On October 22, 2016 the Church celebrates the feast of Saint John Paul II: October 22 (1978) was the day of his papal inauguration. The Polish Pope was proclaimed a Saint by Pope Francis on April 27, 2014. Earlier, Pope Benedict XVI proclaimed him Blessed on May I, 2011. Karol Josef Wojtyla – the future Pope – was born in Wadowice, Poland, on May 18, 1920.

I had the great luck of meeting John Paul II personally a few times. The first time I met him was on September 5, 1980 in Castel Gandolfo. Together with twenty eight priests and eight bishops, I had the great luck of concelebrating at the Eucharist presided over by the Holy Father. What impressed me most then was the contemplative attitude of the Holy Father through the Mass:  totally absorbed, following carefully the rhythm of the Mass, pronouncing each word (in Latin) slowly and distinctly, making strategic pauses of silence.

Throughout his 26 years as successor of Saint Peter the (he is the 264th successor), John Paul II showed the primary place of prayer in his life. Some authors today consider him a modern mystic. It is said that he made decisions on his knees. Monsignor Slawomir, the postulator of the Pontiff’s cause of beatification, was asked: What aspect of the Pope’s life particularly struck you? He answered: He was certainly a mystic, “a mystic in the sense that he  was a man who lived in the presence of God, who let himself be guided by the Holy Spirit, who was in constant dialogue with the Lord, who built his whole life around the question (asked by Jesus to Peter), ‘Do you love me’.” A close collaborator of the Pope said on April 30, 2011: “To see him pray was to see a person who was in conversation with God.”

I remember with special fondness the third time I met him personally. (The second time I met him took place during his first visit to the University of Santo Tomas, Manila in February 1981; in this visit, he beatified Lorenzo Ruiz and Companions Martyrs – now saints – at the Luneta Park, Manila) It was during the World Youth Day in Manila (January 1995), where the Holy Father had the greatest audience ever – until then: more than four million people attended the Pope’s final Mass. (One Hong Kong newspaper wrote that on that occasion the multitude became a megatude). Pope John Paul II celebrated Mass in the University of Santo Tomas with the youth delegates – 245 from all over the world – to the 5th International Youth Forum. This time after the Mass he greeted one by one the students and some others who had the great luck of attending the Mass. While the Holy Father greeted the youth he embraced them – and also some others not so young including me. While he embraced me I could hardly tell him, “Holy Father I have read your lovely book Crossing the Threshold of Hope.” He looked at me intensely and kindly, and told me “Bene, bene.” I was deeply touched! I remember the words of TIME when the magazine named the Pope Man of the Year (1994): “He generates electricity unmatched by anyone else in the world.”

The last time I met the John Paul II was on February 21, 2004 at the Sala Clementina in the Vatican in the company of about a hundred and fifty people, most of us members of the Pontifical Academy for Life. By that time, he was already sickly, with his Parkinson developing slowly. He could not walk anymore and it was hard to understand his speech. But even then, and against the advice of some of his assistants, Pope John Paul II greeted us – about 130 people – one by one: we knelt before him and kissed his ring; he blessed us and smiled.  Many writers on John Paul II underline this characteristic of the late Pope: he was concerned with the person, with each person, each one creature and image of God. This is one of the reason he touched the hearts of so many people throughout the world: the young, the children, the old, men and women from other religions and cultures…

In his first Encyclical Redemptor Hominis, Redeemer of the World (1979), issued a few months after his election, Pope John Paul II explains that man is the road of the Church and Christ is the road of man: Jesus Christ as the Son of God and the Son Mary, the primordial foundation of Christian morality, the Way, the Truth and the Life. John Paul II was missionary of the world: he visited about 130 countries during his papacy. He was from Poland but, indeed, the world was his parish. The well-known Catholic convert André Fossard once said: “This is not a Pope from Poland, but a Pope from Galilee.”

St. John Paul II knew Jesus deeply, loved him intimately and followed him unconditionally up to the end. He was a great devotee of Mary the Mother of Jesus and her faithful servant: totus tuus, all yours! The Polish Pope believed that it was mainly the Virgin Mary the one who saved him after being shot and gravely wounded in St. Peter’s Square precisely on May 13 (1991), the Feast of Our Lady of Fatima.  In his lovely Apostolic Letter on “the most holy Rosary,” Rosarium Virginis Mariae (2002), Pope John Paul II writes that Mary is the best teacher on Jesus. In union with Mary, we “learn” Jesus: we learn “to read Christ, to uncover his secrets and to understand his message.”

October of every year – the month of the Holy Rosary – will remind us of St. John Paul II’s holy life, of his total dedication to Christ, Mary and the Church, of his fundamental writings and teachings. In particular one recalls his teachings on human life found especially in his Encyclical (he wrote fourteen encyclicals) Evangelium Vitae,” or The Gospel of Life (1995), the first encyclical on bioethics, where he repeats one of his constant mottos: “Human life must be defended from the moment of conception to natural death.”  I also treasure his radical and creative social teachings found in his three social encyclicals and many addresses and exhortations. It is worth noting here that John Paul II, a remarkable worker since he was a youth, was beatified on May 1, the day of labor. He wrote a pace-setting social encyclical on human work, Laborem Exercens (1981): “Capital is for labor; work is for man.”  From the social teachings, I consider this point most innovative: heretic is not only the believer who does not accept or distorts an article of the Creed, but also one who does not share something with the poor and weak of the world. (Apostolic Letter Novo Millennio Ineunte, 2001)

I love to underline his substantial teachings on freedom and truth (in his basic encyclical Veritatis Splendor, The Splendor of Truth, 1994): “Freedom is not freedom from the truth but freedom in the truth”; on justice and love: “love is the soul of justice”; on peace and democracy (as it is well known, the late Pope contributed immensely to the collapse of European communism in 1989). Just before the war of Iraq he shouted from the famous papal balcony in the Vatican: “No to war. War doesn’t resolve anything. I have seen war. I know what war is.” The Pope words on justice and forgiveness (after the incredible terrorist attacks against the Twin Towers in New York on September 11, 2001) ring frequently in my ears: “No peace without justice, no justice without forgiveness.”

As a consecrated person I appreciate John Paul II Vita Consecrata (1996), his important Apostolic Exhortation in which he invites religious men and women to be holy, that is prayerful and compassionate: to go up to the mountain of prayer and to come down to the market-place of the world and witness their passion for God and compassion for humanity.

I remember that once, somewhere in 2004, I discussed with a Dominican brother from the States the possibility that John Paul II might resign as Pope. Later on I read somewhere that someone asked John Paul II: “Will Your Holiness resign.” The Pope answered him marvelously: “I cannot, because Jesus did not go down from the cross.” On February 21-23, 2005, the members of the Pontifical Academy for Life could not have an audience with the Holy Father. By then John Paul II was gravely ill. He would die one month and a half later, on April 2, 2005, after giving his most moving and last speech to the world:  his patient, compassionate, dignified, exemplary way of dying and facing death. Before dying, when thousands of young people were camping near the Vatican and praying for the Pope, he said to his assistants: “Tell the young, I love them.” We are told that his last words – almost inaudible – were: “Let me go… Let me go to the house of the Father.” I remember the Pope had said at the beginning of his pontificate, then with his booming voice: “Our life is a pilgrimage to the house of the Father.” He is in the house of the Father! I am sure he remembers us singing in Manila, in New York, in London, in Rome: “John Paul II, we love you!” Now we petition him: Saint John Paul II, pray for us!

(Published by O Clarim, October 21, 2016)