Blessed John Paul II was a witness to the power of holiness in history.
He showed us the beauty and heroism possible in the human person redeemed by Jesus Christ and living as a child of God.
Holiness is the key to understanding his witness for our times.
He was a poet, a philosopher, and playwright. But most importantly, Blessed John Paul was a priest. He once said: “Holy Mass is the absolute center of my life and of every day of my life.”
The Eucharist flows from the cross and resurrection. And the cross and resurrection were at the heart of Blessed John Paul’s appeal to the modern world.
That is the meaning behind those famous first words he spoke from the window of the papal apartment in St. Peter’s Square on October 22, 1978: “Be not afraid to welcome Christ and accept his power!”
He addressed these words to the entire human family, and to each one of us personally, with all the troubled questions we hold in our hearts.
These are Easter words.
These are the first words that Jesus Christ spoke to his disciples when he met them on their way back from the empty tomb. “Be not afraid! Go and tell my brethren … they will see me!”
Blessed John Paul made us confront the promise of our resurrection—and our responsibilities before the risen Christ.
There is nothing to fear now that death itself has been conquered. Blessed John Paul told us again and again: “The power of Christ’s cross and resurrection is greater than any evil which man could or should fear.”
He wanted us to hear the good news in a new way. That Christ has freed us to love and to live for the greater things that God created us for.
He often quoted the Second Vatican Council’s Gaudium et Spes (“Joy and Hope”): By revealing the mystery of God’s mercy and love, Christ “fully reveals man to himself and brings to light his most high calling.”
Blessed John Paul called all of us to this “high standard of ordinary Christian living.”
He called us to accept the vocation given to each person in baptism. He said this meant living for God’s glory and for the love and service our neighbors. He wanted us to join him in seeking the Kingdom, in building a civilization of love and a culture of life.
These were not original ideas. They are the essence of the Gospel. Blessed John Paul’s gift was to make the Christian ideal seem new again.
He lived the Gospel with passion and intelligence. He made the Christian way of life look so beautiful, so attractive. People wanted to follow him, to know the joy that he knew.
He became a true spiritual father for our times.
As a poet and playwright and he saw the Church and the world in those terms.
The call to holiness, he believed, was a call to responsibility before God and history.
The real drama of history is always beneath the surface of human events, he told us. This drama is theological. It plays out in the human heart. The “plot” turns on whether we will say yes to God’s plan, his loving will for our lives.
In speaking to young people, especially, he stressed that God has a plan for every person. He challenged all of us to realize we have been born for a reason, that each of us has a destiny in this great drama of salvation.
He refused to accept the false premise that Christian faith makes us indifferent or complacent in the face of injustice and human needs.
“Intense prayer,” he once wrote, “does not distract us from our commitment to history. By opening our heart to the love of God it also opens it to the love of our brothers and sisters, and makes us capable of shaping history according to God’s plan.”
He held up as examples saints and martyrs who changed the times they lived in and the lives of those they lived around. He reminded us that Christ calls all of us to be saints. And that we too are called to shape our lives and the history of our times according the purposes of God.
During the preparations for the jubilee Year 2000, he reminded us that Christianity once transformed the world. Not by violence, but by the simple force of men and women living the teachings of the faith with joy, courage and hope.
That’s what his call for a new evangelization was all about. Remaking the world once more in the image of Christ and his Gospel.
He presumed a starting point similar to the situation the early Christians found themselves in. We too live in a world filled with ancient religions, new spiritualities and ideologies, and all sorts of obsessions and substitutes for true faith.
He knew that large sectors of modern society now operate as if God does not exist. And he knew that the Christian message was just one of many “messages of salvation” to be found in a global marketplace of ideas.
He proposed a high and beautiful vision of Christianity. He proclaimed Jesus Christ as the answer to every human question.
As he proposed it, the new evangelization is always personal. It means individual Christians sharing the gift of faith, heart to heart, with the men and women of our time.
But the new evangelization also means evangelizing the culture. It means bringing the Church’s teachings into dialogue with contemporary thought.
He recalled how St. Paul preached the Gospel at the Areopagus, the center of the cultural elite in ancient Athens. Christians today, he said, must take the Gospel to all the “Aperopagi” of modern culture.
He called us to infuse Gospel values into every area of our civic life. He told us to pay special attention to those areas where elite attitudes and opinions are formed and expressed—science, politics, business, the arts, philosophy, higher education, popular entertainment, the media.
In his last book of poems, Roman Triptych (2003), Blessed John Paul wrote:
If you want to find the source,
you have to go up, against the current,
Break through, search, don’t yield …
Blessed John Paul taught us to seek the source of our lives in Jesus Christ. He taught us to go up against all the currents in our culture of cynicism, indifference, and flight from God. He taught us to break through every line of resistance in our hearts and in our society — to seek the things that are above, to search for the face of God.
He went ahead of us to show us the way, to show us how to follow Christ.
He would quote the great Polish poet Cyprian Norwid: “Not with the cross of the Savior behind you, but with your own cross behind the Savior.” These words, he told us, “express the ultimate meaning of the Christian life.”
He preached nothing that he did not practice. This is important to remember.
Pope John Paul has been beatified, not for his accomplishments in the Church or on the world stage. He has been beatified because he cooperated with God’s grace and lived a holy life.
He proposed with new vitality the ancient Gospel teaching. That God desires our sanctification; that each of us is called to be a saint; that with his grace we can imitate Christ and be made perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect.
“The ways of holiness are many, according to the vocation of each individual,” he said.
He showed us that we have to strive for that holiness, that pure love of God and neighbor, in everything we do—at work or in school; in our homes; and in all our actions in society and the political arena.
Even in his final years when his health deteriorated, he continued to show us what it means to carry our cross behind Christ. He showed us the redemptive power of suffering embraced for the love of God and for the love of others.
At the heart of his witness to holiness was the Eucharist.
“Nothing means more to me or gives me greater joy than to celebrate Mass each day,” he said.
He lived the mystery he celebrated with joy each day. And he taught us how to live that way too. He gave us a beautiful vision. To love as Christ loves. To make our lives into a gift that we offer to God and for our brothers and sisters
Again, these were old ideas, as old as the Gospel.
Blessed John Paul had a way of making us see all things new.
Archbishop Gomez is the head of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, the nation’s largest Catholic archdiocese. He was named a bishop by Pope John Paul II in 2001 and named an archbishop by him in 2005.