How can one possibly try to wrap their mind around, somewhat rapidly, the countless ways a beloved pontiff, genius, and now saint, changed the world during his 26-year pontificate that drew with a close on April 2, 2005, on Divine Mercy Sunday?
A new work by Patrick Novecosky, titled ‘100 Ways John Paul II Changed the World,’ and published by Our Sunday Visitor, seeks to do just that, and does so as today, Monday, May 18, marks the 100 year anniversary of the Polish Pontiff’s birth.
The American Catholic communicator who has traveled to 26 countries, met Pope St. John Paul II five times, often in private venues in Rome, and is a husband and father of five. The award-winning journalist has edited and written for some of America’s top Catholic publications and has been published in five languages. Patrick is Managing Partner at NovaMedia a public relations firm specializing in the Catholic space.
Shattering the Mold
In his book, he examines in one or two pages per chapter, the mystical beloved Pope’s remarkable and difficult upbringing. Remembering his friendships, and unforgettable, as well as less known, moments, it also examines his impact on the world, including being an incredibly important force in the eventual collapse of Communism in Poland and Eastern Europe.
The Pontiff who made 104 trips, and traveled enough that he, in his 775,000 miles, could have circled the planet ‘30 times’ covered two thirds of the world’s countries, and was arguably “most seen person in history.” As the author recalls, Pope Paul VI was the first pope to “break the mold” with his international travels, but John Paul II “shattered it.” The Pontiff visited almost all of Africa, during the course of 14 trips, and in addition to making important church appointments, he canonized various African saints.
He also spoke about the Pope’s affinity for the US, where he made five official visits, with stops even in Alaska. He expressed his appreciation for the ‘warm hospitality’ of the American people.
The author gives a tender look at the Pope’s friendships, including with Mother Teresa of Calcutta, US President Ronald Reagan, Padre Pio, Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński (his superior, the Primate of the Poland, when the Cardinal Wojtyla was Archbishop of Krakow), Sister Faustina Kowalska, and Archbishop Fulton Sheen.
In 1984, the Polish Pope and President Reagan had established full diplomatic relations between the United States and the Holy See.
My Best Friend…
In 1989, ex-President Ronald Reagan, the book notes, received two Polish Americans and Solidarność [Solidarity] labor union representatives, whose movement, supported by John Paul II and the former US President, constituted the first independent labor union in the Soviet bloc and contributed “the first crack in the Iron Curtain, and it sent shock waves through the entire Soviet Union” beginning from the Polish Pope’s 1979 visit to his native country.
When they asked Reagan for words of political wisdom for the Solidarność members, he told them to listen to their conscience as that is where the Holy Spirit talks to you.
“Reagan then pointed to a picture of John Paul: ‘He is my best friend. Yes, you know I’m Protestant, but he’s still my best friend,’” he said.
Padre Pio also had a dear friendship with John Paul II, confiding in Wojtyla details he never told others.
“During a visit to Rome in 1962,” the book also recounts, “’Archbishop Wojtyła learned that one of his Polish friends was dying. He wrote to Padre Pio, asking his intercession. The letter was hand-delivered to the friar, who reportedly replied: “I cannot say no to this request.’”
“’Eleven days later, Wojtyła sent Pio a second letter thanking him for his intercession: ‘The lady who was ill with cancer was suddenly healed before entering the operating room.’”
Statues in Poland to Commemorate
The first time Wyszyński and John Paul II met after his election as Successor of Peter– Novecosky also remembers– became “one of the most touching moments” of his pontificate.
“The Polish cardinal approached the new pope to kiss his ring in Saint Peter’s Square on the day of his inauguration, but John Paul quickly rose, embraced his mentor, and kissed his cheek,” he said, observing that now hundreds of statues across Poland commemorate the moment.
The book also reflects upon the special bond and friendship he had with Joseph Ratzinger that began in 1978 during the conclave where John Paul I (Albino Luciani), would be elected, and that would lead to Wojtyla eventually making Ratzinger his closest confident, and staying, even when he would have liked to go home to his native Bavaria. The author recounts how the two used to meet every Friday night at 6 o’clock when Ratzinger was Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, not only as collaborators but as dear friends.
Saint Factory, or Recognizing Holiness
The book recalls that some accused the Vatican under this Pope of being a ‘saint factory.’
“Over the course of his papacy, John Paul canonized 482 saints— more than all popes of the previous 500 years combined — and beatified 1,341 men and women,” the author explains. Some of those saints included, Padre Pio, Maximilian Kolbe, Edith Stein, Faustina Kowalska, and Katherine Drexel.
He recalls that the Pope whose legacy would be impossible to give justice, lost his mother at age nine, from kidney disease and congestive failure, and his father by 21, and his brother as well. Being effectively ‘orphaned’ while still in university, he turned to Mary, and developed a filial relationship with Our Lady of Czestochowa.
Bringing God to Where He Was Denied
He also sheds light on how Wojtyla was an actor, wrote poetry and five plays, and, having discovered his vocation, worked during the day in a stone quarry, while having to study meanwhile for the priesthood in secret. Wojtyla kept his eyes on Christ, during his personal heartbreak, and during Nazi Occupation of Poland and subsequent Communism.
He practiced what he would later preach, when he would tell young people: ‘Do not be afraid.’
Early in his ecclesial career in Poland, when they created at Nowa Huta, outside Krakow, as a ‘Worker’s Paradise’ and forbid that a church be built, Wojtyla as a young bishop, and for 20 years, used to celebrate an open-air Mass there every Christmas, until eventually a church could be built. He did not hesitate to challenge authorities when one was being deprived of Christ.
No Compromising the Faith
While advancing ecumenical and interreligious dialogue, and attention to the environment, poor, China and the persecuted, the Polish Pontiff voiced a conservative, uncompromising faith, even to those who disagreed with him. He used to confront politicians whose policies did not protect life without reservations.
Pope John Paul II marked the first world leader to visit largely-Roman Catholic East Timor, ever since Indonesia invaded and annexed it in 1976. When the Polish Pope was in East Timor, and called on Indonesia to respect human rights, his fearless affirmations resulted in various newborns—the author remembers—being named John Paul in the Asian island nation.
In working toward dialogue, John Paul II became the first Pope to enter a mosque during his trip to Syria in 2001.
John Paul II, the book reminds, told the United Nations in 1995 that it must “safeguard the fundamental right to freedom of religion and freedom of conscience, as the cornerstones of the structure of human rights and the foundation of every truly free society.”
“No one,” he said, “is permitted to suppress those rights by using coercive power to impose an answer to the mystery of man.”
Mary’s Hand Guided the Bullet
Looking again at the pontificate itself, the author also recalls the assassination attempt on May 13, 1981, and how John Paul II, met, without handcuffs and televised, his aggressor, and forgave him. Moreover, he stresses how the Polish Pope would credit Our Lady of Fatima with saving his life, saying “one hand pulled the trigger, and another guided the bullet.”
Later the bullet that lodged closest to John Paul II’s heart was removed and welded into the crown of Mary’s statue in Fatima.
The book dives into Wojtyla’s efforts to protect religious freedom, promote a ‘culture of life,’ and combat against a ‘culture of the death.’ Reflecting on the ‘Pope of the Rosary,’ Novecosky remembers details about the Pope’s own personal prayer life, and his encouragement for families to pray the rosary together, essentially suggesting that a family that prays together, stays together.
Always sensitive to the terror attacks against the Twin Towers and Pentagon on 9/11, the Polish Pontiff also said to pray the rosary to combat against ‘terrorism.’
Looking at who he said could be considered the ‘most productive’ pontificate in history, the author looks at how under his watch, the Code of Canon Law was effectively revised in less than 11 months, as well as the Catechism of the Catholic Church in 1992, and various other texts.
Examining the impact of the World Youth Days, and the spiritual fruits they have given youth worldwide, Novecosky remembers how the news led the world to believe the Denver WYD in 1993 would be ‘a bust,’ when rather there was incredible attendance for the 73-year-old Polish Pontiff, and how subsequently numerous apostolates were born in Denver.
Led the Way for Francis in Havana
There are also reflections on the Pope’s disappointment that he never was able to go to Russia, nor meet the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, as hoped, in 1997, to sign a joint declaration with Patriarch Alexy II of Moscow, an act that Pope Francis would be able to achieve for him, in 2016, when meeting Alexey’s successor, Patriarch Kirill, in Cuba, on his way to Mexico.
The Pope also made great strides diplomatically, including establishing diplomatic relations with Israel and Palestinian Authority, urging an end to Catholic-Protestant violence during his 1979 trip to Ireland, and speaking out against conflict, such as violence provoked by apartheid in South Africa, the conflict in Bosnia, and against the First Gulf War, and 2003 United States-driven Iraq War, as he encouraged those involved to not be afraid “to take a chance on peace.”
He combatted against abuses of Liberation Theology, confusion promoted by some orders in the Church, and against child abuse, even if this continues to be the weak spot of his legacy, given that many argue more should have been done.
The Pope’s personal secretary, Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz—the author recalls in the book—has reflected that with time, the Church learned much more about what was actually happening and its gravity.
Couldn’t Say No
The author expresses that beyond his own research and personal experiences, he spoke to and drew inspiration from other experts on the Pope, including papal biographer George Weigel.
The author also shares about his moments with the Pope, including the following anecdote recalling how Wojtyła began writing poetry as a university student in 1939, often using pseudonyms, and how he continued writing poems well into his papacy.
“Among this author’s most treasured possessions,” Patrick Novecosky shares, “is a copy of The Place Within: The Poetry of Pope John Paul II, signed by John Paul on July 31, 1998,” noting: “I used to own a signed deluxe edition with a slipcover, a gift from a friend with connections to the papal household.”
“But then came a call from the Vatican in 1999: the pope did not have a deluxe version in his private library and was requesting my copy. I couldn’t say no. In return, they sent me a “lowly” hardcover version — along with the knowledge that my deluxe edition made it into John Paul’s personal library.”
This and many more anecdotes are waiting in this work for future readers….
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