An Intellect, A Mystic, Among Greatest Of Popes, John Paul's Message Was A Simple One: Be Not Afraid, Reject Despair
He was like no one else in our lifetimes, let's face it, bigger than any president, bigger than any dictator, bigger than entertainers, than Elvis, than the Beatles, bigger than all the sports heroes from Babe Ruth to this day combined.
It is not to compare but to place things in perspective. His funeral will be bigger than JFK's, which says it all. No one in world history will have gotten as much media attention. And deservedly. He was the bright shining light, the man with the radiant face who made everything okay for much of our lives because no matter what was transpiring in the world or in our own homes, in the world or in our lives, he was there as the backstop.
He was Joannes Paulus II, better known as John Paul II -- soon to be known as "John Paul the Great" -- and he was always there for us. He was there during the uncertainties of the Iran crisis, as society went into a whirlwind during the 1980s, during the tremendously frightening times of final Soviet presence. It was John Paul II who consecrated the world to the Immaculate Heart of Mary in 1984 and as prophesied at Fatima -- to which he was also linked -- it was right after that Communism fell miraculously.
In fact, it was John Paul more than anyone who can be credited with one of history's great events, the fall of what was the most threatening evil up to that time in history. Ancient Rome was evil. So was Genghis Khan. There was tremendous evil in Babylonian times, and in ancient Egypt. There were the great dangers of Nazism.
But no evil empire ever had the capacity as the Soviets did to destroy the world with nuclear weapons, no empire was so militantly atheistic, and no empire was so close to enslaving the world.
It was John Paul II's trip to Poland soon after he was elevated to the Throne of Peter that set off a spark that led to Solidarity and downfall of Communism in the Pope's native Poland, which then set off the chain reaction that brought Communism down in Eastern Europe (something not even the most optimistic had predicted) and then the Soviet Union itself. Even before he was Pope, Karol Wojtyla had forged alliances that helped pave the way to the Gdansk shipyard uprising and then Solidarity.
Lech Walesa and Mikhail Gorbachev themselves acknowledge the Pope's pivotal role. And so did the Communists before him: the fact that they tried to kill him speaks volumes of the Pope's role.
But they didn't succeed and Communism fell due to the incredible prayers and efforts of John Paul the Great. That's how he will be known because there has not been a pontiff of such momentous proportion in centuries. He will easily rank with men like Gregory the Great of the Fifth Century (who likewise affected geopolitics and mitigated chastisement).
There were his political effects but also John Paul's incredible effect on the Church.
At a time when it was drifting and at times plummeting toward modernism (and compromise with worldliness), Joannes Paulus stepped in and halted, even reversed, the slide with a stunning series of declarations, instructions, and encyclicals that made the Church as Catholic as it had ever been, at least for those who obeyed those instructions. He firmed it up: celibacy, no homosexuality, no contraception.
Look at the litany of papal action: He wrote 14 encyclicals (including "Veritatis Splendor"), 11 apostolic constitutions, and 45 apostolic letters. He declared a Marian Year. He declared a Eucharistic Year. He declared a year in honor of God the Father. He added a new set of mysteries to the Rosary. He changed the Rosary! He oversaw a new Catechism. He railed against the "culture of death" -- and coined that very expression. He ordered a stop to liturgical abuse. He spoke against abortion and occultism and homosexuality.
He also wrote five books, one of which is due out in America shortly.
He has made 104 pastoral visits outside of Italy, and presided over 51 canonization ceremonies -- including that of Sts. Faustina Kowalska and Padre Pio. He rescued Medjugorje from rejection by a local bishop and established the Feast of Mercy Sunday, dying on its vigil, and on the First Saturday. He tried to unite Christians, and a strange coincidence is that evangelist Billy Graham was preaching in the Pope's hometown the day John Paul was elected pontiff.
More than 17 million pilgrims participated in his general audiences, and he held 738 audiences and meetings with heads of state. He visited a synagogue and a mosque and tried with tenacity to reunite with the Orthodox. He held ecumenical conferences at Assisi. He prayed with Indians.
No person in human history has been seen by as many humans as John Paul II, the most photographed man since the invention of the camera.
He is often portrayed as an intellectual and this he was. He could speak a dozen languages and he could talk philosophy with the best of them. But he was not caught in the narrow confines of intellectualism. More than an intellectual, he was a mystic -- given to lapses in which he seemed elsewhere while praying the Rosary.
At the moment of his birth on May 18, 1920, in a small Polish town called Wadowice, John Paul's mother asked the midwife to open the window so that the first sounds her newborn heard would be singing in honor of Mary, the Mother of God, from a church across the street. The room flooded with light. Three months later, on August 15, Feast of Mary's Assumption, Polish forces commanded by the marshal repulsed a powerful Soviet attack at the gates of Warsaw, which became known as the "Miracle on the Vistula," a victory that stopped Communism from spreading to Germany and the rest of Western Europe.
So was started a life that one writer, Tad Szulc, described as full of "a succession of dramatic events and astounding coincidences, bordering on the mystical." In fact John Paul's first doctorate was in mystical theology -- something that has been all but stripped from modern seminaries -- and before he was Pope he met the great Italian mystic, Padre Pio (although it is not true that Padre Pio prophesied his pontificate).
It is true that in 1962 the future Pope supposedly wrote to Pio asking him to pray for a mother who had cancer -- and then wrote again a week later to say the woman had suddenly recovered.
In 1974 the Pope returned to the town of Padre Pio and spent three days in prayer there.
Since then there have been many rumors of John Paul's own mystical abilities. He had the aura of a visionary -- a brightness around him that is almost incandescent -- and he made a point of visiting all the major supernatural shrines: Guadalupe, Lourdes, Fatima. He visited Zaravanystya in Ukraine (where the Virgin has appeared through historical times), was deeply devoted to Czestochowa (a shrine in Poland where he once declared an oath on Luminous Mountain), and said he would have visited Medjugorje in former Yugoslavia if he was not the Pope (because as yet it has to be formally approved, although the faithful are allowed to go).
Those who met him described a remarkable peace. As Szulc said, "Friends who have known Wojtyla (his born name) over decades insist that prayer and meditation are the principal sources of his mental and physical strength and his astonishing capability of restoring his energy notwithstanding his punishing schedule at the Vatican and exhausting globe-girding jet travel." Indeed, according to Szulc, the pontiff was said to pray as many as seven hours a day; at his private chapel at dawn, sometimes prostrate before the altar, then with invited guests before breakfast, often in his study next to his bedroom, at Masses and services, aboard planes, in the back seat of limousines. Some say that during prayer he was known to wail out loudly for the Church and the world.
Had he seen the Virgin Mary? He certainly provided exceptional guidance -- and his exhortations often paralleled the messages of Medjugorje.
He even conducted himself publicly in a mystical way. He is very much like two of his heroes: St. Benedict and Gregory the Great, both of whom were likewise mystical. Will he too be a Doctor of the Church?
Often he thundered like an Old Testament prophet (railing against the U.N. and the world's descent into sinfulness), and on June 24, 1977 -- the same day that Mary would appear four years later at Medjugorje for the first time -- he said in an address as a cardinal, "We find ourselves in the presence of the greatest confrontation in history, the greatest mankind has ever had to confront. We are facing the final confrontation between the Church and the anti-Church, between the Gospel and the anti-Gospel."
During one consistory with cardinals he referred to "signs of the times," a catchphrase laden with possible mystical portent. He showed a great warmth toward Medjugorje and lapsed into semi-consciousness at times while reciting the Rosary. When he was shot in 1981 -- on the anniversary of Fatima, and the month before Medjugorje began -- the bullet took a miraculous course around vital organs and blood vessels. He slept in a sparse room on a single bed with a chest nearby (despite the splendor around him).
If he was a mystic, what was his prophecy?
It was simple. In this case, not apocalyptic.
Reject despair, was his message; God always wins in the end.
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