What a warrior. What a Pope. twenty-six years ago, when John Paul II became Pope, what dilemmas he faced. An insurmountable mountain, some would say. “Have courage.” That’s what he said to the world and that’s what he personally displayed fighting fires all over the world.
Communists had taken over eastern Europe and big red Russia was not making idle threats to keep its empire. They had Christianity on the floor with a boot on its neck. The Berlin Wall looked like the Rock of Gibraltar.
The prospects for change didn’t seem bright in the foreseeable future. It was the election of a Polish Pope that started the avalanche. Suddenly, Poland was no longer a butt for Polish jokes. A native-born Pole was a national hero. Even a Polish communist government couldn’t ignore that.
They had to reluctantly agree to his coming home. After all, they thought, he wasn’t a politician. He was just a spiritual leader on a brief pilgrimmage to his hometown – a major political goof on their part. There were certain places the Pope wasn’t allowed to go (a certain shipyard for example) and the Solidarity leaders eventually ended up in jail.
Nine days later, he paraded through Poland to increasing crowds of enthusiastic people that ran into the millions. He made a number of later trips to Poland and on one occasion, said he wasn’t going back until he could talk to Lech Walsea, the imprisoned leader of the Solidarity movement. The Communists caved in and brought Walsea from jail thousands of miles away to the Pope by helicopter. Eventually, they admitted defeat and agreed to free elections, in which Solidarity candidates were overwhelmingly elected.
Historians concede that the Pope was the key player, along with U.S. president Ronald Regan, in starting the domino effect that freed eastern European countries from communist tyranny and led to the collapse of communism in Russia. (Not bad for a guy without an army.)
There was also a spiritual malaise in the church that Pope John Paul faced. Europe and most of the world were in a disastrous decline in priestly vocations and baptisms, and faced horrendous problems with contraception, abortion, homosexuality and euthanasia – just to skim the surface.
People weren’t listening to the call of the church. The people in the streets weren’t listening – many people in the pews weren’t listening, either. Did the Pope adopt a “conservative” or a “reactionary” approach?
Neither. The Pope went to the Bible, the Ten Commandments, the precepts of the church, the Beatitudes and the traditions and long-held teachings of the church. When did these noble values become obsolete? Some called it a “hard line.” No, it wasn’t. It was the eternal truths. The Pope wasn’t a wind-sniffing politician whose opinions change with popularity polls and a cabal of political hangers-on who call the tune.
The Pope went over their heads. By airplane, helicopter and even by Popemobile “Pope Everywhere” travelled unceasingly with his unflinching, unchanging message of Jesus Christ. He sought out the youth, the disenchanted and the apathetic. He was unpopular with apostate theologians and the liberal-leaning media. They were stunned by the response from the millions – especially the youth – who turned out to hear John Paul II challenge them. He didn’t tailor his message to the crowds – he tried to tailor the crowds to his message.
Did he succeed? He ran the pro-life message up the flagpole whenever he could. He preached love and tolerance. The Pope forgave the man who tried to kill him, apologized in Israel, in Rome and even in Poland for the shameful treatment of Jews and others. He had a lot of detractors in the church who did not want to play his sheet music. But that didn’t deter him from trying to attain his goals. He was genuinely loved by people who wept openly when he died.
Pope John Paul II had the largest funeral in the world, attended in person by hundreds of thousands, and other untold millions via TV, satellite and radio. He was hailed as a unifying force for goodness in a deeply troubled world.More than 20 years ago, the Pope lit a large candle in his window overlooking St. Peter’s Square, commemorating the unjust imprisonment of Polish Solidarity leaders and successfully focusing attention on their plight. Truly, he was also the light in the window. May that light continue to shine for us.