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Posted April 4, 2005

The Legacy of Pope John Paul II

Eugene Hemrick



No doubt anyone who has experienced the presence of Pope John Paul II remembers something extraordinary about him.

My first personal encounter with him came when he first traveled to the U.S. I was working at the Bishopsí Conference, which had the responsibility of taking care of the details of his scheduling while here. One of the perks we received was front-seat tickets to his events.

I remember him racing into Washington, D.C.ís St. Matthews and tearing down its side aisle. In those days, I was doing marathons. I thought to myself, ďNow here is an athlete. He must be doing a seven minute mile at the speed he is going?Ē

Later I was told that at that moment he was anxiously looking for a bathroom.

When Pope John Paul II was named a pope, many admired his athleticism. He looked and acted fit. I believe his athleticism and sense of mission were responsible for his journeying around the world and not sitting tight on the throne of St. Peter he inherited. In contrast to many of the recent popes, who spent the best part of their time close to that throne, he chose to leave it frequently and be with his people throughout the world. The reason he did this is found in our Mass. In it, we pray daily for unity, be it within ourselves, with others, and especially with God. John Paul II epitomized the practice of this prayer. Among his many awesome feats, he journeyed to Poland and solidified his people by reminding them to have faith in themselves and in Jesus Christ. That solidification so united them that it brought down the communist regime in his country.

He journeyed to Israel and apologized to the Jews for the many centuries in which Christians were unchristian to them. This act of humility helped to create a new unity between Christians and Jews that didnít exist heretofore.

When it came to facing the truth, he did not flinch in speaking it from the heart. We will never know how many hardened hearts he united with Christ. We do know that through him Godís grace opened hearts like never before.

In Baltimore and throughout his journeys, a constant theme of his was: do not be afraid! In other words, donít let anything within you divide you. Be united with Christ and he will unite all that is in you.

What was John Paul IIís secret for success? From where did John Paul II derive the strength needed for his accomplishments?

Some years back, Cardinal Carlo Martini [now retired, but once considered the successor to John Paul II] asked what it was that gave St. Paul his strength.

Paul had gone to the Corinthians expecting to be received with open arms. Instead, he was met by people who were split between themselves, and who rejected him.

Martini points out that despite the opposition, Paul did not buckle. His secret? He knew his charism. He knew what Christ meant to him, and what he was about.

John Paul II, like St. Paul, did not have smooth sailing. Some considered him too conservative and headstrong. During his pontificate there were numerous rumors that the Catholic Church was on the brink of a schism. As much as the media has presently dwelt on his accomplishments, he, like all popes, lived from one crisis to the next. This weighted heavy on him, but he never vacillated or showed signs of weakness. Why? One reason I believe is he was driven by a sense of mission that defined who he was at this time in history and what God wanted of him.

Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C. gives us an even deeper insight into John Paul IIís strength. He said that once when with him, the pope knelt down to pray. At that moment, McCarrick was so struck by his prayerfulness that he moved away and stood behind a pillar. He dared not thread upon the sacredness of that prayerful moment. In fact, McCarrick admitted that never in his life had he experienced such sacredness in a person.

It is said that Stefan Cardinal Wyszynski, archbishop of Warsaw and Gniezno and primate of Poland once remarked that John Paul II was too much of a poet to make a successful leader.

The word poet in Greek signifies someone who can envision life in its very depths. Poets cut into the realities of life like no one else can do. When they speak, their words often carry the weight of a mystic. And when their voice is heard, more often than not, it creates revolutions.

Pope John Paul II was more than a pope, theologian, political scientist, a healer of divisions, a champion of the faith and traveler of the world. He was a man of prayer, which gave him the power to envision life at its depths and to speak the language of a poet ó words that strike to the very heart of us. His greatest strength was derived from those moments in which he shut out the world and was all there for God. In putting himself in the presence of God, he brought Godís presence more fully to us. When we reflect on the most inspiring people we know, we usually see them foremost in relation to their works and to their unique character. We get all wrapped up in their worldly accomplishments and their distinctive personalities. It is true that John Paul II accomplished much and had a magnetic personality. But when we look for the ultimate beauty in this man, we first are turned toward God, and only then do we see a humble man in relation to God. He told us not to be afraid. Here was a man not afraid to show us his great love for prayer, and humble relationship to God. This is his greatest legacy!