It is an understatement to say that Pope John Paul II lived a full life. Indeed, it seemed as if he lived the life of many men. A talented actor and linguist during his college years, he could have become a famous actor or a renowned academic, but instead became a priest.
He was an immensely successful and well-liked pastor and would have been happy to remain in this capacity, but he became a professor of philosophy at the suggestion of his superiors.
His books, “Love and Responsibility” and “The Acting Person,” reconciled Catholic and modern thought. This earned him a place, in the eyes of some commentators, as one of the greatest Catholic thinkers of all time.
As pope, he played an important role in the fall of the Soviet Union, and spread his message of love throughout the world through his many voyages, being seen in the process by more people than any man in the history of the world.
Any of these accomplishments would have won him acclaim, but the full depth of what he has done truly staggers the mind. The crowds that attended his funeral were right to chant, “Magnus! Magnus!” (the Great, the Great).
But if people, in the years and decades and centuries to come, reflect fondly on John Paul, I hope they look at more than his human achievements.
John Paul II once said of some of his biographers, who looked primarily at his involvement in politics, that they understood him from the outside, but that he could only by understood from the inside. It is the inside that we are now left to ponder.
John Paul II was first a disciple of Christ, a man who desired only to follow the will of Christ and to let Christ shine through him in all he did. He was, in short, what every Christian should aspire to be. The life of any Christian, and especially that of a pope, should be a reflection of Christ himself.
In an age where so many politicians only care about their image and frequently change or water down their positions to please as many people as possible, he proclaimed the doctrines of the Church. He even defended those that many found unappealing and desired more than anything that everyone might see things as he did.
What’s most amazing is that he did this without being harsh or judgmental.
Too often it is the case that Christians, in an effort to be faithful to their beliefs, adopt a condemning attitude towards those with whom they disagree. John Paul exhibited no such hostile attitude.
While at times Christians look down on members of other religions, John Paul showed them all great love. He was the first pope to visit a synagogue, he spoke to a whole stadium of young Muslims and he prayed together with members of countless other religions at The World Day of Prayer for Peace.
In no way did this conflict with his belief in the truth and righteousness of the Catholic Church. He simply did not use this belief as a justification to pass judgment on anyone.
John Paul II was also known for his efforts to reach out to young people. Our generation is often perceived as a hopeless one that has lost its way in an immoral world.
The pope, however, placed great faith in the young and expected them to be leaders in the church and the secular world.
The confidence the pope instilled in them inspired countless young adults to radically change and improve their lives. I’ve personally met some who have decided to become priests and nuns after hearing the pope speak.
This kind of magnetism might seem like a miracle, but there is no great secret to it. The pope succeeded because of his dedication to principles and his genuine love.
It is this combination of qualities that made him accessible to our generation. The young will not respond to someone who has one but not the other. What is the point of listening to someone who supposedly cares about you, but does not challenge you to do better in life?
Likewise, who wants to listen to someone who tells you to be moral, but at the same time looks down on you?
John Paul avoided these shortcomings. He both loved and challenged the young. For him, the two went together: since he loved them he wanted the best for them and since he thought the best thing for them was to be moral, he did not hesitate to say it.
In addition to reaching out to the young, the pope reflected his Christian values by helping those in need. Christ had great compassion for all people. He healed the sick wherever he went, showing that even the outcasts of society have a great worth because they are people and because God loves them.
He continuously denounced the idea that a person’s worth came from what he could do and said again and again that each person had a great dignity that nothing could take away.
John Paul exemplified this virtue by not shunning those around him. Despite his lofty stature and his failing health, he made every effort to be around the people who needed him most.
I once saw a picture of the pope that showed him praying in his private chapel early in the morning.
Away from the adoring crowds, away from the geopolitical decisions, away from the business of everyday life in the Vatican, there he was, on his knees, lost in God.
For me, that picture captures the secrets of his remarkable life. Through prayer he came to know and love Christ, and received the grace to show Christ to others in all he did.
The pope was many things to many people, but to me Pope John Paul II showed, through his love and moral courage, what Jesus Christ would have been like were he to walk this earth again.