Last Updated:Friday - 09/24/2010
April 11, 2005
John Paul's legacy lives within us
Pope John Paul II began his pontificate in 1978 with greater energy and dynamism than anyone had ever expected from a pope. It was a time when the Church was divided and the initial enthusiasm from the Second Vatican Council had begun to wane.
In the final years of his pontificate, he was a figure of the suffering Christ, the original physical energy gone, but the spirit still strong. News reports in the final years began a death watch, focusing on the pope's frailty and beginning to look to who his replacement might be.
But if Pope John Paul grew weaker with the passing years, the Church he nourished grew stronger. He called for "a new springtime" for the Church. And while he was in the autumn of life, the buds of new life began to emerge.
The Church is much different than it was in 1978. Some of that is because the world is different. Some also is because the pope made it different.
It was not so much that he was an authoritative leader - although he surely was that - but rather that his deep spirituality and clear commitment to the truths of the Gospel rubbed off on the rest of us.
The pope gave the Polish people the courage to believe that not even a totalitarian government could diminish the power of their faith and their conscience. Their Spirit-filled confidence led to the almost-overnight crumbling of what everyone thought was a mighty empire that would control its people for a very long time.
When others painted Catholicism as a dying religion reserved for people with one foot in the grave, Pope John Paul started World Youth Day. Catholic youth responded and gave the Church a vibrant, enthusiastic present and a hopeful future.
Some thought the decline in the number of priests was irreversible and that the Church of the future would have to rely on "new solutions." Instead, the number of priests in the Third World and Eastern Europe has grown dramatically (as have the Catholic populations in African and Asia) and there are clear signs of the "irreversible trend" being reversed in North America.
The Church's voice on moral and political issues was thought by secularists to be the last gasp of the ancien regime. But through encyclicals, international conferences and extensive travel, the pope showed us that the only real future for humanity lies with a view of the human person as oriented towards God.
Pope John Paul nurtured a strong Catholic identity at a time when many believed our future lay in watering down or ignoring the differences among Christians. At the same time, he brought forth a determined and more realistic ecumenism. He built relations with other faiths and consigned Catholic anti-Semitism to the dustbin of history.
Pope John Paul is dead. But the mighty work he launched is only beginning. He has inspired many, many people to live out the vision he articulated.
This is springtime, not autumn or winter. He was a person so rare in human history that he not only changed the world in his lifetime, but also spurred others to continue changing it for the better long after he has gone.
There will be opposition. We are already hearing voices slamming Pope John Paul and his legacy. In many cases, these voices hold power in society.
The early Church was a time of remarkable growth too. It was also a time of fevered persecution of Christians. Expect nothing different today.
But never forget that Pope John Paul, with the help of the Holy Spirit, launched a new springtime. Catholicism is not a dying faith but the brightest wave of the future. The vigour has returned. We will quietly transform the world with the spirit of the Gospel.
JP2, we love you. Thank you for the gift your life has been.
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