"The Pope Will Walk" – On His Feast, Remembering JPII
Who other than Blessed John Paul II?
For the record, keen as he ever was for the spectacular, the Polish Pope declared 482 canonizations and some 1,340 beatifications over the course of his 27-year pontificate; on a personal note, the first time this scribe saw him, he made saints of no less than 123 people.
As for his own timing among their number, while Karol Wojtyła died on 2 April 2005 at 84, given that date's frequent confluence with Holy Week and the Easter Octave, it was determined prior to his beatification in May 2011 that – like John XXIII, now commemorated on the opening day of Vatican II – John Paul's feast would instead be marked on the anniversary of his inauguration as the church's 264th "universal pastor," during which the first non-Italian Pope since the mid-1500s delivered the emblematic address of his epic turn on the world stage.
Even as, in some quarters, controversies continue to swirl over his reign – some likely to extend even beyond our time – suffice it to say, the legacy is rich, the world knows it, and little explanation is necessary.
Yet when it came time for the Vatican's authorized "autobiography" – a compilation of John Paul's various quotes on his life – to be issued in English, for its foreword, the publishers came to the American city he knew best and loved most, and dug down into the ecclesiastical D-list.
Asked for the "Why?" behind that, the answer was simple: "Because you're one of his."
Even now, that remains quite the thing to live up to, and always will be... either way, especially today, the result seems worth sharing around:
Joseph Stalin once famously asked “How many divisions does the Pope have?” Had he lived to see Karol Wojtyła, he would have known the answer. And chances are he wouldn’t have liked it.
You are about to “put out into the deep,” into one of the great stories of our time as it has never before been told. It’s the chronicle of a man who, born of humble roots, grew through adversity; a man who had an indelible impact on millions and changed the course of history. Yet five years after Pope John Paul II returned to the Father’s house, what remains most remarkable about his life isn’t its result, but the pilgrimage that formed, strengthened, and saw him called forth to be his era’s leading witness to the world.
Beyond the autobiographical reflections contained in these pages, the testimonies of others reinforce that, in an age that craves authenticity and is perhaps not as hostile to religion itself as lacking evidence of genuine faith, the 264th Successor of Peter was the “real deal.” What he preached before crowds as large as 5 million, he practiced in the “bubble” of his Vatican apartment.
Many stories could illustrate this, but one serves well to sum it all up. In early October 1979, hours into his first visit to the United States, a threat was placed on the Holy Father’s life. It would be two years before the wider world came to see that not even the Pope was immune to an assassin’s bullet, but organizers of the trip scrambled to make emergency plans, which largely entailed confining John Paul in armored cars or behind rows of police, scuttling the open-air walkabouts that would be the only chance for most of the gathered throngs to see him up close.
As he emerged to celebrate a Mass in my hometown of Philadelphia, the Secret Service stood by a waiting car to drive the Holy Father a stone’s throw to the temporary outdoor altar. At the time, it was the largest gathering in the city’s history — over a million people filling the massive boulevard linking City Hall, our cathedral and the art museum, site of the famous “Rocky steps.”
Prodded toward the limo—and well aware of the threat — John Paul looked instead toward the crowd and said, simply, “The Pope will walk.”
And so he walked, causing further panic among the planners by darting from side to side of the asphalt aisle that, for a moment, became Peter’s processional route. If Christ could walk to Calvary, fully knowing what awaited him there, who was his Vicar to do anything else?
Indeed, it was no accident that the homily at his funeral centered on the two simple words of the Lord’s call, not just to the Roman pontiff but to every Christian of every age — “Follow me!”
While even his immediate predecessors were carried on a throne borne on the shoulders of attendants, “The Pope will walk” quickly became the modus operandi of John Paul’s reign. Even though his travels were often mistaken as spectacles to be admired, their true purpose was never to entertain, but to encourage. He undertook 104 foreign trips — enough mileage between them for three trips to the moon — to “walk” to the ends of the earth so that God’s people might feel a bit more confidence and joy in their walk of daily life, the Christian’s mission-field in a challenge-ridden world.
At every turn, the philosopher-pope, whose own experience bore witness to the truth of the Gospel, never failed to employ his sizable arsenal of charisma and conviction to call for humanity’s most powerful tools of change, which tend not just to be the quietest ones, but the ones available to everyone.
Without knowing his story or hearing the emphasis in his voice, one could simply write off John Paul’s teaching as a political message or “tough talk” to the faithful. Over the years, many have aimed to do just that. But peace is no mere slogan when you’ve endured wars; the need to respect life and cherish human dignity hits home when you’ve had friends killed, tortured, and exploited under totalitarianism’s heavy hand; hard labor for little reward gives new meaning to the need for justice — and most of all, extolling the virtues of love, family, and commitment is never a rote act when your own were gone at an early age. As each of these threads ran through his life, so he passed their lessons forward, that the world he left behind might have life, and have it more abundantly.
Yet even this was just part of the puzzle. In his wake, the life and witness of this spectacular figure tends to be compartmentalized: John Paul the poet, the politician, the ecclesiastical governor, the “rock star.” Still, however one tries to piece it together, every last facet of the man was drawn from the same place – John Paul the Christian, the witness, the priest and pastor of souls. Miss that, and you miss everything.
For all his many "divisions," the pope isn't unlike the rest of us — no occupant of the post will ever be perfect, nor able to invest himself everywhere he would like. He, too, has to choose his priorities and emphases, knowing he isn’t eternal and can’t be omnipresent.
And for all that, John Paul chose us — the young people who became his own, the generation he inspired to carry his fearlessness and faith forward. Sure, he loved us. More importantly, he looked to us, called out for us — he believed in us — to walk where he couldn’t and to continue the Lord’s work of being salt and light in this world.
Though today we may take John Paul’s inspiration for granted, we shouldn’t. The notion of a pontiff directly reaching out to a group that wasn’t ordained or professed — and, in many cases, was discouraged or wavering in its adherence to the faith — never won over the Vatican bureaucracy, with its score of departments with “better” ideas to take up the Pope’s time and energy. But this special bond between John Paul II and the youth of the world reflected the pope’s understanding of something deeper: Christ’s charge for Peter to “confirm [his] brothers.” It sprang from the instinctive awareness of an eternal camp chaplain that the young are a “letter of Christ — his calling card.” To invest in us was to sow the seeds of the Church’s future.
As you’ll soon read, the Holy Father once observed that while day’s end means sleep for the old, “the young are always different… for them when the sun goes down, it means the songfest begins.” And now, even as he looks down on us from the window of the Father’s house, the story of John Paul II continues in the many songs he brought to life — every soul he touched; each vocation he inspired; every path to peace, hope, love, responsibility, and belief his witness played a part in building. As he taught us so well, none of these takes place in a vacuum, but in a family of faith — a Church — that can never be its best until we give it the best of ourselves.
He looked for us, and we came to him — and we’re grateful and all the better for it. As we return to his life, here in his own words, may each of us come away renewed and reinspired — not only to continue the mission of Karol Wojtyła, but to offer anew the wholehearted, life-giving yes Christ asks of each of us: the very walk of fearless love our "Pope from Galilee" always and everywhere called us to follow, that never easy but always sweet journey that can renew the face of this earth.
John Paul the Great, thank you, we love you — pray for us!
–Philadelphia, November 1, 2009
63rd anniversary of Karol Wojtyła’s ordination to the priesthood