There are many reasons that the long pontificate of St. John Paul II—from his election in 1978 to his death in 2005—was an exceptional period for the Church.
He was, of course, a pope of many firsts and record-shattering events.
As a native of Poland and Archbishop of Krakow at the time of his election, he became the first non-Italian pope in more than 450 years.
Active and energetic, he still holds the title as the most traveled pope in history, visiting 129 countries around the world. His magnetic personality and presence brought a visibility to the Church and its message in a way rarely before seen in modern times.
He was the first pope to pray at Jerusalem’s Wailing Wall, one of Judaism’s most sacred sites, and the first pope to visit and pray in an Islamic mosque.
New York was one of his first stops in his early years as pope. We gave him a tumultuous welcome in 1979, a visit that included stops in then-struggling communities of Harlem and the South Bronx along with major public events including a Mass in Yankee Stadium.
On his next visit to the archdiocese, in 1995, an outdoor Mass in Central Park with the Manhattan skyline providing a dramatic backdrop drew an enthusiastic crowd of 125,000, who welcomed him with the chant “John Paul II, we love you!”
We could go on, for his record of accomplishments is impressive. His role, for instance, in adding to the communion of saints is unmatched. He canonized 483 people, more than all of his predecessors in the previous five centuries combined.
But as the Catholic world marked the 100th anniversary of his birth May 18, we want to remember John Paul II as the beloved leader who showed a generation of Catholics what it means to be proud of their faith and unafraid to proclaim it widely.
“Be not afraid,” he said in his Inauguration Mass homily, using words that came to define his pontificate.
“Welcome Christ and accept his power…to serve the human person and the whole of mankind.”
Those words were perhaps most prophetic applied to his cherished homeland, Poland. Ruled for decades by an oppressive communist regime, the people of that majority Catholic country were inspired and enthralled by the fearless spiritual leadership of the new pope. Visiting the Polish capital of Warsaw a year into his pontificate, he prayed, “Let your spirit descend and change the image of the land.”
Historians agree that the Warsaw visit was the catalyst for the growth of the Solidarity movement in Poland that brought down communism there and inspired similar movements throughout Eastern Europe.
All Catholics, it seemed, were inspired by this larger-than-life pope, a pope who was not afraid to draw clear distinctions between what he saw as God’s vision of a “culture of life” and the world’s practice of what he called a “culture of death.”
In that regard, he was outspoken against the growing scourge of abortion and widespread racism around the globe, and was a forceful opponent of capital punishment and war.
One of the most fervent messengers of those teachings was our own Cardinal John O’Connor, whose own centennial of birth we also marked this year. The late cardinal, appointed by John Paul II in 1984, enjoyed a warm relationship with the pope throughout his time as New York’s archbishop.
Although the charismatic pope had many admirers in the Church and the general public, young people were particularly drawn to him, and he seemed even more energized in their presence.
At a rally for young people at Madison Square Garden during his 1979 pastoral visit, the excited crowd cheered the pope and presented him with such non-papal gifts as blue jeans and a guitar.
The World Youth Day events that he led every two years consistently drew hundreds of thousands of mostly young people to various locations around the world. One of them, in 1995 in Manila, the Philippines, is said to have attracted up to 4 million people.
Pope John Paul II died on April 2, 2005, after several years of failing health. His last words, in Polish, were said to be, “Allow me to depart to the house of the father.”
He was canonized on April 27, 2014, and is now St. John Paul II.
As we mark his centennial, we’re thankful for what he’s given to the Church and the world, and that his intercession is there for us always.