One of the longest-reigning Popes in history, the first since St Peter to preach in a synagogue, a man who survived two attempts on his life – as we mark the centenary of the birth of St John Paul, we can pause to note his remarkable contribution to history.
Even in the early years of his pontificate, it was clear that something quite extraordinary was happening. The first attempt on his life was in St Peter’s Square in 1981, on the Feast of Our Lady of Fatima, less than three years after his election. Shot by a hired gunman at close range, John Paul was heard to murmur as he fell: “Mary, my mother…”. Today, that prayer of appeal is commemorated in an icon placed up on the high wall of the Vatican where his gaze was directed. The site of the attempted assassination is marked by a marble slab in the Square itself.
It was the feast of Our Lady of Fatima, and exactly a year later, a priest from a schismatic group went to Fatima where John Paul was celebrating a Mass of thanksgiving, and attempted to kill him by stabbing.
John Paul believed Our Lady of Fatima had saved his life. He reflected deeply on the meaning of Fatima: above all, the need for prayer and penance; but also the hope for the triumph of the Immaculate Heart, and the “Fatima prayer” which, taught to the world by the three children who received those visions at Fatima, is now a familiar part of the Rosary: “O my Jesus, forgive us our sins, save us from the fires of Hell. Lead all souls to Heaven, especially those most in need of thy mercy.”
That message was reinforced by another series of visions in the 20th century – Christ’s apparitions to St Faustina Kowalska. This message of the Divine Mercy became known across post-war Poland and in due course was investigated by the Church and finally approved. Pope John Paul made this message of mercy the subject of his first encyclical, Redemptor Hominis.
The visit to Fatima was typical of John Paul, a missionary Pope who travelled the world to preach the Gospel: World Youth Day, vast pilgrimages to Lourdes and Fatima, unforgettable visits to his Polish homeland, and – important for us here – that historic moment when he became the first Pope to set foot on British soil.
In the decade and a half that has passed since his death, most people have probably chiefly thought of St John Paul as the Pope who brought about the fall of Communism. Probably that will be the way he is most remembered over the next couple of decades too. But perhaps in the longer term, it will be his remarkable Theology of the Body that most engages us. In the sexual revolution that swept across the West in the 1960s, many in the Church were caught off-guard. Sexual morality had for too long been taught as a set of rules: as one devout and well-intentioned Catholic put it to me, “It’s simple: if you belong to a club, you obey its rules”. But the Church is not a club, and this is not just about rules, but about God’s plan for the human race.
John Paul taught – and still teaches, through his writings and through the worldwide organisations and movements that today continue the message – that God’s creation of us as male and female is of huge importance and holds a richer meaning that we had perhaps previously understood. The story of salvation is about the Bridegroom and the Bride: God and Israel, Christ and his Church. In the past decade we have seen much confusion over “gender identity” and attempts to promote the notion that the two sexes are interchangeable. The Church offers not just truth, but healing for our wounded culture.
There are other major aspects of St John Paul’s ministry as successor of St Peter. Only when I received horrible rants against Jews from groups claiming to be Catholic did I realise how vital and important was St John Paul’s opening to the Jewish community. That gathering in the Rome synagogue, and the warm embrace with Rome’s Chief Rabbi, began a reconnection that was taken further on his visit to Israel and, especially, through the work of his successors, is opening up new chapters as the years go by. In this, we can sense the heartbeat of history – real history, as God’s purposes are worked out with humility and courage.
Thank God for St John Paul. Thank God for his vision, for his faith in the face of the terrible tragedies of his childhood and youth – the deaths of his mother and his brother while he was still a child, the invasion of his country and the dashing of its post-war hopes – and for his courage and his honesty. Thank God, too, for his intellectual gifts, and the way he put these at the service of the Church and humanity. On this 100th anniversary, Pope Francis will celebrate a Mass of thanksgiving for this great hero and saint – and the Church across the world echoes his prayers with a great Amen.