By FATHER PAUL BURKE, Commentary | Published June 2, 2005
Over the past couple of months, Catholics have witnessed extraordinary events in the life of the Church: our beloved Holy Father, “Pope John Paul the Great,” was called home by God to his eternal reward. After his funeral, the cardinals elected Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger as his successor, who became Pope Benedict XVI. And then, on May 13, the announcement came from the Holy Father that the formal process of canonization of Pope John Paul II had begun. These events provide an opportunity to pause and reflect on the messages we have received—on the life of Pope John Paul II (Totus Tuus … “Totally Yours”), the election of Pope Benedict XVI (“Habemus Papam”) and the message of both popes (“Be not afraid”).
At a recent gathering of the priests of Rome in the Basilica of St. John Lateran, Pope Benedict XVI announced that the formal process of canonization of his beloved predecessor, Pope John Paul II, had begun. The announcement was made on the anniversary of the assassination attempt on the Holy Father’s life and the feast of Our Lady of Fatima. The day was providential given the fact that Pope John Paul II had on many occasions said that it was the Blessed Mother who preserved his life on that fateful day. After his recovery, he traveled to Fatima to place one of the bullets into the crown of the statue of Mary as a token of thanksgiving for the great miracle.
In his last book, “Memory and Identity,” the Holy Father recalled that the assassination attempt took place on the very day and hour of the anniversary of the appearance of the Blessed Virgin to the children in Fatima. He wrote, “Again I have become indebted to the Blessed Virgin and to all the patron saints … For, in everything that happened to me on that very day, I felt that extraordinary motherly protection and care, which turned out to be stronger than the deadly bullet.”
On the feast of Our Lady of Fatima, few were surprised by Pope Benedict XVI’s announcement, given the great outpouring of love that was shown at Pope John Paul II’s death. Well over four million people from around the world went to Rome to pay their respects and to attend the funeral.
How vivid were the memories and the sound of applause as the Holy Father’s casket was brought into St. Peter’s Square for the final farewell. The faithful shouted “Santo Subito” (“sainthood fast”). All of us know well that we were privileged to share in the life of a true saint in the witness of Pope John Paul the Great. While there was sadness that our beloved pope was taken to his heavenly reward, there was great joy knowing that his suffering had passed and his yearning ceased.
“Well done, good and faithful servant.”
On the Holy Father’s casket was his simple papal crest with the M for Mary our Mother and his motto Totus Tuus. As Mary did everything for the glory of her Son, Pope John Paul II did the same, and he had entrusted himself and the whole world to her maternal care since the beginning of his papacy.
On Oct. 16, 1978, white smoke seen rising from the chimney of the Sistine Chapel indicated that a new pope had been elected. His name was not well known—Cardinal Karol Wojtyla.
When we got our first glimpse of the Holy Father, we saw a gentle man from a country behind the Iron Curtain. His first words brought great joy to the people of Rome as he told them that he was Polish and that they were to correct him if he made mistakes in speaking Italian. Immediately, he won their hearts and indeed, the hearts of the whole world.
We remember his vigor as he began the travels that would bring him all over the world to preach the Gospel and to champion the rights of the poor and vulnerable. And who could ever forget when we saw communism come to an end in his beloved Poland? It will take volumes to record the legacy of Pope John Paul the Great.
We remember as well his physical suffering, especially in his later years when Parkinson’s disease declared war on his body. While it attacked his body, it could not cripple his spirit. Totus Tuus.
Even in his suffering, he put himself totally at the service of God. He allowed us the privilege of seeing him in his suffering so that he could bring hope to all those who were ill. He preached the greatest sermon—not using a single word—on the sacred dignity of every human person and the mystery of human suffering. Our hearts broke as we saw him suffer, but he did not want our pity. He wanted our prayers, and he wanted our voice to defend human life with every breath of our being.
When Pope John Paul II returned to the Vatican for the last time from the Gemelli Clinic, crowds lined the streets of Rome to welcome him home. Looking back now, he probably knew that this was his last journey. He wanted to return to the See of Peter, to be with his people. Young people came to St. Peter’s Square to pray for the Holy Father and to sing to him, offering him comfort in his suffering.
Archbishop Stanislaw Dziwisz recounted that during these final hours, he told the Holy Father that the young people had gathered in the Square. He wrote: “I looked for you. You came to me. I thank you.”
And then, as these same people were praying the rosary on the eve of the feast of Divine Mercy and the first Saturday of the month of April, the Holy Father was called home to the Lord.
His last word on this earth was a simple “Amen.” Everything had been accomplished. This was the end of a life on earth that was beautifully lived.
While he is no longer with us on this earth, Pope John Paul the Great is still with us because he is with the Lord and the Lord is near. We saw his hand guiding the election of his beloved friend, Pope Benedict XVI, as Supreme Pontiff.
Now we are privileged to witness one of the first acts of the new pope, dispensing with the formal waiting period for the process of canonization. Soon Pope John Paul the Great will be raised to the sacred dignity of the altar as one of the greatest saints of the Catholic Church.
Even before he died, we knew that he was a saint. Totus Tuus.
By giving himself totally to God, he preached the faith, he gave us hope and he showed us love. And now he intercedes for us.
What could be more beautiful than to make his motto our own? Let us say to God each and every day, like Mary and like Pope John Paul the Great, Totus Tuus…totally yours.
Father Paul Burke is the chaplain at Our Lady of Mercy High School in Fairburn.