Today we celebrate the feast day of St. John Paul II the great defender of life and the family of our times. The Church has chosen to celebrate his feast not on the date of his death which was on April 2nd 2005 but on the anniversary of his formal installation as Universal Pontiff on October 22nd 1978.
His life since early childhood was marked by the Cross. His older sister, Olga, died in infancy, and by the time Karol was twelve his mother, Emelia, died of kidney failure. His older brother, Edmund, a young medical doctor, died heroically serving those stricken with scarlet fever. His father died of a heart attack on February 18, 1941. So by his early twenties all his immediate family was gone.
After being formed in a clandestine seminary due to the Nazi and Communist occupations, he was ordained a priest on November 1st, 1946 as priest of the Archdiocese of Cracow. He offered his first Mass as a Requiem for his parents on November 2nd, in the crypt of the Cathedral of Cracow where the Kings of Poland are buried as an expression of his love for his parents and for his nation.
He was appointed auxiliary bishop of Cracow in 1958, and was later named Archbishop. In this position he strengthened the faith of the young in many different ways and had the courage to confront the Communist government of his country, such as when it would not allow the Church to build churches in the new industrial districts of Cracow.
His brilliant insights were of fundamental importance in the final formulation of Humanae Vitae, which was promulgated by Pope Saint Paul VI in 1968. Soon after, he was elevated to the College of Cardinals.
He was elected Pope on October 16th, 1978. The 263rd successor of Peter, he was to have one of the longest pontificates in the history of the Church, lasting nearly 27 years. He retained his Episcopal motto, drawn from the profound vision of St. Louis Grignon de Montfort, stating to the Blessed Virgin Mary “Totus Tuus” (I am completely yours). In this and in many other aspects of his pontificate he showed and deep and sincere devotion to Mary. There is no doubt that it was a special grace of Our Lady of Fatima that protected his life when on May 13, 1981, he was the victim of an attempted assassination in St. Peter’s Square
John Paul’s concern to defend and promote life, marriage and the family was clearly expressed in many initiatives, his Wednesday catechesis on human love (The Theology of the Body) and in his constant preaching on this fundamental topic. We can see this in many of the fundamental documents of his pontificate like his magnificent encyclical letter Evangelium Vitae on March 25, 1995, and in the Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris Consortio of November 22nd, 1981 and The Charter of the Rights of the Family of October 22nd 1983. The teaching of John Paul II has become particularly relevant on the light of the well-known controversies and tensions that are regrettably affecting the current Synod of the Family.
The Holy Father insists in Evangelium Vitae that in preaching the Gospel (in general) and the Gospel of Life (in particular), “we must not fear hostility or unpopularity, and we must refuse any compromise or ambiguity which might conform us to the world’s way of thinking. We must be in the world but not of the world, drawing our strength from Christ, who by his Death and Resurrection has overcome the world” (82). He later severely warned various members of the Church, who “end up by separating their Christian faith from its ethical requirements regarding life, and thus fall into moral subjectivism and certain objectionable ways of acting” (95). In our struggle to establish the Culture of Life, we have to accept the reality that we are “in constant tension with the forces of evil which still roam the world and affect human hearts, offering resistance to Christ” (103).
John Paul II dared to fight the dominant ideologies of our times, confronting their terribly damaging lies. He fought Communism, which dominated his land, and in the West he fought secular humanism. Both Marxism and secular humanism are at the origin of the Culture of Death that this great pope denounced with courage and determination, proposing as the only valid alternative the establishment of a Culture of Life that would protect life and the family in accordance with God’s plans.
Today, the Church must address gender ideology, which John Paul II did not hesitate to describe as a “new ideology of evil.” Moreover, gender, the product of reflection by American structuralists, derives from Marxist thinking. In his last book, Memory and Identity, John Paul II wrote:
I am thinking . . . of the strong pressure from the European Parliament to recognize homosexual unions as an alternative type of family, with the right to adopt children. It is legitimate and even necessary to ask whether this is not the work of another ideology of evil, more subtle and hidden, perhaps, intent upon exploiting human rights themselves against man and against the family.
John Paul’s life was always particularly heroic but his last years and months were strongly moving. Even when his body was totally wasted by a terrible disease, he remained in the place that the Lord had given him, refusing to resign and fulfilling his duties until the bitter end. When told of the hundreds of thousands of young people praying beneath the window of the papal apartment keeping candlelight vigil during the pope’s final agony, he whispered in response, “I have looked for you and you have come to me. Thank you.” Pope John Paul II died in the late evening of Saturday, April 2nd, 2005 at 9:37pm, on the eve of the Divine Mercy Sunday, before he had uttered his final audible words, “Let me go to my Father’s house.”
When he died I was in Rome and I saw the millions of pilgrims that had come from all over the world to pay homage to him.
On April 28, 2005, Pope Benedict XVI announced that the normal five-year waiting period before beginning the cause of beatification and canonization would be waived for John Paul II. On May 1, 2011, Pope Benedict XVI beatified Pope John Paul II. He was canonized on April 27, 2014 by Pope Francis.
Today we pray that we remain faithful to Saint John Paul’s valuable legacy and seek his intercession for our mission of defending life and family worldwide.