Rome — Two hours before the Mass of beatification for Pope John Paul II began on May 1, I looked up from our NBC platform near the Castel Sant’Angelo and saw a solid mass of humanity stretching in every direction: all the way up the length of the Via della Conciliazione to St. Peter’s; across the Tiber bridges and along the Lungotevere; around Hadrian’s tomb; spilling out past the Piazza Risorgimento. And the thought occurred: “There are a million people here who not only think this beatification wasn’t a ‘rush job’; they think it couldn’t have happened fast enough.” The voice of the Church’s people, which had been acclaiming John Paul’s heroic virtue since those cries of Santo subito! erupted at the end of his funeral Mass on April 8, 2005, was the voice of truth in all of this; those tiny, carping noises from the likes of Maureen Dowd, Hans Küng, and Richard McBrien had resonance only because they bounced around for a few days inside the world-media echo chamber.
The global Catholic family had gathered around John Paul II once again, as it had six years and 23 days before. Then, the task was to send him to his reward. Now, in a certain way, the task was to welcome him back and thank God for the gifts that had come to the world through his prayers for us at the Throne of Grace.
A QUESTION OF IMAGES
Four and a half weeks before Rome (in its semi-chaotic way) welcomed 1.5 million pilgrims determined to share in the largest beatification ceremony in history, I visited the Postulator of John Paul II’s cause, Msgr. Slawomir Oder, in his small office at the Vicariate of Rome, next door to the Basilica of St. John Lateran. Monsignor Oder, a Polish canon lawyer, had become a friend of mine over the past several years, and we were going to lunch together. After catching up a bit, he said he wanted to ask my opinion of something and showed me three photos. One of them would be selected as the pattern for the tapestry portrait of Blessed John Paul II that would be unveiled on the loggia of St. Peter’s just after Pope Benedict XVI pronounced the words of beatification. “Which would you choose?” Msgr. Oder asked.
I thought two of the pictures, from the pope’s last years, were inappropriate, being neither good photography nor very compelling. But the third, taken in 1989 by the Polish photographer Grzegorz Gałązka, was perfect: The pope had that characteristic slightly impish twinkle in his eye; his white zucchetto was a bit off-center, in a typical expression of his utter indifference to ecclesiastical finery; he showed some of the wear and tear of what was, at that point, an eleven-year-old pontificate that had changed the world and the Church decisively, but the ravages of Parkinson’s disease were still a few years in the future. It was him as I certainly wanted to remember him. So I said to Msgr. Oder, “I think this one.”
Oder smiled and said, “Good. That’s the one I’ve been pushing for, too,” evidently against some resistance from other quarters.
And that was indeed the image that was unveiled from the loggia where John Paul II had presented himself urbi et orbi, to the city and the world, on the night of his election, October 16, 1978. I don’t know whether my “vote” had any effect — it almost certainly didn’t — but the thunderous response from the hundreds of thousands who could see the tapestry suggested that this was what they, too, would have chosen: John Paul II at the top of his game, vibrantly alive, a wonderful human being who gave others courage because his courage came from the far side of Calvary. And I thought of the comment of the late André Frossard, a French writer who, having converted to Catholicism from the fashionable agnosticism of his class, had become a friend and interlocutor of John Paul II. Shortly after John Paul’s election, Frossard wired back to the Paris newspaper for which he was writing, “This isn’t a pope from Poland; this is a pope from Galilee.”
A TALE OF TWO WOMEN
The unveiling of the portrait — which seemed to bring John Paul back to us, somehow — was one emotional apogee of the three-hour beatification ceremony. The other came immediately afterward, when two women brought a relic of the new beatus, a vial of his blood in a silver reliquary, up to Pope Benedict for him to venerate. One was Sister Marie Simon-Pierre, a French nun from a pro-life order that serves women and newborns in crisis pregnancy and maternity situations; her inexplicable cure from Parkinson’s disease had been accepted by the Church, after review by a panel of doctors, as the miracle that confirmed John Paul II’s heroic virtue. The other was Sister Tobiana Sobodka, who had worked in John Paul’s household since his days as archbishop of Cracow.
I don’t know Sister Marie, who had to be talked into becoming a public person after her cure, and who made a moving appearance before 200,000 young people at a prayer vigil at the Circus Maximus the night before the beatification. But I’ve known Sister Tobiana for 15 years, and there could have been no more appropriate choice as a bearer of a relic of John Paul II. In addition to working in his household and in the inner papal office for his entire pontificate, Sister Tobiana, a trained medical professional, was a kind of auxiliary doctor for the pope. And when he died, it was she who cradled his head in her hands. If hers was indeed the last face John Paul saw this side of the Kingdom, it was a face he knew well, the face of a woman of virtue who displayed many of the same remarkable pastoral skills as the man she had served so long and faithfully. When I saw Sister Tobiana last July, her first concern was for my daughter, who had lost her husband five months before, and for my grandson. That conversation was curiously reminiscent of my last dinner with John Paul in mid-December 2004, when, six weeks after my father’s death, the first question from the pope, who was himself in very tough shape, was “How is your mother doing?”
Those who pray seriously for others, it seems, have very powerful memories.
PUTTING DOWN MARKERS
From the point of view of ideas, the high point of the beatification ceremony was Pope Benedict XVI’s homily, which was both pointed and personal, reflecting Joseph Ratzinger’s keenly felt debt to the example of John Paul II. Benedict lifted up John Paul’s role in combatting, “like a titan,” the falsehoods of Communism and the warped notion of human progress they embodied. He offered a gentle (and deserved) correction to both the “progressives” and the ultra-traditionalists who had objected to John Paul’s beatification, reminding everyone that the new beatus was a true son of the Second Vatican Council, of which his pontificate had given an authoritative interpretation. And he highlighted the characteristic of John Paul that inspired so much good in the Church and the world: his ability to instill hope in people who had lost hope, or who were losing their grip on hope.
Benedict also described, beautifully, just what the Church was lifting up as a model to be emulated, which was a life of radical Christian discipleship precisely calibrated (by Providence, John Paul would have said) to give the world the evangelical charge it needed at a specific moment in history: “By his witness of faith, love, and apostolic courage, accompanied by great human charisma, this exemplary son of Poland helped believers throughout the world not to be afraid to be called Christian, to belong to the Church, to speak of the Gospel. In a word: he helped us not to fear the truth, for the truth is the guarantee of liberty.”
Seventeen years ago, I may have been the first scribe to put the phrase “John Paul the Great” into print, in an op-ed column in the Los Angeles Times marking the publication of John Paul’s most personal book, Crossing the Threshold of Hope. That title is not formally bestowed on popes by the Catholic Church; it simply becomes habitual over time, as with Pope St. Leo the Great and Pope St. Gregory the Great. Should that happen to John Paul II, it will not be because he saw off Communism, although there was delicious irony in the fact that his beatification took place on May Day, when Italy’s tatterdemalion Communists and their leftist comrades still wave the red flag. And it will not be because he had a luminous personality that was made for the age of mass communications. It will be because he was a great channel of grace, conviction, and courage for others.
Very few human beings will ever have bestowed upon them the extraordinary range of gifts that John Paul II exhibited: intellectual gifts, literary gifts, linguistic gifts, pastoral gifts; the gift of seeing around corners and through walls to discern possibilities where others only saw blockages. Those gifts, however, will not be why the Church of the 22nd century may well speak of Pope St. John Paul the Great. If that happens, it will be because he was a radically converted Christian disciple who lived out his life in service to the truths of the Gospel that had seized his heart and mind when he was a young man in Nazi-occupied Poland: truths he believed essential to human flourishing in the 21st century and third millennium — and far beyond.
— George Weigel is the William E. Simon distinguished senior fellow of Catholic studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. His two-volume biography of Blessed John Paul II includes Witness to Hope (1999) and The End and the Beginning (2010).