Pope John Paul II the Great
Lord David Alton
How long will it be before Pope John Paul is universally known as John Paul the Great? For, like Gregory the Great before him, John Paul has been the towering figure of our age.
Words like greatness should not be used lightly lest they be devalued. We can all think of learned people, of courageous people, of dynamic people and even of saintly people. But surely greatness is when these gifts come together in one rare man or woman.
During his remarkable 26-year Pontificate John Paul has been the Pilgrim Pope, the Bearer of Truth, and the Conscience of the World. During my life I have been privileged to meet some singular and remarkable people but John Paul was undoubtedly in a league all of his own.
When he was elected in the autumn of 1978 the Catholic-world wondered aloud about the kind of man who had been chosen to lead them. After all, this was the first non-Italian pope since 1523.
As Archbishop of Krakow, Karol Wojtyla came from a country occupied by Soviet troops and governed by hard-line Communist leaders. He was elected as Cold War tensions were reaching new heights, as the nuclear arms race was escalating, and as the world entered unchartered and dangerous waters.
Today's world defines itself by the Twin Towers and September 11th but for my generation the end of the Cold War, Poland's Solidarity movement, and the redrawing of the map of Europe - culminating in the collapse of the Berlin Wall - were our defining moments. At the heart of these events stood John Paul II.
At a spiritual level as successor of St. Peter John Paul faced other challenges. He had to consolidate the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, whilst upholding the eternal truths taught by the Church. On issues such as stem cell research, abortion, euthanasia and divorce, this brought him into head-long collision with a hostile world. Simultaneously, he had to face the deep secularisation and materialism of Western Europe and the concomitant decline in church attendance and vocations in the west (while seeing a burgeoning of vocations and baptisms worldwide). In the western world he faced a secularised and frequently hostile audience who did not want to be reminded of objective Truth and whose vocabulary is shaped by demands for personal autonomy, rights and choice. In encyclicals such as Evangelium Vitae (1995) he rebutted what he called this "culture of death" which inspired, challenging and convincing teaching - which has drawn young people to him in their millions.
Throughout these challenging times he left ringing in our ears his exhortations to be "signs of contradiction", to be "counter-cultural", to "put out into the deep" and, above all, never be afraid.
To be truly catholic - universal - he had to face the daunting task of reconciling the discrepant and varying needs of some one billion Catholics - most predominantly living in poorer parts of the world. He achieved that objective through unerring fidelity to the gospel and to the Lord he served.
Our memories of this Pope may be of a particular event, a particular journey or a particular encyclical. Perhaps it is the 1981 assassination attempt by Mehmet Ali Agca, - or the Pope's subsequent visit to his would-be assassin's prison and his prayer of forgiveness.
Maybe it is the recollection of one of his remarkable journeys - to Jerusalem's Western Wall to pray for forgiveness for the crimes of Christians against Jews, or his visit to the Synagogue in Rome, or his journey to Athens to seek healing and reconciliation between Orthodox and Catholic Christians. Or maybe the gathering he called, at Assisi, of the world's spiritual leaders.
For some, the abiding memory will be the Papal visit to Britain during the Falklands War, in 1982, first to Canterbury cathedral and later to Liverpool's Anglican and Catholic cathedrals, and his journey down the city's Hope Street.
I think we should especially recall with gratitude his pilgrimage to Drogheda, in 1979, when he said to the people of Ireland: "I come as a pilgrim of peace. To Catholics and Protestants my message is peace and love." To those engaged in violence he said: "I appeal to you in language of passionate pleading. On my knees I beg you to turn away from the paths of violence and to return to the ways of peace. You may claim to seek justice. I too believe in justice and seek justice. But violence only delays the day of justice. Violence destroys the work of justice." Surely it was the day these words were uttered that we see the first glimmer of Northern Ireland's Peace Process?
I have one personal enduring memory of this Pope. In 1995 I was with a small group who were invited to join the Pope's early morning Mass in his private chapel. When we arrived he was deep in private prayer, kneeling at his prie-dieu. All the troubles of the world seemed to be bearing down upon his shoulders. Etched on his body were the lines of personal experience - his endurance through the tyrannies of Nazism and Communism, his acceptance of suffering and pain, his willingness to say the opposite of what the world wants to hear, his fidelity, faithfulness and total trust in God.
I had that memory in mind as with millions of others I watched the final dramatic days of his life. Teaching us until the very end, perhaps his final legacy will be the gift of showing us how to prepare for a good death and to prepare ourselves to meet our God.
All of these characteristics are surely the attributes that make a man great; and in John Paul are all the marks of greatness.
This article is reprinted by permission of the author, Lord David Alton. Lord Alton of Liverpool is a Catholic member of the British House of Lords where he sits as an Independent. Previously he served for 18 years as a member of the House of Commons. He is Professor of Citizenship at Liverpool John Moores University and author of eight books.
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Peter, the Pope and Infallibility
As we as a Catholic community mourn the death of Pope John Paul II, there are questions raised by Catholics and Non- Catholics about the Papacy and its institution. Peter, the Pope and Infallibility by Dr. Marcellino D’Ambrosio will help answer many of the questions that people may ask during this time of mourning. This CD (or AT) is 45 minutes in length and was given during Dr. D’Ambrosio pilgrimage to Rome.
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In a remarkable speech given in January of 2005, internationally known scholar and writer - and friend of Pope John Paul II - George Weigel eloquently lists and elaborates upon 10 enduring accomplishments of this great man.
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