Pope John Paul II (born Karol Jozef Wojtyla) passed away on Saturday, April 2 at 2:37 p.m. Eastern Time. He was a wonderful man. He was one of those great men one can admire regardless of political persuasion or religious belief. More than anything he did, he was inspiring. He inspired millions around the world to seek faith, social justice, moral values, and religious tolerance. He gave hope to people. After he was nearly assassinated in 1982, he recovered and went on to serve long thereafter. He gave a voice to those who needed a voice, whether it was for the unborn or for the sake of peace. His convictions transcended partisan politics. The archbishop of Philadelphia said it well when he said, “Above all, he will be remembered for finding his purpose and holding fast to that purpose.”
Although I am not Catholic, I admired Pope John Paul II. I am thankful I had a chance to see him in Vatican City many years ago during one of his weekly public addresses. I’ll never forget it. I didn’t understand what he said because the Polish, Italian, German and other languages he used were spoken with a thick Polish accent. Nevertheless, it was very moving moment for me sitting in a holy place listening to this great man talking about something that transcends language. I remember him standing at the altar above the tomb of St. Peter, addressing those who were gathered. A few months later, I visited Krakow, Poland where the pope served bishop before his election in 1976. I visited some of his old haunts. I saw the cathedral where he was bishop and stayed for just $2 a night at a rectory in his diocese (I was a poor, starving student traveler at the time).
In reflection, it is amazing when you realize that this man—the first Pole and the first non-Italian elected pope in hundreds of years, was chosen to serve as pope during the height of the Cold War. At the time, Poland was a Warsaw Pact nation, a member of the Soviet Bloc, and officially an atheist nation. Religious presecution was prevalent. Wojtyla’s election then was a radical move by the Catholic Church. It has sometimes been said that Pope John Paul II, like President Ronald Reagan, was instrumental in bringing down the Iron Curtain. He inspired the faithful behind the Curtain to put their trust in something other than communism, and he may very well have been a guiding light to movements such as Solidarity in Poland that instigated the collapse of communism.
Pope John Paul II will be missed. The Catholic Church has a huge task ahead of it choosing the next pope, and the next pope will bear a huge burden emerging from the shadow of Pope John Paul II. I hope the next pope will be as great as Pope John Paul II was. It is a daunting challenge. God rest his soul.