Pope John Paul II shakes hands with Mehmet Ali Agca at prison in 1983
Image: CNS Photo/L’Osservatore Romano via EPA

Pope John Paul II once described himself as a witness to hope. He was a much beloved one. On May 1, the Sunday after Easter, he will be beatified by Pope Benedict XVI in the presence of an estimated two million people. Billions more may watch the event on television.

The date is hardly coincidental. In 2000, Pope John Paul II designated the Sunday after Easter as the Feast of Divine Mercy when he canonized Sister Faustina Kowalska, to whom he had a great devotion.

Voice of the People

Santo Subito” (“a saint immediately”) read many signs and banners among the 300,000 people present in St. Peter’s Square for Pope John Paul II’s funeral Mass on April 8, 2005. Many of the 500,000 people in the Via della Conciliazione leading into the square and crowded into nearby streets carried similar signs.

So did people watching the funeral Mass on large-screen televisions in Rome’s Circus Maximus, the Colosseum, the Piazza del Popolo, the Piazza Risorgimento, Tor Vergata (where World Youth Day 2000 concluded) and the basilicas of St. John Lateran, St. Mary Major and St. Paul Outside the Walls. And that doesn’t include all the people who, days before the funeral, stood for hours in St. Peter’s Square for a chance to pass by and pray near the pope’s body in St. Peter’s Basilica!

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, soon-to-be Pope Benedict XVI, presided at the funeral Mass. He preached, “We can be sure that our beloved pope is standing today at the window of the Father’s house, that he sees us and blesses us. Yes, bless us, Holy Father. We entrust your dear soul to the Mother of God, your Mother, who guided you each day and who will guide you now to the glory of her Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.”

The crowd’s enthusiastic reaction to those words confirmed what many people around the world felt: They had lost a beloved leader and a staunch defender of every human right.

A Speedy But Thorough Process

Eleven days later, Cardinal Ratzinger was elected pope, took the name Benedict XVI and soon waived the requirement that the “cause” for John Paul II’s beatification could not begin for at least five years. (Pope John Paul II had waived that same requirement for Mother Teresa of Calcutta, whom he beatified in 2003.)

The Vicariate of Rome opened its investigation in June 2005 and concluded it in less than two years. More than 120 people gave testimony about Pope John Paul II’s actions and character. In November 2008, the 2,000-page positio(official document describing the person’s life, virtues and writings) was given to a team appointed by the Congregation for the Causes of Saints. The postulator for this cause has been Msgr. Slawomir Oder, a priest of the Diocese of Chelmno, Poland. He holds doctorates in civil and canon law.

On December 21, 2009, Pope Benedict XVI declared his predecessor “Venerable.” The June 2005 miraculous cure of Sister Marie-Simon-Pierre Normand from Parkinson’s disease (see sidebar on page 29) was reviewed and approved by separate panels of medical doctors, theologians and cardinals. That miracle was formally accepted on January 14, 2011, when the beatification date was announced.

In 2001, Pope John Paul II had ordered that the body of Blessed Pope John XXIII be moved from the Vatican grotto to a spot on the basilica’s main floor. Pope John Paul II was later buried in that empty tomb. After the beatifi cation Mass, Pope John Paul II’s body will be reburied in the Chapel of St. Sebastian (to the left of Michelangelo’s first Pietà).

A Life of Service

Born Karol Wojtyla in Wadowice, Poland, on May 18, 1920, Pope John Paul II was already well acquainted with suffering by the age of 21. Having lost both parents and a brother, young Karol had a promising university career cut short when the Nazis closed his university. He worked at a stone quarry and later at a chemical factory, where he somehow found time to study theology.

Ordained for the Archdiocese of Kraków in 1946, he earned doctorates in theology and philosophy and was a popular chaplain with university students. He taught philosophy at the Catholic University of Lublin before and after being made an auxiliary bishop, always emphasizing the dignity of the human person, made in God’s image. His classes attracted many students.

[Pope John Paul II’s life has been well summarized in several biographies, especially by George Weigel in Witness to Hope (HarperCollins) and The End and the Beginning: Pope John Paul II—The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy (Doubleday).]

Communism collapsed in Central and Eastern Europe during John Paul II’s papacy; many credit him with playing a key role in its demise.

The clergy sexual-abuse scandal also began to be acknowledged and dealt with more effectively during his years as pope. “The abuse which has caused this crisis,” Pope John Paul II said in 2002, “is by every standard wrong and rightly considered a crime by society; it is also an appalling sin in the eyes of God. To the victims and their families, wherever they may be, I express my profound sense of solidarity and concern.” There would be many more similar statements to come.

Pope John Paul II’s apostolic visits to 130 countries made him the most well-known person of the late 20th century. At the Vatican and elsewhere, he met with world leaders and helped ease international tensions in several places, especially over islands claimed by both Argentina and Chile. This writer was present on the Via della Conciliazione when a motorcade brought President Mikhail Gorbachev to meet the pope on December 1, 1989, less than a month after the Berlin Wall fell. People around the world knew that history was being made through that visit.

Between 1979 and 2005, the State of Israel and 86 other countries established diplomatic relations with the Holy See for the first time. Pope John Paul II met with leaders of Christian Churches and denominations, as well as with leaders of world religions. On October 27, 1986, many of them gathered in Assisi to pray in one another’s presence for world peace. Although not all the cardinals approved of this meeting, it captured the attention of millions of people around the world.

Not Without Controversy

For several decades, Pope John Paul II supported Father Marcial Maciel Degollado (1920-2008), who founded the Legionaries of Christ and its lay affiliate, Regnum Christi. Maciel had long been a controversial figure, publicly accused several times of sexually abusing seminarians. Some people interpreted this as an indication that the pope did not consider clergy sexual abuse of minors seriously enough.

(Late in 2005, Maciel stepped down as head of the Legionaries; the following year Pope Benedict XVI removed him from active ministry, inviting him to a life of prayer and penance. In 2009 it was revealed that Maciel had fathered several children by different women in Spain and Mexico.)

As Pope John Paul II himself once pointed out, a beatification or canonization is not an affirmation of every decision that this person made. In his homily for the beatification of Popes Pius IX and John XXIII on September 3, 2000, Pope John Paul II named all five men to be beatified that day and continued: “It is precisely their holiness that we recognize today: holiness that is a profound and transforming relationship with God, built up and lived in the daily effort to fulfill his will.”

The pope went on to say: “Holiness lives in history, and no saint has escaped the limits and conditioning which are part of our human nature. In beatifying one of her sons, the Church does not celebrate the specific historical decisions he may have made, but rather points to him as someone to be imitated and venerated because of his virtues, in praise of the divine grace which shines resplendently in him.”

Others have wondered why this cause has moved so quickly while the causes of Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador and other holy women and men have moved so slowly. Wasn’t the death of Archbishop Romero as much a martyrdom as the murder of Blessed Jerzy Popieluszko, a Polish priest who supported the Solidarity movement and who was beatified in 2010? Was one murder more “political” than the other?

In light of questions about the speedy beatification of Pope John Paul II, a line from his Last Will and Testament is appropriate. On March 6, 1979, he wrote: “I thank everyone. Of everyone I ask forgiveness I also ask for prayer, that the mercy of God may appear greater than my weakness and unworthiness.”

Pointing Us to God

In 1984 when he was in relatively good health, Pope John Paul II wrote in the apostolic exhortation Salvific Suffering that love “is the fullest source of the answer to the question of the meaning of suffering.” The way in which he bore his Parkinson’s disease and other illnesses showed love in action.

George Weigel has written: “The young have very good instincts for hypocrisy and respond accordingly; and it was manifestly clear at World Youth Days and in other venues that John Paul II did not ask of his young followers anything that he had not asked of himself. The integrity of his own life—particularly his ability to live through suffering without becoming embittered and cynical—was immensely attractive across the spectrum of the world’s youth” (The End and the Beginning).

During six and a half years of service at the international headquarters in Rome of the Order of Friars Minor, this writer saw that integrity in action during several general audiences, at Masses inside and outside St. Peter’s Basilica, at the 1986 Day of Prayer for World Peace and at the always well-attended Good Friday Way of the Cross service at Rome’s Colosseum.

Not all the cardinals approved of his call for the “purification of memory” during the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000 and his Day of Pardon (March 12, 2000).

In The New York Times on October 11, 2003, commentator David Brooks wrote, “When history looks back on our era, Pope John Paul II will be recognized as the giant of the age, as the one individual who did the most to place…freedom at the service of the highest human goals.”

Back in 2004, during his last canonization ceremony, Pope John Paul II talked about sainthood: “True peace is the fruit of Christ’s victory over the power of evil, sin and death. Those who follow him faithfully become witnesses and builders of his peace.”

He then articulated his vision of why the Church formally recognizes saints: “The earthly events of these six new saints spur us to persevere on our own journey….From heaven, may they now watch over us and support us with their powerful intercession.”

A Global Icon

Dennis Doyle, professor of religious studies at the University of Dayton, recently talked with St. Anthony Messenger about the impact of John Paul II: “We live in a world where icons are very important,” says Dr. Doyle. “Pope John Paul II is a global icon recognized by virtually everyone for his courage and holiness.”

As a conservative interpreter of Vatican II, John Paul “embodied a Church confident of the gifts that it has received from the Lord,” says Doyle. But that confidence didn’t mean closedmindedness: “He engaged in actions that lived out an unprecedented outreach to other Christians and other faiths.”

Many people—Christians, those of other faiths and even those who don’t identify themselves as religious—would put it this way: Pope John Paul II made them better people.

Sister Marie-Simon-Pierre Normand: Cured of Parkinson’s

On January 14, 2011, Catholic News Service reported that the Holy See accepted as miraculous the 2005 cure of Sister Marie-Simon-Pierre Normand, a French member of the Little Sisters of the Catholic Motherhood. In 2001 at the age of 40, she was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. Because she saw the effects of Parkinson’s on Pope John Paul II, she says, “I saw myself in the years to come.”

When her condition worsened after the pope’s death, members of her community in France and Senegal began praying for her cure through his intercession. When she went to bed on June 2, 2005, she was “struggling to write, to walk and to function normally.”

The next morning she felt “completely different” when she woke up. “I was sure that I was cured,” she said at a 2007 press conference in Aix-en-Provence, where the healing occurred. Archbishop Claude Feidt conducted the local investigation and delivered its records to the Congregation for the Causes of Saints.

Soon Sister Marie-Simon-Pierre could return to work at her community’s maternity hospital in Paris. When the accuracy of the original diagnosis was challenged, medical experts reviewed the records and confirmed that diagnosis. The cure was determined to be miraculous.

I never met Pope John Paul II, never was able to attend any of the World Youth Day events at which he reached out to young people from all over the world (granted, I was three years old at the time he initiated the first WYD in 1985!), didn’t see any papal visits, wasn’t among the faithful who gathered in St. Peter’s Square when he died.

But I was so happy when I first learned of this month’s beatification of John Paul II! I largely credit the reawakening of my Catholic faith during college to this phenomenal pope—the one we call “JPII.”

One of the things that stuck with me about JPII was his intense love of the Blessed Mother—“The Mother of my Master,” as he has referred to her. I remember reading that, when then-Karol Wojtyla’s earthly mother died, he trustingly told Mary, “You will be my mother now.” Years later, when the pope was shot in St. Peter’s Square, he uttered, “O Mary, my mother!” after one of the bullets pierced his stomach. (He later credited the intercession of Our Lady of Fatima for saving his life.)

The beautiful and trusting way in which he clung to Mary helped me grow in my own personal appreciation of her. That appreciation has developed into love and devotion. I now turn to Our Lady with a childlike love, trust and reverence that I don’t believe would be possible if it weren’t for JPII’s example.

When reading the story of his life, I was moved by how even young Karol Wojtyla dealt with the tragedies he faced, namely, the death of family members, war and Nazi oppression. Hardships and suffering that might have caused some people to abandon their faith only served as a means to strengthen his.

As Pope Benedict XVI pointed out, the suffering JPII experienced throughout his entire life (particularly his struggle with Parkinson’s disease up to his death) became an “offering to Christ” instead of a catalyst for turning away from God.

Thank you, JPII. You led by example—an example which helped ignite a fire in the heart of a once-lukewarm Catholic. Santo Subito!—Lindsey Simmons is the publicity, social and digital media manager for St. Anthony Messenger Press. She graduated in 2005 with a degree in public relations and a minor in marketing from Georgia Southern University.