Pope John Paul II was the Bishop of Rome for 27 dramatic years. Elected to the Chair of St. Peter in 1978 at the age of 58, he served the Church as the Holy Pontiff until his death in 2005. During a post-Conciliar period that coincided with dramatic cultural upheaval, Pope John Paul II was given the reins of a Church that was suffering through a crisis of confidence and confusion about its identity and role in the modern world in the wake of the Second Vatican Council. With his message of “Do not be afraid,” the Polish Pope exhorted Catholics around the world to accept the great invitation of the Lord Jesus to be saints. His message resonated in a particular way with young people. He knew that young people are filled with enthusiasm and simply need to be given direction and encouragement to embrace the noble life for which they were made. The supreme confidence with which John Paul II preached and lived the Gospel of Jesus Christ was highly attractive to the young, who came to him in droves, wanting to imitate his obvious heroism.
St. John Paul II’s great contribution to the magisterial teaching of the Church is often referred to as “Theology of the Body.” Through it he shared with the world his insights into the significance of human action. Central to our identity as human persons is the fact that not just have bodies, but that we are bodies. We are ensouled bodies; we are embodied souls. When we forget that, we can mistake our bodies for dumb matter, subject to our willful manipulation like potter’s clay. When we deny the centrality of our bodies to who we are, we can even see our bodies (and the bodies of others) as an obstacle to self-fulfillment, an intolerable limitation to our freedom to be what we want to be and to do what we want to do. But Pope John Paul II reminded us that the body is the place of encounter and revelation. We encounter others through the body and reveal ourselves through the body. Thus, our bodies are not incidental to our identity, but intrinsic to who we are. This has great significance for human action, because it means that our actions have meaning, that they affect the world around us while also affecting us within.
That human actions have significance is revealed most fully in Christ Jesus. As the Second Vatican Council reminds us: “Christ fully reveals man to himself, making his supreme calling clear” (Gaudium et Spes, 22). If the body is entirely distinct from who we are – if it’s nothing but dumb matter – then the Son of God’s Incarnation loses its significance. Christ on the cross is meaningless. The bodily resurrection of Christ, and His ascension into Heaven, makes no sense. The Eucharist is nothing. Pope John Paul II offered to the world the message of the One who came to reveal to us that life is not absurd, that it is shot-through with meaning when lived in its fullness with Christ Jesus.
St. John Paul II heroically testified to the significance of human action through his passionate love for nature and sports, his courageous resistance to the totalitarian Communist regime in Poland, his joyful commitment to the beauty of the Church’s teaching on marriage and family life, and his willingness to allow the world watch him as he grew old and sick. On this last point, he was convinced that the suffering he experienced through his illness was not meaningless, but an invitation to participate in the work of Christ’s redemption of the world – like everything else.
The pontificate of John Paul II was a great gift to the Church, both during his reign from 1978-2005 and today, when we need to hear those words of encouragement more than ever: “Do not be afraid.”
Click the following link to see St. John Paul II speak to a gathering of young people during his visit to Los Angeles in September 1987: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pO5cpLK8eIY