A Shepherd's Message: Blessed John Paul II

May 10, 2011

Pope John Paul II is now Blessed John Paul II. In beatifying this servant of God, the Church has officially commended him as a person of outstanding holiness. We ask for his prayers since he now ranks as one of the named “cloud of witnesses,” whose total number is countless and whose encouragement surrounds us with Christian confidence. Because he was also one of the successors of Saint Peter, his influence is very great and his discipleship is a model for us in following the Lord Jesus in a truly contemporary way.

Pope John Paul II wrote extensively and traveled widely. He seems to have met everyone in the world and his resounding quotation of the Scripture passage, “Be Not Afraid,” has echoed everywhere in the Catholic world and beyond. He certainly encountered the great and influential whom he treated with respect, but never with obsequiousness. More frequently, on journeys, at papal audiences, at World Youth Days, at informal meetings in the hills of Northern Italy on his vacation days, he met everyday people. And it was there that he manifested his special gift, his charism, to see each person as an image and mirror of Christ.

The Christ that he preached was always the humble, crucified Lord of Glory; the Beloved Son who strengthened Peter so that he in turn would strengthen the brethren; the Carpenter Jesus who understood the world of work; the Rabbi Jesus Christ who respected the life of the mind and invited the mindful to see more deeply into the mystery of God; the merciful Son of David who healed and touched the sick with such compassion; the Incarnate Word who took flesh of the Virgin Mary and thus sanctified all human life from conception to natural death; the Son who was absorbed in prayer at length with His Father, His “Abba.”

Perhaps most of all Blessed John Paul II saw and preached Christ who always showers the Divine Mercy on every human being and every human community. His naming of the Second Sunday of Easter as “Divine Mercy Sunday” was his way of allowing the beautiful celebration of the Liturgy that day to be a theme that would embrace all humanity. Christ is already hungering and thirsting for us before we are even aware of it!

From his very first encyclical, Redemptor Hominis, Blessed John Paul was focused on the most fundamental question: the centrality of Christ, the One who gives meaning to history and to each man and woman in history. In Christ becoming man, every human life is touched and graced. This theme will be amplified in all his further writings.

I had a beautiful encounter with Blessed John Paul II in 1998, six months after I was named a bishop and had gone to Rome for my first “ad limina” visit. The Pope was poring over a map of the United States to find the Diocese of Sioux City, Iowa. He recognized how rural the territory was and immediately inquired about how I was dealing “with the young people of the diocese.” Our conversation was very encouraging to me and at the end of the audience, he looked at me squarely and then said: “Remember, it is always about the human person.” I have never forgotten his simple summary words. They spoke to me and my responsibilities and they also revealed his shepherd’s heart and the core of all his papal teaching. We are always about the human person, the person made in the image and likeness of God, the person redeemed by the Son of God and welcomed into the infinite Mercy of God’s surpassing grace and life.

We are blessed in the Church by the beatification of Pope John Paul II. May his model of holiness inspire us to make Christ, Son of the Virgin, the center of our lives. May that, in turn, move us to an ever growing commitment to and defense of the human person.