I had the privilege of working for Blessed John Paul II for nine years. As a young priest, I worked in the Vatican’s Congregation for Bishops, and my boss, or perhaps my boss’s boss, was Pope John Paul II.
I won’t forget those years. John Paul II possessed an undeniable gravitas: His sanctity, and generosity, and joy absolutely filled a room. He was funny, and humble, and open. He was among the Church’s greatest theologians and philosophers, and at the same time, he was a pastor of souls: a lover of conversation, and folk culture, and pious worship.
During my time in Rome, the Church was still unpacking the meaning of the Second Vatican Council. After a council, theologians and bishops seek to implement new approaches and ideas, while retaining the continuity of our history and tradition. It’s a tenuous balance. Of course, some approaches are very good, and others are unreasonable, unsound, or unpractical.
Historically, Church councils, like Vatican II, always bring some measure of confusion to the Church’s life. Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman once wrote that Church councils “always savor of the soil from which they sprang.” In the case of Vatican II, the soil was the “sixties.” In the post-conciliar period, the good fruit of the Council was intermingled, regrettably, with the anti-nomianism, anti-authoritarian, “free-love” spirit of the zeitgeist. There was confusion even among the theologians of the Vatican.
Newman reflected that one must get a bit downstream from a councilfifty, seventy-five, one-hundred yearsbefore the water clarifies and the stream gains strength and force.
In the midst of the post-conciliar confusion, John Paul II was a stabilizing and reassuring force: He was like a strong captain guiding the Church, the barque of Peter, through turbulent waters. At a time when many rejected the Church’s magisterial authority, John Paul II published the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Fides et Ratio, Evangelium Vitae, and hundreds of other texts, which unequivocally and charitably proposed the rich and ancient teachings of the faith. The Holy Spirit gave the Church John Paul II to protect her and guide her in a most difficult time. And with courage, and dependence on the Blessed Virgin Mary, John Paul embraced the greatness to which he was called.
I attended his funeral in 2005 with a heavy heart. Pilgrims had come from everywhere to mourn him. And by an extraordinary grace, the city of Rome became a place of joy, a place to celebrate a man who called us all to courage, and to greatness. The funeral of John Paul II was a celebration of the redemption of Jesus Christ, borne out in the life of John Paul II. On the streets of Rome, it was said that “he taught us how to live and he taught us how to die.”
While I concelebrated his funeral Mass, my mind returned to the very first Mass I’d ever attended with Pope John Paul II. It was 1979. I was twenty-four years old. I had finished college, and had spent time in a monastery, and was working on a small family farm with my friends in Kansas. Mostly, I was wondering what God had in store for me.
John Paul had come to the United States shortly after becoming Pope, and in addition to visiting Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Washington, DC, and Chicago, he came to celebrate Mass on a historic farm in Iowa on, October 4, the feast day of Saint Francis of Assisi. My friends and I drove up from Kansas. By the grace of God, we ended up close to the very first row. I was awestruck when John Paul II asked the young men in the congregation to consider priesthood. “Come follow me!” he said. I felt as though he was speaking just to me. Five minutes later, he came down to greet the crowd, and he looked directly into my eyes. One does not forget the glimpse of sanctity.
Three months after that Mass, I was a seminarian. Years later I was ordained a priest, and then a bishop. I’ve spent my priesthood following after Jesus Christ, but like so many others, I have sought to live in the footsteps, by the model, and by the measure of Blessed John Paul II.
We are now fifty years removed from the Second Vatican Council. The water is beginning to run more clearly. And John Paul II’s pontificate has become essential to understanding the Second Vatican Council. His philosophical emphasis on personal dignity has become the fundamental hermeneutic for interpreting the Council’s texts. His commitment to Lumen Gentium’s universal call to holiness has been at the center of successful movements of ecclesial renewal and revitalization. The New Evangelization, intimately tied to the fruit of the Second Vatican Council, gained its momentum with John Paul’s leadership in the Eastern bloc, at World Youth Days, and among his brother bishops.
History books will likely record that John Paul ushered in a new style of papal leadership: one geared to the sensibilities of modern man and modern media. His approach is manifest in the pontificate of Pope Francis. Francis has made authentic Christian discipleship, borne out in charity and truth, the hallmark of his pontificate. In the footsteps of John Paul, he has reconciled a commitment to orthodoxy with a commitment to social justice. He is collaborative, committed to sexual and vocational complementarity, and deeply respectful of brother bishops around the world. Francis is an evangelist, and like John Paul, a dramatist: a man with a sense for the power of symbol in a visual world. The legacy of Pope Francis, and Pope Benedict XVI, and, in all likelihood, their successors, is the legacy of the pontificate of John Paul II.
On Sunday, John Paul will be declared a saint. He is a patron for the whole Church. He may someday be called “John Paul the Great.” I will remember him that way. But I will also remember him personally, as the man who called me to holiness, to greatness, and to the adventure of a lifetime.
Most Reverend James D. Conley, STL, is the Catholic bishop of Lincoln, Nebraska.