“I plead with you! Never, ever give up on hope, never doubt, never tire, and never become discouraged. Be not afraid.” Today we celebrate the memorial of St. John Paul II, one of the most influential men of our times. He has impacted millions of lives and brought about a New Evangelization in the Church. Young people across the world have come to Christ from the witness of St. John Paul II. I am thankful to be one of them.
Although I was only 11 years old when St. John Paul II died, it was after his death that his life had such a great impact on me. While in college I studied theology. Many of my courses were based on the teachings of St. John Paul II, the most life-changing course being on John Paul II’s Theology of the Body. I was also blessed to study abroad in Europe for a semester. I made a pilgrimage to Poland and visited the cities of Wadowice, where John Paul was born and raised, and Krakow, where he studied, was ordained a priest and bishop, and later appointed cardinal. As I walked his streets and heard about his life, I began to realize what an impact he has had not only on the Church, but in the world.
I studied with young people from former communist countries. They were able to study Catholic theology in freedom, and they knew it was because of St. John Paul II. After the sudden fall of communism, St. John Paul II said in January 1990, “The irresistible thirst for freedom … brought down walls and opened doors.” This freedom was made possible, he said, because “women, young people and men have overcome their fear.”
Be not afraid. This refrain echoed through the decades of the great saint’s papacy and continues to be heard and felt in the hearts of people today. I saw this firsthand when I made a pilgrimage to World Youth Day in Krakow, Poland, this summer.
Saint John Paul II began World Youth Day in 1984, when he called for an “International Jubilee of Youth.” In all, 300,000 young people came together in Rome for that day. Since then there have been a total of 14 World Youth Days held all over the world. John Paul knew that the world had a largely untapped resource: the hearts of young people. He knew that if young people were set ablaze with the fire of God’s love, if they had no fear, the world would be made new. The Gospel would be preached to the nations. The culture of life would conquer the culture of death. The light would shine in the darkness.
World Youth Day transformed my whole life. My heart was changed. I was given hope for the future. I looked across a field of 3 million young people from all over the world, from countries who claim to be enemies. Yet, here we were in love, peace, joy, and prayer. I met young Catholics from war-torn countries who don’t know if by going to Church on Sunday if they will be killed. Yet, they hear St. John Paul’s words in their heart: “Be not afraid.”
It was also at this year’s World Youth Day in Krakow, during the extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy, that by Divine Providence, the direct connection was clearly made between St. John Paul II, St. Faustina, and the message of Divine Mercy. I would be so bold as to say that it is precisely because of St. John Paul II that the message of Divine Mercy is so widespread today. Before even becoming pope, he was the one who requested the retranslation of St. Faustina’s Diary after it had been put on a temporary ban. It was this retranslation that led to the approval of the message of Divine Mercy. Furthermore, he not only beatified and canonized St. Faustina, he also wrote an encyclical on the Mercy of God (Dives in Misericorida), instituted the Feast of Divine Mercy Sunday for the universal Church, and died on the Vigil of Divine Mercy Sunday in 2005.
Yes, Pope St. John Paul II is the great mercy pope. He has inspired people of many generations, and many more to come. He helped bring about the fall of communism. He gave much to the Church by writing extensively on all matters of faith and morals. His voice continues to echo throughout time – “Be not afraid. Open wide the doors to Christ.”