to each of us individually for about two minutes after Mass. He probably asked the same questions to everyone, but I felt that he was interested in me, and that Mass and meeting affected me deeply.
Pope John Paul II might have been the Bishop of Rome and the Vicar of Christ, but he was the world’s Parish Priest knowing us all, tirelessly visiting us, listening, teaching, absolving, encouraging, chiding, holding out a splendid vision, breaking open the Word of God, sharing the Body of Christ with us on the altar of the world.
Obviously, John Paul II’s path to sainthood has been fast-tracked. Some might raise their eyebrows at such haste. Even at his funeral, however, there were sustained shouts from the crowd of “Santo Subito!” (make him a saint straight away!) We can rejoice today that the virtues of this great leader, who taught us how to live and showed us how to die, have been recognised and that he is now proposed for us as a model and intercessor.