St John Paul II is one of the few men of whom it can be truly said that ‘he changed history’. His election in 1978 seemed astonishing: a Pope from Poland, at that time a country under the rule of a grim Communist government, formally committed to atheism and with a track record of crushing any attempts at public rejection of the official Marxist line.
Then this great Pope went home to Poland on pilgrimage, celebrating Mass before vast crowds in Victory Square in his capital city, and praying for the Holy Spirit to descend on the land – “this land” – and history changed. The whole Marxist edifice began the slow, inexorable rumble of change and eventually came tumbling down…the map of Europe was redrawn, and a new chapter began.
And St John Paul the Great did more – much, much more – than that. He was the first Pope since St Peter to pray with Jewish people in a synagogue. He was the initiator of World Youth Day which now draws together millions of young people from across the globe to pray together. He gave a fresh vision for marriage and sexual ethics with his Theology of the Body. He gathered the world’s religious leaders to pray for peace at Assisi, and he was a mystic who opened up the message of the spiritual life and introduced a new generation to the Rosary and to adoration of the Blessed Sacrament.
He was also the first Pope ever to visit Britain. What is astonishing about that is the way in which, somehow, it doesn’t now seem too extraordinary that a Pope should celebrate Mass with thousands of people here, or have tea with the Queen, or pray with the Anglican leaders in Canterbury cathedral. St John Paul broke through so many barriers with so much goodwill that he left a sense of normality about it all.
And when his successor, Benedict XVI came to visit us in due course, it was in response to an invitation from HM the Queen for a full State Visit, and it was a further joyous chapter in the story of the Church and Britain. It gave a fresh impetus to the Christian faith here for the 21stcentury.
St John Paul’s feast-day is October 22nd – the anniversary of the day that he took office as Pope. Even now, watching the events on a computer screen years later, the images hold their thrill. It was partly because – in what was to become typical for him throughout his pontificate – he combined a sense of the dignity and prayerfulness of the occasion with a sense of normality, of warm Christian goodwill and fatherly care.
Speaking from the balcony at St Peter’s – breaking with tradition, because a newly-elected Pope was expected simply to give a blessing and then retreat inside for further formalities – he told the crowd that the Church had elected a Pope from “a far country” but a country always loyal to Rome and to St Peter. He asked the – largely Italian – crowd to forgive his lack of skill “in your – in our – language” and they roared back their enthusiasm.
He was actually fluent in a great many languages including Italian, and would add more during his pontificate…and he never ceased to be loved by the people of Rome and to give them dedicated care as their Bishop, visiting parish after parish across the city through all the years when he also had to attend to so many other duties.
Beloved St John Paul: one of the greatest of Popes, and one who gave a new clarity and strength to the title “Holy Father”.
St John Paul the Great, pray for us!