As someone who was born in 1979, “JP2” was the only pope I had ever known when he died while I was in graduate school studying theology at Boston College in 2005. John Paul II was larger than life: the most published, commented upon, and influential Catholic person of the 20th century, and someone I was privileged to see in person at Mass at St. Mary Majors Basilica in Rome on Jan. 1, 2000. Yet, John Paul II remained a mystery to me. That is until this summer in Poland – then the world, the mind, and the faith of John Paul II suddenly made sense.
The pilgrims from the Archdiocese of Baltimore, whom I was helping to lead, arrived in Warsaw, Poland on the Friday before the official WYD festivities began. We spent the weekend visiting the monastery of St. Maximilian Kolbe, touring Warsaw, and celebrating Sunday Mass at Czestochowa, Poland, which is famous for the Our Lady of Czestochowa icon at the Jasna Gora Monastery.
Very early on Monday morning, we boarded the bus at our hotel in Krakow and headed for Auschwitz. Unimaginable horrors took place on the hallowed ground where we walked. The attempted extermination of an entire race of people had taken place there. The remains of more than a million people, so many of them women, children, and grandparents, haunted us. When we had finished our silent, solemn, prayerful visit we boarded the bus again – shell-shocked –and drove to Wadowice, the hometown of John Paul II. The drive was only 20 miles.
John Paul II, with his favorite scripture passage being, “the truth will set you free” (John 8:32). John Paul II, with his repeated declaration to “Be not afraid.” John Paul II, with his unyielding promotion of the dignity of all human life, without exception – all of it suddenly made perfect sense. To have lived through the horrors of World War II in German-occupied Poland as a young person, to have been less than an hour from the worst crimes against humanity the world had ever known, to have witnessed a political regime that manipulated truth – defined as that which conforms to reality as well as the word and law of God – to mean whatever it saw fit…these things molded JPII’s character, and his mind.
For John Paul these were not abstract concepts. The importance of truth was rooted in the memory of the Nazi propaganda that convinced so many people that Jews, Gypsies, Russians, Slavs, Poles, and so many others were the enemy, were subhuman, and were not worth living. The centrality of bravery and fortitude were rooted in the memory of watching so many give in to the bullies. The insistence on the dignity of the human person was rooted in his childhood friendships with Jewish boys and girls, his friendships with those who had suffered, with those who had been marginalized.
Today this still isn’t about abstractions, though the privileges many of us live with everyday make it easy to seem that way. Truth does exist, and we must use it to govern our relationships with others. Bravery and fortitude are still necessary. The human person, created in the image of our loving God, has inherent dignity – without exception.
Respecting the human dignity is about the living, breathing people who suffer in the world today, who suffer in our country today, who suffer in our families and neighborhoods today. The list of issues facing our world is daunting at times and the temptation to be a “couch potato” is always there, but St. John Paul II didn’t call us to solve all problems, just like Jesus didn’t call on us to solve all problems. John Paul reminded us of Jesus’ challenge to not be afraid. For, when we overcome our fear, speak the truth, and stand up for the dignity of all, we can rest assured that we are following in the footsteps of the one who came to set us free.