Thursday, April 2, 2015

Remembering the Pope of the Family

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“I would like to be remembered as the pope of the family,” he said.  And ten years after his death, we remember St. John Paul II as a man who was passionate about the family, about love and about the gift of human life.

St. John Paul II’s fifth anniversary of death was Good Friday; his tenth is Holy Thursday.  What might these coincidences tell us about the first Polish pontiff?  In many ways, I think it underscores his life and his papacy as being “for” others.

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One striking example is described in George Weigel’s papal biography, Witness to Hope.  In 1994, the United Nations was embattled in preparations for the Cairo Conference on Population and Development.  Worldwide promotion of abortion and birth control was on the line.  St. John Paul II fought tirelessly to promote the good of human life, love and the family.  He called 1994 the Year of the Family, and wrote a Letter to Families. 

And then in the midst of the titanic fight, John Paul II fell.  He broke his hip.  His world stage became a hospital bed, followed by a Sunday Angelus address, during which he shared the deeper meaning he intuited behind his fall.
I understood that I have to lead Christ’s Church into this third millennium by prayer, by various programs, but I saw that this is not enough: she must be led by suffering, by the attack thirteen years ago and by this new sacrifice. Why now, why this, why in this Year of the Family? Precisely because the family is under attack. The Pope has to be attacked, the Pope has to suffer, so that every family and the world may see that there is ... a higher Gospel: the Gospel of suffering, by which the future is prepared, the third millennium of families, of every family and of all families. (As quoted in Witness to Hope 721)
St. John Paul II was willing to fight for families to the point of being willing to suffer for them.  It was a suffering that continued for 20 1/2 more years.  A suffering that involved hospital visits, a Parkinson’s diagnosis, the embarrassment of slurred speech and failing limbs, the limitations of less travel and more rest.

Here was a man who lost his family at a young age.  He was the only living member of the Wojtyla’s at age 20.  Some would have taken this suffering and resented families – seeing what others have, and I have been denied.  But for Karol Wojtyla, his lack of a family only furthered his desire to defend the gift of the family, to uphold the family’s dignity and to celebrate the role of the family in the world.  He “learned to love human love” through his interactions with young couples as a newly ordained priest in Poland.  And he shared that love until the day he died.

We could really say that this love of human love is still being shared a decade after St. John Paul II’s death.  His theological works, especially Theology of the Body, are shared even more enthusiastically today than they were when he first delivered them.  His philosophical works, especially Love and Responsibility, are studied still.  His encyclicals, apostolic letters and exhortations, each with a reference to the family or to the need for self-giving or to the love to which each human person is called, are discussed today.

And his life!  There are still images of a vigorous, smiling, young pontiff, proclaiming to the world, “Do not be afraid!”  His vigor inspires, and his articulate words encourage.  And then there are the images of his final appearance at the Vatican window, unable to speak, a man clearly suffering.  And a man who on his death bed, heard the voices of the young, whom he spent his life and papacy inviting to embrace the Gospel.  He heard their songs and their prayers and so beautifully said, “I have looked for you. Now you have come to me.  And I thank you.”

Ten years since our beloved Papa went to the “house of the Father,” we are embarking upon the Triduum.  It’s as if, even from heaven, St. John Paul II is saying, “Don’t look at me.  Look at Him.  All of my words, all of my teachings, all of my suffering was meant to invite you to look to Love Himself.”

May we too learn to love human love.  May our families be homes where this love is cultivated.  And may our children and grandchildren know that the wizened pontiff with white wispy hair, leaning on a crucifix for support is part of a family, our family through his sacrifices, suffering and love.