A few weeks ago millions of Americans were mesmerized watching the solemn election of a new pope — Francis I — the first pope to hail from the New World.
Watching it reminded me of being 15 years old and watching the election of Karol Wojtyla, a Polish cardinal who became Pope John Paul II.
That new pope seemed so young, fun, and full of optimism. And while JP2, as he was nicknamed, did many things that the world found admirable — such as standing up to the Communists — what impressed me most was something he did at the end of his life.
The man who would become Pope John Paul II was born in 1920 in Wadowice, Poland, the youngest of three children born to an army clerk and a teacher.
In 1939, when he was 19, German tanks rolled into Poland. During the war years under Nazi occupation, Wojtyla worked as a delivery boy, feeding mind and soul through reading, praying, and clandestine theatrical activities. He was greatly helped by Jan Tyranowski, a spiritual layman who taught him about the nature of suffering and how it can draw us closer to God.
The suffering in his own life — especially the loss of his parents and a brother — led Wojtyla to the priesthood and in 1946, he was ordained. As a priest, he worked in parishes, led youth groups, began to write books, and earned two doctorates. He also began a meteoric rise through the ranks of the Catholic Church that brought him into direct conflict with the communists who ruled Poland. During the 1960s, Wojtyla, by then a cardinal, became known for his promotion of religious freedom for all.
Elected pope in 1978, Wojtyla’s focus continued to be with “the least of these” — the weak, the helpless, and the needy.
In 1981, John Paul II nearly died when an assassin pumped four bullets into him. But he thanked God for allowing him to join in the community of the sick and visited his assailant in prison, offering forgiveness and reconciliation — a terrific example of thanking God in every circumstance.
This incredible man had not sought prestige and power, never mind greatness, but these came to him as he focused on those who were least able to reciprocate. Meanwhile through his preaching Christ and demands for religious liberty, he became one of the key figures in the collapse of communism in Europe.
As the 20th century drew to a close, John Paul II showed symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. And while Hollywood celebrities and much of the media supported research that destroyed human embryos, the pope took a firm stand against it. Once again, he identified with the weakest and most helpless — in this case, the unborn. They should not be sacrificed for the benefit of others.
By Good Friday 2005, John Paul II was too sick to lead the walk marking the Stations of the Cross and went before the whole world weakened and debilitated by Parkinson’s. In doing so, he showed in his own life what he professed with his words: that all human life is sacred in God’s eyes, even and especially the old, sick, disabled, and helpless. Even in a weakened state, we are children of God.
In his illness and subsequent death, John Paul II was a picture of courage and heroic consistency, a man who practiced what he preached.
I write about John Paul II in my new book, titled 7 Men and the Secret of Their Greatness. I hope you'll read it. You'll discover how, through the paradoxes of his life, John Paul II exemplified Christ’s radical and revolutionary teaching that whoever loses his life shall find it.
Eric Metaxas is a co-host of BreakPoint Radio and a best-selling author whose biographies, children's books, and popular apologetics have been translated into more than a dozen languages.
BreakPoint commentary airs each weekday on more than one thousand outlets with an estimated listening audience of one million people. BreakPoint provides a Christian perspective on today's news and trends via radio, interactive media, and print.
Publication date: April 29, 2013