I am sure that you have been reading sermons and recollections on the late Holy Father (Rocco Palmo’s, for instance, is here). This is what I wrote several hours after Pope John Paul II died last year. The Archdiocese of Westminster has just posted the text of a beautiful sermon delivered by Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor at a Requiem Mass on April 3; here are some excerpts:
Along with the Polish nation, John Paul witnessed the worst of evils of which human beings are capable: totalitarian oppression, massacres, the desecration of nation and soul. An orphan by the age of 20, the young Wojtyla had also known, in his own family, the most searing experience of bereavement and loss; and he saw his Jewish friends being taken from him to the Holocaust. Deprived, therefore, of what most of us take for granted – security, family, hope and meaning – John Paul II was thrown back, at an early age, on the only resources a human being can ever truly rely on: the irrefutable knowledge that we are divinely created; the unalterable fact that we were created in dignity and for dignity; and the reassurance that God is the Good Shepherd, who walks with us and guides us and heals us, calling us constantly to him. States and powers come and go, and inflict what seem for a time horrendous evils; but in time they pass away, while human culture, and our capacity to love and to serve and to build, live on, like a candle that cannot be extinguished even by the most ferocious winds. That was his experience, and that was his faith. For 26 years, his papacy tenaciously witnessed to the power of that faith: he saw Communism collapse, and western leaders come and go, and when he came to leave this earth, in a long struggle with his failing body, the world gathered round him in a mixture of awe and affection, because they knew that here was a greatness that could only have one source.
Karol Wojtyla wrote an early book called The Acting Person. He was theatrical in the best sense: he understood, as Bishop of Krakow and later as Bishop of Rome, the power of symbols; and he knew that actions speak louder than words. As the world began to close behind defensive walls of fear and religious bigotry, he called the world’s religious leaders together to pray for peace; he prayed at the wailing wall in Jerusalem and inside the mosque at Damascus; he asked for forgiveness for the sins of the Church’s history. Wherever there was fear and mistrust, he sought to bring strength and reassurance and the message of God’s love. He invited people to the mountain, to the feast of rich food and well-aged wines of which the prophet Isaiah speaks; and wherever there was a shroud over humanity he sought to lift it. Whether it was the grinding poverty of economic injustice or the death penalty or war or the denigration of life at the beginning and the end of our existence, he was never afraid to speak out and to challenge received orthodoxies; and nor should we.
Dear friends, our Church is a fragile community which draws people to it when it depends on the graces of prayer, not when it becomes preoccupied with internal questions. Pope John Paul II left the Church stronger because he focussed it on what matters: he wanted to free our energies for building God’s kingdom and for drawing humanity into relationship with Christ. But he was never afraid of argument; and his service of the Gospel through the power of reason is one of his great legacies. Never before has a Pope produced so much food for the Church’s journey, and we shall be digesting his teaching for generations to come.
There is so much that we here today can learn from our late, great Pope. The courage to accept what God has in store for us. The tenacity to preach the Gospel, in season and out of season, wherever we find ourselves. The capacity for keeping our minds and hearts on what is essential. Above all, we can be inspired by John Paul’s remarkable reliance on prayer. He was a man of contemplation as much as action; he knew when to withdraw, to be silent, to offer everything over to Christ. He knew that his strength came from the only strength that is real and lasting in our world, namely the constant love of God. He lived that love in the core of his being and dedicated himself wholly to that love. And now, a year after he left us, it is that love that lives on. We turn to God, therefore, in grateful thanks, for giving us a prophet, an evangelist and a leader for our times. And in grateful memory of Pope John Paul II, we pledge ourselves daily to open wide the doors of our hearts. Christ takes nothing from us, as he was fond of saying, and has everything to give us. Why, therefore, be afraid?