Dear sisters and brothers in Christ,
Monday, May 18 will mark the one hundredth anniversary of the birth of St. John Paul II. To commemorate the event, Pope Francis will celebrate Mass by his tomb at St. Peter’s Basilica.
The pontificate of John Paul II was very influential in the life of the Church. His election as successor of St. Peter in 1978 was a surprise to many. He was the first pope in many centuries who was not Italian. At the time, I was a teenager, a freshman attending De La Salle High School. I remember that we had watched in school the movie “The shoes of the fisherman” based on a novel by Morris West. The main character in the novel is a Russian priest played by Anthony Quinn who, after many years in a Soviet concentration camp is freed and sent into exile in Rome. Once there, he is created cardinal. Then, he is elected pope taking the name Cyril I, as a tribute to Cyril and Methodius, two siblings who evangelized the Slavs. Although the novel and the movie were from the late 60s there were many comments and references to it when the Polish cardinal, Karol Wojtyla, was elected. He was a Slavic priest who had suffered firsthand the nefarious consequences of the totalitarianisms of the 20th century and carried out his ministry under the communist yoke. He had been an amateur actor and a worker in a quarry. His entire priestly formation took place clandestinely.
Many remember John Paul II because of his indefatigable and marathonic apostolic journeys to the most remote places to announce the Gospel of Jesus Christ. He came to Miami in 1987. Others point out his personal charisma. Others emphasize his initiatives in the life of the Church, for example, World Youth Day. Of the many admirable legacies of his pontificate, I think that two stand out above the rest. The first one is the Catechism of the Catholic Church, an indispensable reference to deepen our knowledge of our beautiful faith. The second one, his eloquent witness of communion with Christ crucified at the end of his earthly life.
There is no question, however, that his entire person and teachings were very important for the life of the contemporary Church. His journey to Cuba in 1998 is a landmark in my own journey towards priesthood. The words he improvised at the conclusion of his talk in the Cathedral on January 25, 1998 a few hours before his departure from Havana to Rome are engraved in my heart and my mind: “We are concluding this visit on 25 January, which is the feast of the Conversion of St Paul. The last Eucharist, celebrated in Revolution Plaza, is very significant because conversion is a profound, continual and holy revolution, valid for all ages.”
Indeed, there is nothing more revolutionary than the conversion of a heart to Christ. There is no greater miracle on the face of the earth than the conversion of a heart to Christ. It is the constant invitation of the Church since the Resurrection of Christ. St. John Paul II added his own nuances. They are bearing much fruit in the pontificates of his successors. As Pope Francis points out repeatedly, his emphasis on divine mercy, is grounded on insights of John Paul II expanded by Benedict XVI.
In the case of John Paul II, the call to conversion was always united with an exhortation frequently found in the Gospel: “Do not be afraid.” In fact, he solemnly began his pontificate by telling us: “do not be afraid to welcome Christ and accept his power… Open wide the doors for Christ. To his saving power open the boundaries of States, economic and political systems, the vast fields of culture, civilization and development. Do not be afraid. Christ knows “what is in man”. He alone knows it.”
John Paul II was right when he stated in his first encyclical that humankind “lives increasingly in fear.” He added: “This gives rise to a question: Why is it that the power given to man from the beginning by which he was to subdue the earth turns against himself, producing an understandable state of disquiet, of conscious or unconscious fear and of menace, which in various ways is being communicated to the whole of the present-day human family and is manifesting itself under various aspects?…
Does this progress, which has man for its author and promoter, make human life on earth “more human” in every aspect of that life? Does it make it more “worthy of man”? There can be no doubt that in various aspects it does. But the question keeps coming back with regard to what is most essential -whether in the context of this progress man, as man, is becoming truly better, that is to say more mature spiritually, more aware of the dignity of his humanity, more responsible, more open to others, especially the neediest and the weakest, and readier to give and to aid all…
As we observe and take part in these processes we cannot let ourselves be taken over merely by euphoria or be carried away by one-sided enthusiasm for our conquests, but we must all ask ourselves, with absolute honesty, objectivity and a sense of moral responsibility, the essential questions concerning man’s situation today and in the future. Do all the conquests attained until now and those projected for the future for technology accord with man’s moral and spiritual progress? In this context is man, as man, developing and progressing or is he regressing and being degraded in his humanity? In men and “in man’s world”, which in itself is a world of moral good and evil, does good prevail over evil? In men and among men is there a growth of social love, of respect for the rights of others-for every man, nation and people-or on the contrary is there an increase of various degrees of selfishness, exaggerated nationalism instead of authentic love of country, and also the propensity to dominate others beyond the limits of one’s legitimate rights and merits and the propensity to exploit the whole of material progress and that in the technology of production for the exclusive purpose of dominating others or of favoring this or that imperialism?”
These questions are as urgent as they are current. Even more so in the face of the pandemic. As we commemorate the centennial of St. John Paul II, considering the suffering and uncertainty that surrounds us, we must ponder them in our hearts. Led by the example of St. John Paul II, enlightened by his teachings and personal witness, let us go forward resolutely, without fear down the path of conversion that the Church proposes following Jesus who is the Way, the Truth and the Life.
Fr. Roberto M. Cid