The Pope's direction: the direction of faith
When John Paul II was elected Pope, he was an unknown figure to most
in the Western world. People immediately began to ask questions. "Is he
progressive or conservative?", they wondered, resorting to categories
used at the time to describe the Church. Opinions were divided.
Facing all with 'serene power'
In fact, people soon realized that Karol Wojtyła
was a man from "far away" and from a completely different dimension. His
remoteness was not geographical; it had nothing to do with his Polish
Actually, the Pope came from far away in another sense.
He was rooted in the world of faith and prayer. To those asking about
the direction he would follow in his Pontificate, the Pontiff responded:
"The Pope's direction: the direction of faith".
Those who met John Paul II during early mornings in his Private
Chapel came away with an impression of his strong, deep roots in the
world of faith and prayer.
emerged from this environment calm and ready to meet the most varied
people and situations. Yet, in his life he was never free of problems
We can recall his childhood difficulties in a family visited by
death, as well as the hardships of the Second World War in his own
Homeland under Soviet domination.
And from the time of his Pontificate, who could forget the horrific
attack on his life in 1981?
But through it all, the Pope faced men and women clothed in serene
In his human frailty, during his last years which he lived as an
invalid, John Paul II was strong in the sense that the Apostle Paul
meant when he wrote: "For when I am weak, then I am strong" (II Cor
He never faced the historic events of his Pontificate as a
politician. On the contrary, he often faced them with open, empty hands.
It suffices to think of the epochal confrontation of his life: with
Great emphasis has been placed on the Holy Father's role in
Communism's collapse. It is a story most of which has yet to be written.
The Pope, however, even in the Eastern nations and under many
restrictions, set his Church on a religious plane close to the people
and internally united. This is the "formula" which he proposed to all
Churches in difficulty that he encountered during his long Pontificate.
The Pope has asked the Church to focus on the Gospel and to
communicate the Gospel. He has been the first to do so on every possible
occasion. He loved the response that Peter gave to the lame man at the
Gate of the Beautiful in Jerusalem: "I have no silver or gold, but I
give you what I have; in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk"
Christians truly owe it to the world to communicate the Gospel of
Jesus Christ, which offers people a new approach. This was John Paul
II's crucial conviction and the heart of his pastoral ministry.
Pope of identity or dialogue?
The Holy Father arrived at an alternative position than those who
were scrutinizing his Pontificate and questioning whether he was a Pope
of identity or a Pope of dialogue.
Some feared that John Paul II, with his steadfast faith, might call
Paul VI's openness to dialogue into question. Others, identifying a
crisis in the Church, hoped that he would.
His response to the crisis was a response of faith, that is, of
greater belief, and he plunged further into the depths of spiritual
life. These are the topics on which he preached for more than 25 years.
They are aspects of his life, which he communicated simply and directly
to all who met him.
John Paul II was a Pope of dialogue. The great picture of Assisi in
1986, which portrays him in the city of St Francis among the world's
religious leaders, inviting them to say "no" to war and particularly to
war for religious reasons, was one of the great proofs of his commitment
to dialogue. With him, Catholics and Christians of all traditions,
despite their differences, began to think and feel like a family.
It is only possible here to mention his great attention to Judaism
and the other religious worlds. Yet John Paul II was something more than
a Pope of dialogue: he was a man of encounter, with everyone, without
He was the Pope who visited the most countries of the world and met
the most people. Rather than illustrate here all the "triumphs" of John
Paul II, we attempt to take a look at the "philosophy of encounter" that
marked his entire Pontificate and life.
I have frequently wondered about the Pope's use of his time, ever
since his first steps after his election.
In Rome, he spent a great deal of time meeting young people, doing
small things, listening and offering encouragement. He received so many
people, asking them questions and listening to their answers. He did not
act like a government leader or someone important. He refused to focus
simply on "big business".
Was there a sort of "Papal Populism" that was intended to please and
For John Paul II, a meeting with an individual had immense value. There
was a sense of wonder in him that served to inspire everyone he
encountered. However, the Pope also lived his responsibility as a
"priest", feeling it his duty to offer a word of encouragement and hope
Indeed, Pope Wojtyła
always preferred to encourage, sustain and nurture all that is good and
to overcome evil and perplexity with goodness. This did not mean that
his behaviour was ambiguous or timid; his treatment of others was
definitely full of trust, optimism and encouragement.
The Pope knew the weaknesses of people in the West, the difficulties
of people in the East and the sufferings of people in the South. He
wanted to repeat to them all, personally, the first Message of his
Pontificate, a biblical expression, the words spoken by the Risen Jesus
"Do not be afraid".
Ever the priest, ever the servant
When he became Pope, Karol Wojtyła
never relinquished his roles as Bishop and priest. He never became a
"Sovereign Pontiff"; on the contrary, he appeared to be totally
disinterested in the "sovereign" aspects of his Pontificate.
He was a Bishop through and through, as he showed from his very first
days in the Diocese of Rome by visiting parishes and meeting the people
and priests. And he liked to understand the different communities, their
composition, inclinations and problems. He had a true Pastor's taste for
the Christian "little things" and not only for the "big picture" typical
of many great leaders.
This conditioned the immensely generous management of his time,
independent of any specific plan. Pope Wojtyła
was not an organizer as Paul VI had been; the culture of planning was
alien to him. He simply made himself available to the requests of the
Church, the embrace of the people and "the signs of the times".
The long years of his Pontificate were marked, however, by a profound
inner logic: Pope Wojtyła
appeared to be motivated by a very strong inner coherence and a great
openness to all. Today, his message appears crystal clear, while many
can say that they have an almost personal memory of him and his
His Papacy of more than a quarter century deeply renewed the Church.
Yet John Paul II was not a reformer Pope. In other words, he did not set
out to tackle the problem of changing Church institutions or structures;
indeed, in this field he confirmed the general lines traced by Paul VI.
Nonetheless, he instilled a new spirit in the life of the Church,
changing both her life and that of Christians. His existence and his
Pontificate are contained in a Christian paradox: he was not dedicated
to reforms, yet he introduced profound change.
A deeply spiritual Pope, he saw his actions as having decided effects
in the political arena. A man of firm Christian faith, it was the Pope
who achieved the greatest openings to the non-Christian world.
Faith dwells in weakness
The final Wojtyła, the Wojtyła
of sickness and silence, recalled to us the essential dimension of human
life: faith dwells in weakness.
It is that faith which becomes life, lived as a mission until the
very last breath. It is that faith which gives life value, even when the
body is bent beneath the burden of sickness, when words vanish, when
everything becomes difficult.
For many years, with great and youthful energy, John Paul II taught a
somewhat weary Church the meaning of vitality and faith.
In his last years and
would like to say
in his last days, the Pope demonstrated the value of life stripped of
all its resources. Such a gift is not thrown away, even when strength
and youth have vanished.
In a world now filled with older persons (and one which despises and
rejects the elderly), John Paul II, elderly and ill himself, bore in
silence his final witness to the value of life.
And he continues today to urge us all not to be afraid.