The beatification of Pope John Paul II on May 1, 2011, Feast of Divine Mercy, is a grand occasion for celebration within the Catholic Church all over the world.
Beatification is the first step towards sainthood, which is the recognition by the Church that a person has lived the Christian virtues in an extraordinary way and is a model to be imitated by others – a true image of Christ. John Paul II was genuinely a holy man whose essence and spirit touched all who met him.
Pope John Paul II was born Karol Józef Wojtyla in Poland on May 18, 1920. He was the youngest of three children, and his early childhood was marked by the death of his mother, sister and brother, which affected him deeply.
After his father’s death in 1941, having lost everyone he loved, Karol Wojtyla became aware of his true path and was ordained to the priesthood on Nov 1, 1946, All Saints’ Day.
At the age of 38, Karol Wojtyla became the youngest bishop in Poland and later became Archbishop of Krakow.
During his decades as a bishop in Poland, Karol Wojtyla fought tirelessly against communism, using a non-violent approach to confront government oppression. When he was told that he could not build a church in a communist-created “utopian” capital and industrial town outside of Krakow, Karol Wojtyla and others erected a cross on a muddy field outside the gates of the town’s steel mill and held Masses there.
He petitioned the government several hundred times to build a Catholic church on the premises, and eventually his efforts paid off and the communist government consented.
Ten years later, Wojtyla consecrated the Church of Our Lady with 50,000 worshippers in attendance. This experience in Poland shaped Wojtyla’s outlook in dealing with authoritarian governments, which would later become a pivotal skill in his role on the world stage as the leader of the Catholic Church.
On October 22, 1978, Karol Wojtyla became Pope John Paul II, adopting the name out of respect for his predecessor, John Paul I, who served as Pope for only 33 days before his untimely death.
John Paul II was the 264th Pope, the first Polish Pope and the first non-Italian in 455 years. He was also the youngest Pope in 128 years.
John Paul II was the most travelled Pope in history, visiting 129 countries and attracting huge crowds wherever he went during his 26-year papacy.
Millions of people would turn up to hear him celebrate Mass, often delivered in the native language of the country visited as John Paul II spoke 13 languages! The Holy Father’s general audiences at the Vatican were attended by 15 million people.
It is difficult to recall a person living or dead who has seen or has been seen by so many!
In addition to his travels, John Paul II was a prolific writer, having written 15 encyclicals, 50 major documents, five books, poems and plays (two of which have been made into movies). He canonised 483 saints, beatified 1,340 people and appointed most of today’s active bishops.
John Paul II also established global movements such as World Youth Day in 1984, World Day of Peace in 1986, and World Day of the Sick in 1992, among his many “firsts” as Pope. The magnitude and diversity of his accomplishments as a global statesman, philosopher, theologian and Church leader were amazing.
He constantly challenged us, encouraged us to raise our moral and religious standards. “Do not be afraid! Open wide the doors to Christ!” he rallied us. Pope John Paul II stood for peace, justice, unity and above all, love.
During his papacy, John Paul II came into contact with believers from many different religions and always strived to find common ground.
At the inaugural World Day of Peace, held in Assisi on 27 October 1986, more than 120 representatives of numerous religions and Christian denominations came together for a groundbreaking day of fasting and praying.
In his message to the diverse assembly, John Paul II said, “With the World Religions we share a common respect of and obedience to conscience, which teaches all of us to seek the truth, to love and serve all individuals and people, and therefore to make peace among nations...
“Peace awaits its builders. Let us stretch our hands towards our brothers and sisters, to encourage them to build peace upon the four pillars of truth, justice, love and freedom.”
In continuing his mission of spreading peace and unity, John Paul II became the first Pope to grace Singapore with his presence on 20 November 1986.
Despite torrential rain, a crowd of 63,000 people gathered peacefully in the National Stadium to attend the Mass. It was the first time in the history of Singapore that such a large number of Catholics gathered in one place.
As the Choir sang “Glory Alleluia” the Mass got underway. John Paul II told the crowd that he had come to Singapore “as a servant of the love and peace of Christ.”
Indeed the overwhelming sentiments expressed by those present was that the Pope represented “peace, love and unity”, not only for the Catholic Church, but for people of all races and nationalities around the entire world.
Catholics and non-Catholics alike came to see the Pope because, as one observer noted, “He is respected by people of all religions. He is impartial in his views and does not take sides in politics. He is a man of peace.” Another witness commented, “I think his coming will unite everybody in Singapore, which is a multi-racial, multi-religious society, because his message is peace.”
One gentleman, who was not Catholic at the time, was so moved by the Pope’s visit, that it prompted him to consider becoming baptised in the Catholic faith, comparing his experience in the rain to baptism.
He remarked, “Being baptised means total immersion in the font, and there I was wet right down to the dollar bills in my wallet. It is my wish someday soon to have the strength and courage to ask for baptism.”
In reflecting on Pope John Paul II’s homily in 1986, I recall that the Pope spoke intently about peace and love to the people of Singapore, and these words of 25 years ago are even more relevant today for Singaporeans, as well as the rest of the world. Pope John Paul II affirmed, “Peace requires justice and where there is no justice, there can be no peace. Peace is the fruit of love.”
The Pope talked about relations between Christians and non-Christians, instructing us “seek to maintain friendly relations with non-Christians. Love constitutes the very essence of the teaching of Christ. Life – the lives of all of us – must be based on love. Genuine human love is a faithful reflection of God’s love.
“Therefore, love is characterised by a deep respect for all people, regardless of their race, beliefs or whatever makes them different from ourselves. Love responds generously to the needs of the poor, and it is marked by compassion for those in sorrow. Love is quick to offer hospitality and is persevering in times of trial. It is always ready to forgive, to hope and to return a blessing for a curse.”
Offering a challenge to the crowd, the Pope said, “It is this Church that I call to even greater spiritual growth. Peace-making is a task that is never finished. We must constantly work for peace. Peace is possible only where there is just order that ensures the rights of everyone. I make this appeal to you – build your lives on love. Do all you can to live at peace with everybody. Let us build peace.”
The Pope also offered specific guidance to families emphasising that “husbands and wives together with your children, you are the vital cell of society and the first foundation for its stability and well-being.
“Families must remain open to the larger community so that the loving concern they show in their homes may be extended to others for the betterment of all. It is the right of the married couple to make a free, informed and mutual decision, in accordance with objective moral principles, regarding the spacing of births and the size of the family.
“This decision should be based on their recognition of their responsibilities to God, to themselves, to their children, to their family and to society. In pursuing these decisions, couples should be able to rely on those morally licit methods of family planning that are in accordance with the dignity of the person and with the authentic expression of conjugal love.”
Reached out to youth
To the young people in the crowd, the Pope offered words of encouragement and support saying, “Do not underestimate the great need for your contribution in promoting peace. Peace and youth go together. Do not be afraid. The task of peace-making belongs to every one of us. Be Peacemakers.”
John Paul II was known as a great friend to the sick, offering special blessings and personally delivering communion to the sick at the National Stadium. He said that “the mystery of the world is rooted in suffering” and asked those who are weak to become a source of strength for the Church.
John Paul II is credited for his instrumental role in bringing an end to communism in Europe, for his non-violent approach to politics, for his attention to the sick, for his strong emphasis on preserving the dignity of the human person, and for his role as a humble and caring pastor, which is perhaps his greatest gift to humanity.
The Polish Bishop’s Conference has expressed that “the gift of the life and ministry of Pope John Paul II enriched the life of the contemporary Church and of the world. From the beginning of his pontificate, the Holy Father put in focus the person of Christ, Redeemer of the human race.”
Throughout his life, Pope John Paul II transcended race, religion and politics due to his commitment to living Christian values. He radiated peace, unity and the love of God for all people of all nationalities. His life was truly an example of Christ’s image on Earth and an inspiration to all. His beatification marks the first step towards his journey to sainthood. We will now have a new saint in heaven to guide the world to peace, love and unity!