St. John Paul II Was a Good Shepherd, Pope Francis Says on Saint’s 100th Birthday


St. John Paul II was a man of deep prayer, who loved being close to people and loved God’s justice and mercy, Pope Francis said.

“Let us pray to him today that he may give all of us—especially shepherds of the Church—but all of us, the grace of prayer, the grace of closeness and the grace of justice-mercy, mercy-justice,” the pope said May 18, the 100th anniversary of the Polish pope’s birth.

Before releasing a written decree later that day, Pope Francis also announced during the Mass that the Oct. 5 liturgical memorial of St. Faustina Kowalska would no longer be optional but would be an obligatory feast day for the whole Church. St. John Paul canonized St. Faustina and promoted her devotion to Divine Mercy.

Pope Francis marked his predecessor’s birthday by celebrating morning Mass at the saint’s tomb in St. Peter’s Basilica.

With just a few dozen people—most of whom were wearing face masks—spread out in the pews, it was the first day after almost two months that Masses were open to the public throughout Italy as part of an easing of restrictions to control the spread of the coronavirus. 

The continuity between St. John Paul II and Pope Francis is rooted in the message of God’s divine mercy for all men and women, retired Pope Benedict XVI said in a letter commemorating his predecessor’s birth.

Throughout his life, St. John Paul sought to spread the message that “God’s mercy is intended for every individual,” Pope Benedict said in a letter to Polish Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz, the former archbishop of Krakow and longtime secretary to St. John Paul II.

“John Paul II is not the moral rigorist” some people have portrayed him as being, the retired pope wrote. Instead, “with the centrality of divine mercy, he gives us the opportunity to accept the moral requirement for man, even if we can never fully meet it.”

The retired pope’s letter, including with an English translation, was released by the Polish bishops’ conference May 15 in anticipation of the centennial anniversary of the birth of St. John Paul.

Written in German, Pope Benedict’s letter recalled his predecessor’s humble beginnings and youth, the death of his mother, brother and father and the difficulties Poland lived through after World War I and, especially, during World War II.

The young Karol Wojtyla, the retired pope said, “not only studied theology in books but also through his experience of the difficult situation that he and his country found themselves in. This is somewhat characteristic of his whole life and work.”

After his election as pope in 1978, Pope Benedict continued, St. John Paul found himself leading a Church that was “in a dramatic situation” in which the deliberations of the Second Vatican Council spilled over “to the public as a dispute over the faith itself.”

Furthermore, Pope Benedict said that the dispute led to a “feeling that nothing was any longer certain,” particularly in the implementation of liturgical reforms, which made it seem “that the liturgy could be created of itself.”

Nevertheless, from the start of his papacy, St. John Paul “aroused new enthusiasm for Christ and His Church,” especially in his words to Catholics during his inaugural Mass: “Do not be afraid! Open, open wide the doors for Christ!”

“This call and tone would characterize his entire pontificate and made him a liberating restorer of the Church,” Pope Benedict wrote. “This was conditioned by the fact that the new pope came from a country where the council’s reception had been positive: one of a joyful renewal of everything rather than an attitude of doubt and uncertainty in all.”

Through his foreign trips and encyclicals, he continued, St. John Paul sought to present the Church’s teaching “in a human way” and always centered on the theme of divine mercy inspired by the message of St. Faustina Kowalska.

The retired pontiff, who served as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith from 1981 until 2005, recalled St. John Paul’s desire to honor St. Faustina’s wish to establish the Second Sunday of Easter as a feast day dedicated to divine mercy.

Pope Benedict said he was “impressed by the humility of this great pope” when the congregation “responded negatively” because the feast would overshadow the “ancient, traditional and meaningful date” that concluded the Octave of Easter.

“It was certainly not easy for the Holy Father to accept our reply,” Pope Benedict said. “Yet, he did so with great humility and accepted our negative response a second time. Finally, he formulated a proposal that left the Second Sunday of Easter in its historical form but included divine mercy in its original message.”

Remembering the Polish pontiff’s death on the eve of the feast of Divine Mercy, Pope Benedict said that “the light of God’s mercy” stood as a comforting message in his final hours. —CNS