By Cardinal Justin Rigali
Archbishop of Philadelphia
This Friday, April 2, we recall the fifth anniversary of the death of the Venerable Servant of God, Pope John Paul II and so we reflect on his life this week.
From a far country
When we recall the death of loved ones, we often think of the events or celebrations that may have coincided with their deaths. Each year, the recurrence of those events reminds us that it was at that time that our loved one died. As we celebrate the events of Holy Week, Easter and spanine Mercy Sunday, we recall that it was at the time of those liturgical celebrations that the world was fixed on Pope John Paul II’s final illness and his death. We were saddened by his inability to celebrate, as usual, the Liturgies of Holy Week; we followed his final agony during Easter Week; we felt great sorrow, along with gratitude and consolation, when he died on the Vigil of the Second Sunday of Easter, also known as spanine Mercy Sunday. Hard as it is to believe, all of this occurred five years ago.
Upon his election, Pope John Paul II had spoken to the great crowd gathered in St. Peter’s Square, who awaited his first blessing “Urbi et Orbi,” to the City and to the world. He referred to the fact that he had been called “from a far off country,” to become the Successor of St. Peter. However, although he probably felt that he needed to reference the fact that he was the first non-Italian elected Pope in hundreds of years and despite the fact that he was often referred to as the “Polish Pope,” there is a greater truth, which transcends the fascination with his coming “from a far off country.”
I would like to illustrate this by sharing with you my experience just after the election of Cardinal Wojtyla. I was in the service of the Holy See at the time, working in the Office of the Secretariat of State. Immediately after the election, when the Cardinals who had elected the Pope were released from the Conclave, the now-Cardinal Giovanni Re and I went to greet Cardinal Giovanni Benelli, the Secretary of State, with whom we worked. I recall a number of reporters who gathered to interview Cardinal Benelli as he came out of the Conclave. One of them asked him his thoughts on the fact that a “foreigner” had been elected Pope. Without hesitation and with the instinct of the Catholic faith, Cardinal Benelli beautifully responded: “There are no foreigners in the Church.” This is a beautiful memory for me and a great teaching, which I share with you and which we should all keep in mind.
God raises up those whom we need
Throughout history, we see many examples of a maxim which we often repeat with great faith and it is that God raises up the person or people the Church needs in the particular circumstances of her history. Often, we do not realize the truth of this until the person has left us or until we look back on a particular period of history. However, in the person of Pope John Paul II, it seems that the Church and the world realized the gift that he was to the Church even while he lived and exercised his ministry.
Part of the mission that Jesus gave to St. Peter and his successors is to confirm us in the faith. We know that Jesus established Peter as the “rock” on which he would build His Church. He also gave to Peter, and those who would succeed to his office down through the centuries, a guarantee. This guarantee is that their “faith would not fail” when they exercise their office for the entire Church. This does not mean that every Pope will be perfect or that he will be a saint; history has certainly taught us that lesson. However, it does give us the peace that comes with the guarantee that the Pope, exercising his office as supreme teacher for the Church in matters of faith and morals, cannot err.
We can be sure that our Lord used the image of a rock for Peter and his successors for a number of reasons. A rock is firm and steadfast and this is an image that probably comes to mind at first. However, think of a rock in the ocean or on a mountain. It is battered by the waves, by the wind and by all the other elements. Sometimes, in the midst of a storm, we cannot even see the rock, but it is always there. When the storm subsides, we see that it has not been moved or destroyed. Although a pope only rarely teaches solemnly and infallibly, he exercises his Petrine office of confirming us in the faith throughout his whole ministry.
Pope John Paul II certainly did that for us at a time when history showed that it was particularly needed. He fearlessly proclaimed the teachings of Jesus and His Church, as well as the natural truths concerning the dignity of the human person, in the face of great opposition. His proclamation of the dignity of the person was no greater for those under the yoke of communism than it was for those deprived of life in the womb. It is true that the winds and storms sometimes whirled around him, as they do around our present Holy Father, but they do not prevail. We thank God for Pope John Paul II, who confirmed the Church in her faith with firmness and charity.
Friend of youth
The World Youth Days, initiated by Pope John Paul II, will always be a lasting reminder of the special bond which he had with young people. This interest in the young and the sharing of their hopes and dreams did not come to Karol Wojtyla with his election as Pope. As a young priest in Poland, he showed great zeal for the young and took a great deal of time to teach them the beauty and the value of living life in Jesus Christ. As Pope, he was able to take that zeal to the young people of the entire world. That work has benefits which do not die.
When Pope John Paul II visited the Archdiocese of St. Louis in 1999 during my time as Archbishop there, I wrote after his departure: “And still it continues.” I was referencing the fact that the joy and enthusiasm shown by the people of the Archdiocese of St. Louis, which was the only American diocese the Holy Father visited on that journey, was not a fleeting phenomenon. I was continuing to see and hear of its fruits throughout the archdiocese long after the Pope departed from our midst. This can also be said of his work with youth during the World Youth Days and his many Pastoral Journeys throughout the world. Although I accompanied Pope John Paul II on a number of his international journeys, including his two major journeys to the United States in 1979 and 1987, and witnessed the remarkable response of the people to his presence. I am sure that it is the continuous effect of those visits, long after they were over, that bore the greatest fruit.
Example of patient suffering and death
Shortly before his death in the midst of great suffering, Cardinal Terence Cooke (1921-1983), Archbishop of New York, released the following statement to the faithful: “Life is no less beautiful when it is accompanied by illness, weakness, hunger or poverty, physical or mental diseases, loneliness or old age.”
This great defender of life used the end of his own life to preach his last sermon. The same can be said of Pope John Paul II. His last years, accompanied by so much suffering and physical decline, were also a living sermon of fidelity and suffering. They preached to a world, which is often concerned only with the “utilitarian” and powerful, that there is also great strength and power in weakness, as Jesus assured St. Paul at the very beginnings of Christianity (cf. 2 Corinthians 12:9).
On the first anniversary of Pope John Paul II’s death, Pope Benedict XVI spoke of Pope John Paul’s faith, which is what made everything he did possible and which gave to the world such a great example. Pope Benedict said: “It was a solid, strong and authentic faith, free from fear and compromise, which infected the hearts of many people, also thanks to his numerous pilgrimages around the world, and especially thanks to that last ‘journey,’ which was his agony and his death.”
This week, we give thanks to God for the gift of Pope John Paul II and all that he meant to the Church and to the world. We give thanks also for the “rock” that is the office of Peter, which continues to confirm our faith in the person of our present Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI. Let us pray for him as we approach the anniversary of his election as the 265th Successor of St. Peter.
April 1, 2010