Over a month and a half ago, when we commemorated the September 11th attacks, it struck me that in the 12 years I’ve been here as the Chaplain and Director of the St. John Henry Newman Center at Montclair State, how much that day has changed for people here. We’ve moved from having students who had vivid memories of that nightmare day of evil unleashed by terrorists to now those who were so young or not even born yet, that it’s just a historic event that people have told them about. They have no real first-hand knowledge or experience of the day. Similarly, today we celebrate Saint Pope John Paul II – who for the majority of my life was the only Pope I knew (he was elected when I was 5 and only died in 2005, when I was 32) -for many of the students here – it’s weird to realize that he is someone they’ve heard about or have seen videos of him. It’s bizarre to me that this man loomed so large in my understanding of being a Catholic and the papacy, for them, he’s so far removed from personal experience.
I could focus on so many different aspects of his life (and have over the years in other homilies and talks) But one that came to mind today is strikingly different. It was images from his last years of his life. His health started to take a turn for the worse from the year 2000 on. You could see it becoming more and more difficult to do the day to day things at different occasions, audiences and at the Sunday Angelus (when the Pope would come to the window to offer his blessing and a short teaching). It was a dramatic change seeing the vibrant, young, charismatic Pope over those decades had grown worn down by illness. Then again, he had survived an assassination attempt in the 1980’s, in later years suffered from Parkinsons and other health issues – not even taking into account the stress of being one of the most-travelled Popes in history at a time of tremendous historic change in the world that the Pope had been a moral voice and teacher not simply to Catholics but the entire world. So it’s not surprising that he wasn’t as spry as he was in 1978.
But one really unfortunate thing that happened as he grew visibly weaker, was the open speculation “would he retire?” People started to speculate what would happen if he became completely incapacitated from his illnesses? The media would run all kinds of bizarre conspiracy theories about the Pope’s condition, what was really going on, and so on. It was disturbing to hear those kinds of things. Because by doing so, those who peddled them made the Pope simply a politician or leader of a global enterprise where those questions would need to be prudently considered. Pope John Paul II though was more than that… and he demonstrated that the Pope is more than that…. Of all the titles and descriptors, the one that resonates the most when thinking of John Paul II is the intimate, personal and accurate Holy Father. He was the one chosen to be the head of a very very large family.
So his refusal to openly talk about retiring, his shutting down discussions of contingency plans in case of his being incapacitated – that wasn’t out of pride, arrogance or an out of control ego. He saw it as an important last lesson this great teacher wanted to teach world. In short – that true love never ends. We saw that in John Paul II true love for Jesus Christ, His Church, the people entrusted to Him. We saw the depth of that love in his reliance on the Lord to continue to work in and through him despite the limitations of health and age. This lesson flew in the face of a world that is obsessed with youth, and all things youthful. This lesson cast a light on how so many abhorred any sign of weakness and pointed out that is what’s messed up because it eventually causes us to either forget we’re not perfect or we hate ourselves because of our imperfections. Pope John Paul II gave life witness to the importance of not being ashamed, or embarrassed or afraid of whatever limitations and weaknesses we have. But to remember Paul’s words to the Philipians “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (Phil 4:13) We could see the spiritual, supernatural power that enabled him to continue to press onward in the face of his physical challenges. This last chapter of his life was just another example of a truth of his entire life – He could accomplish all things by relying solely on Christ.
St. Pope John Paul II once said “We are not the sum of our weaknesses and failures, we are the sum of the Father’s love for us and our real capacity to become the image of His Son Jesus.” – he not only said those words, but demonstrated them. To a world which has in many ways become less authentic and more about facades, we need that reminder and example more than ever.