“Follow me”, Jesus said to Peter. And thanks to the ministry of Peter and the Apostles and to their successors Jesus’ call has been addressed to each one of us. “Follow me”.
In his personal testament that was released yesterday after having been translated from his native Polish language, the Pope wrote in 1979: “’I desire to follow Him, and I desire that everything making up part of my earthly life should prepare me for this moment. I do not know when this moment will come, but like everything else, I place it too in the hands of the Mother of my Master: Totus tuus.”
Today as Pope John Paul II was laid to rest in the grotto beneath St. Peter’s Basilica, we give thanks to God for the gift of his life and of his ministry. He has brought the Church into the Third Millennium. After the tears of the 20 th century he prayed that the new millennium would usher in a new springtime of hope for the world. May God answer his prayer.
In what I would call his public testament to the Church, the post Jubilee Apostolic letter, Novo Millennio Ineunte, he wrote how during the Jubilee Year he would look down from the window of his apartment above St. Peter’s square at the throngs of pilgrims waiting patiently to go through the Holy Door. “In each of them”, he wrote, “I tried to imagine the story of a life, made up of joys, worries, sufferings, the story of someone whom Christ had met and who, in dialogue with him, was setting out again on a journey of hope.”
During the Holy Year 2000, some five million pilgrims passed through that Holy Door. That same number passed through St. Peter’s this week to pay their last respects to John Paul II, to John Paul the Great. Of course, now he can gaze on them from a higher perspective than that offered by the window of the papal apartments. He looks down through the window of heaven – and not only on the crowds assembled in Rome but on those gathered throughout the world from his native Poland to the far ends of the earth.
In Novo Millennio, he wrote: “We have only been able to observe the outer face of this unique event. Who can measure the marvels of grace wrought in human hearts? It is better to be silent and to adore, trusting humbly in the mysterious workings of God and singing his love without end.”
Who indeed can measure the marvels of grace wrought in these past few days as the whole world, believers and non-believers, Catholics and other Christians, Jews and men and women of other Faiths stop to mourn the passing, the “Easter” of this remarkable man of God?
Once in catechism class a little child was asked “what is a saint?” In a perfect illustration of that phrase “from the mouths of babes”, he replied: “A saint is a, a window”. His experience of saints was of those depicted in the stained glass windows of his parish church. But he had grasped a profound truth. Saints are like windows – through them light shines, not the light of the sun but the light of the Son of God.
In his ministry, Pope John Paul II embraced the Second Vatican Council’s renewed emphasis on the universal call to holiness. He reminded us that to ask catechumens: “Do you wish to receive Baptism?” means at the same time to ask them: “Do you wish to become holy?” Throughout his 26 years as Pope, he never tired of placing before us the radical demands of the gospel and he urged us not to be afraid to embrace them. By exhortation but also by example, an example given even with much pain and suffering, he reminded us that for a Christian “it would be a contradiction to settle for a life of mediocrity, marked by a minimalist ethic and a shallow religiosity.” As he once looked out on the multitudes from his window at the Vatican or from the many altars in the countries he visited, he down looks down from heaven’s window. And, we can say that he himself is a window through which the light of Christ continues to shine on us.
We remember that in his young days, Karol Wojtyla was an athlete and a sports’ enthusiast. It would be curious to know what he thought of the new “extreme sports” now popularized on T.V.: “extreme” golf, “extreme” skiing. As one pundit said: The Pope has invented a new sport: “Extreme holiness”. But for John Paul II, holiness was not just a pastime; it was the pursuit of his life. And it should be ours as well.
He canonized more saints than any Pope in history to underscore the fact that it is holiness which expresses best the mystery of the Church which incorporates into Christ and the indwelling of his Spirit. Holiness is, he taught us, “a message that convinces without need for words and is a living reflection of the face of Christ.” John Paul II, in his word and in his life, has given us a message that is convincing, a message of hope, a message about Jesus Christ, the source of our hope, the hope that does not disappoint.
“Follow me”, Jesus said to Peter. And, we in turn can never reach Jesus except by the path of faith, the path of Peter who once said to Jesus: “Lord, to whom else should we turn, you have the words of Everlasting Life”. To know the Risen Lord means to walk in Peter’s footsteps. Again, the Holy Father reminds us: “Only the faith proclaimed by Peter, and with him by the Church in every age, truly goes to the heart, and touches the depth of the mystery: ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” As Peter follows Christ, we must follow Peter.
The Letter to the Hebrews reminds us “Christ is the same, yesterday, today and forever.” Pope John Paul II taught this fearlessly and on the dawn on this new century, this new millennium he urged us: “To start afresh from Christ.” In the Diocese of Orlando, we have begun our first Diocesan Synod. Inspired by the example of John Paul II and following the vision outlined in Novo Millennio Ineunte, we too seek to recognize Christ at work today among us. We too wish to be instruments of Jesus’ work by responding with generous hearts, to “put out into the deep” and so to start afresh from Christ.
Soon another will be chosen to walk in the steps of the fisherman. His task will be like that of John Paul II and those who preceded him to tend to and to feed the sheep. As God’s Mercy worked through the life of this man from a small town in Poland , he will work through the next pope. And the Mercy of God will always appear greater than his or our own weakness and unworthiness. He will be entrusted to hand on the gospel. That is the Pope’s job – and that is the task of each one of us really – the message of the gospel is entrusted to us, not for us to change it according to the changing fashions of the world. But to live it, to allow it to change us, in changing us to help us convincing witnesses to the hope that is within us.
John Paul II, witness to hope, is today where he always wanted to be. He has passed from life to Life. With Mary as our sure guide, let us also go forward in hope!
Bishop Thomas Wenski
St. James Cathedral
Friday, April 8, 2005