The Most Reverend John J. Myers was the principal celebrant at the Mass of Dedication of a new chapel at the recently opened Saint John Paul II Center in Krakow, Poland. The Center is a new and evolving complex celebrating the life and teachings of this great Bishop, Pope, and Saint. The Center is built upon the site of a quarry where Karol Wojtyła, the name by which the Saint was known prior to his assuming the Papacy as John Paul II in 1978, was forced to work during the Nazi occupation of Poland as a young man.
Pope John Paul II called Father John Myers to the service of the church as a bishop in 1987 in his native diocese of Peoria. He also called Bishop Myers to service as Archbishop of Newark in 2001. Theirs was a friendship that lasted some 25 years, until the Saint’s passing in 2005.
The Saint also visited the Archdiocese of Newark in October 1995. Following a prayer service at the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart, he raised the Cathedral to the status of Minor Basilica.
The new chapel contains a relic of the Saint in the form of the blood-stained cassock he was wearing on May 13, 1981 when he was shot in St. Peter’s Square, Rome.
Those who knew and write about Saint John Paul II describe him variously as a Philosopher, Poet, Teacher, Mystic and, of course, Pope. Among others, among whom I would be numbered, he could well be called Saint John Paul the Great and I would hope that he will be named a Doctor of the Church one day.
As we celebrate the Solemnity of the Ascension of Our Lord, we encounter some sense of the mysteries which enliven and guide the Church. Saint John Paul was deeply in touch with these mysteries. Throughout his papacy, he gave us a wonderful example of how to speak to people of societies today “in the name of Christ” without losing our own identity. In doing this, he helped the Church to embrace the real truths proposed and emphasized by the Second Vatican Council. This was in the face of not a few people including theologians and other leaders in the Church who spoke of “the spirit of Vatican II.” This gave them an opening to attempt radically to reinterpret and misapply many of the teachings and discipline of the Church.
I can recall one time when I was in Rome receiving a call at 10:30 p.m. from then Monsignor now Cardinal Dzwicsz asking me if I would like to concelebrate with the Holy Father the next morning. I said, “Well, of course!” He said “be at the bronze doors at 6:30 a.m.” which I was. After going up to the Pope’s apartment and vesting, I was shown into the Pope’s Chapel and had the privilege of spending some time in prayer with the Pope present. I must say, that while there was no “dazzling light,” the Holy Father was clearly taken up in prayer in the most profound way. It made a deep impression on me.
A few moments before Mass, Mother Teresa and 18 of her sisters came in. The sisters were going to take their vows that day. As I look back on it, I am humbled that I was in the presence of one saint and a saint to be even as Pope John Paul and I celebrated Mass in English with them.
As we celebrate the Solemnity of the Ascension, we are reminded that after His Resurrection Jesus appeared in His transformed but not His fully glorified body many times to the Apostles during a 40 day period. He taught them and spent time with them. They experienced the depth of His love and His yearning for the salvation of all those for whom He had offered His earthly life. The Apostles, who likely did not fully understand, he urged to be His witnesses to the ends of the earth and He promised that they would receive power when the Holy Spirit came upon them. (Acts of the Apostles) In Saint Luke’s account we are told that “It is written that the Messiah would suffer and rise from the dead on the third day and that repentance for the forgiveness of sins would be preached in His Name to all the nations beginning from Jerusalem.”
In establishing the Church, which is His Body, the Lord clearly intended that the message should be proclaimed across the centuries and around the world so that all people would have the opportunity to follow His Way. When Jesus ascended to Heaven and to the Father, the Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us “that the end time” had already begun.
There was a difference between His Resurrection Glory and His Glory at the right hand of the Father. His Humanity participates in God’s Power. But, Christ dwells on earth in His Church. The Kingdom of Christ is already present in mystery by virtue of the Holy Spirit in the Church. Thus we can say that the Kingdom is “already now – but not yet.” We are already in the final time for Christ is victorious, but it remains for God the Father through Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit to continue to bring about our transformation in Christ so that in the next world, joined to Christ, we can participate, even more than we do now, in God’s power and His Life.
Pope Benedict XVI, when reflecting on the years since the Second Vatican Council, spoke regularly of a “hermeneutic of continuity” versus a “hermeneutic of discontinuity or rupture.” Everyone in the Church including Bishops and the Bishop of Rome, are stewards of the Lord’s gifts. That is why, we are told, that the Lord provided sacramentally for continuity in the Church in the proclamation of the Mysteries. The Church is not a democracy. Although She is made up of sinners and people who are not perfect, She has the gift of the Spirit to ensure that the Gospel continues to be preached in spite of human limitations.
Saint John Paul II was a loyal son of Poland. But his life certainly included suffering. He lost his Mother at an early age and his Father at a relatively young age. To support himself and his Father, he was involved in heavy work near the very site of this beautiful Shrine. He also suffered the oppression of the Nazi regime and then the Russian dictatorship. And, as we note by the extraordinary Relic which is present in this Chapel, he suffered also physically as Pope both during and after the attempt on his life and then as his disease progressed. He knew spiritual pain as well since he saw the evil actions of men and of societies. But he never lost hope because of his deep spirituality. This spirituality, which helped shape his theological reflection and his philosophy, is timeless and is directed to people of all cultures. For him our Church has both continuity and change. (Some of these thoughts rely upon Francis Cardinal George’s A Godly Humanism.) When addressing certain theological questions mental concepts are required. By their nature they are abstract. But as a poet and mystic he understood that images are more concrete. Cardinal George in reflecting upon his poetry, theatrical writing, and his philosophy stated that “We understand God in concepts that include images and convey various levels of content.”
The truth requires both allegiance to our religious faith and allegiance to reason. That is the great and lasting gift of Saint John Paul II. The Word reflects God’s action in creating, loving, and saving man. Again, Cardinal George “We will, in the very experience of ourselves in action, close the gap between supernatural faith and natural humanism as one becomes through his actions the image of a generous God.” (P. 175)
A profound theme which is found in several of his writings has come to be called Theology of the Body. In his 1995 Encyclical, Evangelium Vitae, the Holy Father outlined the framework for the Church’s belief in the worth of each human life.
“Man is called to a fullness of life which far exceeds the dimensions of his earthly existence, because it consists in sharing the very life of God. The loftiness of the supernatural vocation reveals the greatness and the inestimable value of human life even in its temporal phase. Life in time, in fact, is the fundamental condition, the initial stage and an integral part of the entire unified process of human existence. It is a process which, unexpectedly and undeservedly, is enlightened by the promise of and renewed by the gift of divine life, which will reach its full realization in eternity (cf. 1 Jn 3:1-2). At the same time, it is precisely the supernatural calling which highlights the relative character of each individual’s earthly life. After all, life on earth is not an ‘ultimate’ but a ‘penultimate’ reality; even so, it remains a sacred reality entrusted to us, to be preserved with a sense of responsibility and brought to perfection in love and in the gift of ourselves to God and to our brothers and sisters.
The Church knows that this Gospel of Life, which She has received from her Lord, has a profound and persuasive echo in the heart of every person – believer and non-believer alike – because it marvelously fulfills all the hearts expectations while infinitely surpassing them.”
The human person includes both body and soul, a physical life informed by the spirit. Those who would reduce man to a mere intellectual and emotional life miss the deep beauty of man who lives in this world but is called to eternity with the God who is infinite Spirit. Decisions and actions which treat the human life as a mere object ignore the wonder of human existence.
Saint John Paul emphasized very clearly that abortion, euthanasia, unjust war and unjust attacks on human beings violate the God-given dignity of the human person. During the days and years which these fundamental truths were under direct attack, Saint John Paul did not hesitate to point out the profound violation of God’s plan and the dignity of the human person which was present in these and many other actions. He understood that human dignity involves the body as well as the soul.
In one of his plays, Our God’s Brother, Cardinal Wojtyla presents an actual man from Poland whose real name was Saint Albert Chmielowski, but is named Adam in the play. In the complex dialogue it includes, Adam/Albert rejects both extreme subjectivism and complete insistence upon objective statements.
Karol Wojtyla, who was the author of the play, reflects the same approach in his papal teaching. He believed in dialogue, he used personal interchange to explore truth in its various presentations. The main character encounters a very poor man, somewhat in the manner of Saint Francis of Assisi. Adam comes to realize that “he is not alone.” That is God centered humanism. One is never alone and this image has both intellectual content but also has many rich meanings which carry one beyond the purely intellectual to the encounter with the Living God.
In Our God’s Brother, God is compared to harmony, to truth, to beauty and in one line is “the bright one who brings light.” Light in the minds of those who have been able to read his plays and his poetry in more detail is one of his regular themes. He speaks of the light of God’s words. He often speaks of the “brightness of water.” Light for him, is “the primary verbal illumination for God’s presence.” (Cardinal George, page 185).
This loyal son of Poland has profoundly reflected the Divine Light to our own age and culture and to ages and cultures yet to come. The Church has recognized the depth of his thinking but also of his own spiritual life. For all of us, he has been “a light shining in the darkness.” May his teachings and his thoughts continue to influence the Word as it is proclaimed by the Church and may he continue to intercede for each of us and for all of us as we journey towards the Light.