By the dawn of the 21st Century, Karol Wojtyla was dubbed “John Paul the Great” by many. On Divine Mercy Sunday, the Church confirms what the world already knew.
Two names are added to the Communion of Saints on Divine Mercy Sunday 2014, and midway through this second decade of the 21st Century, one of them still looms large in the living memory of millions, Catholics and not. I must write especially of Saint John Paul II because his Holy Father-hood is like a set of bookends framing my life as a priest. I have written of him before, and of the origin of his being dubbed “John Paul the Great” for his monumental impact on the state of world affairs.
That post was “The Beatification of Pope John Paul II” and it began, ironically enough, in the era in which Angelo Roncali became Pope John XXIII. I described that era, and all that it entailed for the Church in the lives of millions, in the first of a two-part 2012 post entitled “Vatican II Turns Fifty: Catholic in an Age of Discontent.” It’s also an ironic twist that John XXIII was beatified by John Paul II, but on this Divine Mercy Sunday they are canonized together. So in a sense, this tribute to one is a profound bow to the sainthood of both.
I don’t want to begin with the negative, but sometimes it’s best to just get the detractors out of the way. The Media Report had an article about the recent PBS Frontline presentation entitled “Secrets of the Vatican.” The Frontline piece was co-produced for PBS by Jason Berry, and it was clear, for those who would see, that the agenda behind it had nothing to do with protecting children from sexual abuse.
The triple crown PBS and Jason Berry aimed for was Holy Week, Easter, and the Divine Mercy Canonization of Pope John Paul II. One prisoner who watched it thinking it might be a tour of the Vatican Museum called it “Jason Berry’s hatchet job on the Catholic Church.” Had PBS settled on that more honest title, its ratings might have been higher. The timing of such productions is carefully synchronized, of course, to coincide with any big Catholic news coming out of Rome.
As the Canonization of these two 20th Century popes made headlines, so did the efforts to defame them. I wrote of the timing of such ploys just after Holy Week a few years ago in “Breaking News: I Got Stoned With the Pope!” The papal media target then was Benedict the Beloved, and as that post revealed, it has become a tradition of sorts in modern media to deck the halls with anti-Catholic slurs during the seasons of both Christmas and Easter. The strategy is that if enough mud can be thrown during times when Catholics on the fence assess their faith, some will ultimately abandon it.
It must be terribly frustrating for those behind such campaigns that at Easter this year, tens of thousands of adults thinking for themselves in the U.S. alone were received into the Catholic faith. Thousands more returned after decades away. TSW readers heard from one two weeks ago in “Coming Home to the Catholic Faith I Left Behind.” Will such stories find their way into Jason Berry’s next PBS Holy Week special? Don’t count on it! But there is now a far more important story to tell.
A POPE’S 33 DAYS
The summer of 1978 was a strange one for me. I had graduated early that summer from Saint Anselm College in Manchester, New Hampshire. A life-changing discernment to leave the Capuchin order to become a diocesan priest had culminated in sweeping change for me that summer. I became a priesthood candidate for the Diocese of Manchester and was assigned to commence graduate studies toward M. Div. and S.T.M. degrees at St. Mary Seminary & University in Baltimore, Maryland, a Pontifical Institute and the nation’s oldest Roman Catholic seminary. It was a summer of transition, and in the background of its whirlwind of change for me was the death of Pope Paul VI and the election of Albino Luciani, Archbishop of Venice, who became Pope John Paul.
Thirty-three days later, on the morning of September 28, 1978, came a knock on my seminary room door. “The Pope has died,” said an unidentified voice on the other side. “Um . . . that was a month ago,” I responded. “No,” said the voice, “the NEW Pope has died.” I never knew who the voice was, but as I made my way through the cavernous corridors toward class that morning the shock of the story was everywhere.
Eighteen days later, on October 16, 1978, the same Conclave of papal electors, who chose the first Pope John Paul just 51 days before, elected a successor. Karol Jozef Wojtyla, Archbishop of Krakow, Poland, became the first non-Italian pope since 1522. He took the name, John Paul II in honor of the first whose reign was the shortest in Church history. The new pope was 58 years old, spoke 14 languages, and would reign for 27 years – one of the longest in Church history – until his death on April 2, 2005.
With my nose buried in a textbook when that knock came on my door in 1978, I had no way to know of the long, twisted road upon which priesthood would take me. I instantly remembered that day as though yesterday, however, when 27 years later on April 2, 2005, a knock came on my cell door as a prisoner’s voice reported the news: “The Pope has died.” In between these two events, Pope John Paul the Great visited 129 countries, beatified 1, 342 souls, canonized 483 saints, promulgated 14 encyclicals, and in his spare time he dismantled the Soviet Union, tore down the Berlin Wall, and brought European Communism to its knees.
Is that last point an exaggeration? Not according to the KGB. The Catholic press is filled this week with accounts of the legacies of Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II, but for the latter, at least, the secular media has also been filled with tributes to him, and foremost among these is John Paul’s role in the collapse of the Soviet Union. I rely on some of these tributes more than I do the Catholic press for this post because we might expect all but chronically dissenting Catholics to hold John Paul in high regard. The key to his witness, however, is found elsewhere.
One such source is a superb book by Eric Metaxas (www.EricMetaxas.com) entitled Seven Men and the Secret of their Greatness (Thomas Nelson, 2013). Seven Men is a profile in courage with subjects chosen by Eric Metaxas because they were exemplars of manhood, bravery, and public witness to the courage of their convictions. Among them for this prolific and highly regarded non-Catholic writer of Pope John Paul II:
“Of all the men in this book, there is only one who has come to be called ‘the Great.’ John Paul the Great . . . . The man whom the Polish authorities once regarded as harmless became one of the key figures in the collapse of communism across Europe.” (Eric Metaxas, pp. 141, 157)
The threat this pope posed to the communist agenda did not go unnoticed by the KGB. In “The Enduring Legacy of John Paul II” (Catalyst, December 2010) Ronald Rychlak chronicled Soviet KGB involvement in the assassination attempts, first of John Paul’s reputation and character, and then of John Paul himself. Reviewing Witness to Hope (HarperCollins 1999), George Weigel’s magisterial biography of Pope John Paul II, Ronald Rychlak described the KGB anxiety about this pope:
“Within months of his election, John Paul II ignited a revolution of conscience in Poland and it ultimately led to the collapse of European Communism and the demise of the Soviet Union.” (Ronald Rychlak, Catalyst)
I also wrote of the story of KGB targeting of both Pope John Paul II and Pope Pius XII in “Hitler’s Pope, Nazi Crimes, an The New York Times.” I was not at all alone in seeing the great thorn in the side that Pope John Paul had courageously become for communism and its intent to dominate Europe, and then the world. In “Popes, Atheists and Freedom” (WSJ, December 30, 2010) Daniel Henninger wrote of Pope John Paul’s courageous confrontation with the Soviet Union:
“In 1984, after John Paul had completed two pastoral pilgrimages to Communist Poland, a conference was convened by members of the KGB, Warsaw Pact, and Cuban intelligence services. Its purpose: to discuss joint measures for combating the ‘subversive activities’ of the Vatican.”
POPE JOHN PAUL II AND THE MIRACLE OF FATIMA
I sometimes think that I am among the priesthood’s worst skeptics. I write of measurable things, after all: history and science, the Voyager Spacecraft among the stars, and the Higgs Boson God Particle. If someone told me when I was ordained 32 years ago that I would one day be writing about a connection between Pope John Paul and the Miracle of Fatima, I would not have believed it.
It was Father Michael Gaitley, MIC, who opened my eyes. The great Marian author of 33 Days to Morning Glory wrote something about John Paul II that did more than open my eyes. It shook my world. What follows is a summary.
In 1917, during World War I, the Blessed Virgin Mary appeared to three shepherd children in Fatima, Portugal. I have always accepted this because the Church accepts it, but I have also always tried not to think too much about it. No, it’s much worse than that. I once, as a much younger priest, scoffed at it all. I kept my scoffing to myself, but the whole story of Fatima was reduced in my mind to a lot of pre-scientific nonsense.
It was Mary herself who straightened me out, aided somewhat by Father Michael Gaitley. I wrote about some of this in “Behold Your Mother! 33 Days to Morning Glory.” I wrote that Father Gaitley’s presentation on Pope John Paul II was powerful and compelling.
The first vision at Fatima took place at 5:00 PM on Mary 13, 1917. After the prophesies about the conversion of Russia, the child visionaries saw a “bishop dressed in white” who “would suffer much and then be shot and killed.” This became known as the last secret of Fatima, and was kept hidden, for a time, by the Church.
Exactly 64 years later, on May 13, 1981 at exactly 5:00 PM, Pope John Paul II was shot four times as he blessed the crowds in St. Peter’s Square. On of those bullets would have surely killed him had it not missed his abdominal artery by a tiny fraction of an inch. John Paul attributed the guidance of this bullet to the hand of Our Lady of Fatima.
The Soviet Empire was created in the aftermath of the 1917 Russian Revolution, and it became the largest nation on Earth. In his 1948 book, The Gathering Storm, Winston Churchill wrote of a proposal to the ruthless Soviet leader, Joseph Stalin. The proposal was that the Soviet Union should not suppress Catholicism, but should rather encourage it in order to build a relationship with the Pope. “The Pope?” Stalin famously retorted. “How many divisions has he got?”
That conversation took place on May 13, 1935, 46 years to the day before the Soviet Union tried to eliminate Pope John Paul II because he became communism’s biggest obstacle in all of Europe. The Pope survived. Stalin’s successors in the Soviet Union learned the answers to his questions far too late for their own survival.
As a wise friend once said to me, “There are no coincidences, only signs.” My scientific mind could still have dismissed all this had I not witnessed what up to then I thought to be impossible: the 1989 fall of the Soviet Empire and the collapse of communism in Europe. On November 9, 1989, thousands danced upon the Berlin Wall before it finally crumbled. I scoffed no longer, and took out my rosary.
Karol Wojtyla was ordained a priest on All Saints Day, 1946, and is now in their company. As a priest and bishop, he studied Sister Faustina’s Diary and promoted her devotion to Divine Mercy, and later her cause for sainthood. He once wrote that as a priest he always felt spiritually close to Sister Faustina. Karol Jozef Wojtyla surrendered his Earthly life on the Vigil of Divine Mercy Sunday, 2005.
Saint John Paul the Great, pray for us.
Editors’s Note: a continued thanks to TSW readers for their generosity in responding to Ryan MacDonald’s appeal to help with the legal costs, at the Federal level. We haven’t reached our goal yet, so please share this link to Ryan’s news alert post!