A few weeks ago, I mentioned three specific dates, indelibly etched in my mind. What I failed to note was a fourth date: April 2, 2005, exactly 14 years ago from today’s blog posting. On that day, cold and blustery near Cleveland, Ohio, I spoke at a Byzantine parish. We had just wrapped up the “speaking” part of the day and had gone into the Church to pray. Unexpectedly, the bells began tolling and an announcement was made: Pope John Paul II had passed into eternity.

Immediately, I heard in my spirit, “Now my life begins.” It was a rather odd message. My life was already in full swing, smack in the midst of its fourth decade. It was hardly just beginning.

And yet, the Spirit’s message was crystal clear – with the death of Pope John Paul II, my life took on new meaning. My mission now was not only to speak and teach on the Theology of the Body, but to hand on the lasting legacy of this holy man and his spousal mysticism to the next generation and the world.

Pope John Paul II’s legacy is immense, so let’s whittle it down to a half-dozen unique and remarkable accomplishments that forever changed Catholicism and human history.

Lasting Legacy #1: Re-landscaping the Papacy.

Pre-JPII, the Pope was regarded as CEO of Roman Catholic Church, Inc., spending most of his time in Rome with very little relevance to non-Catholics. Pope John Paul II changed all that. Here’s how one author, David Gibson, described JPII’s papacy: “He broke out of the golden cage of the Vatican and its protocols and took the papacy to the world rather than expecting the world to follow the road to Rome.“

Post-JPII, the Pope is considered a major player in global affairs. His actions and words are noticed – and commented on – not just by Catholics, but by non-Catholics as well. Pope Francis has 17.9 million followers on Twitter and 6 million followers on Instagram. I think that puts him squarely in the category of a “social influencer.” Fourteen years after Pope John Paul II’s death, people of all stripes consider the Pope as a world influencer.

Lasting Legacy #2: Breaking the Italian mold.

Pope John Paul II was from Poland. Pope Benedict XVI hailed from Germany. Pope Francis is Argentinian. It’s easy to forget that before Pope John Paul II’s election, there had been an unbroken string of Italian Popes for 455 years.

I’m still fascinated by the video of Pope John Paul II being introduced to the world on the papal balcony. The crowd’s response is noticeably delayed. Who is this man? Where was he from? And what did they say his birth name was? Commentators went scrambling. Almost no one expected a non-Italian Pope. And now 41 years later, it’s readily accepted as an every-day part of life, kind of like espresso and Nutella.

Lasting Legacy #3: The Globetrotting Pope.

During his papacy, Pope John Paul II logged more foreign trips than all previous Popes combined. He visited 129 countries, traveling more than 725,000 miles, and was seen in person by more than 150 million people.

As part of his globetrotting adventures, Pope John Paul II initiated World Youth Day beginning in 1986. At the time, some of the Pope’s advisors and admirers thought he was crazy. Why would young adults, increasingly disenchanted with the Church and pursuing a path of secularization, travel significant distances to spend a few days with the Pope? The answer: Because the Pope wanted to spend time with them!

The success of the first World Youth Day in Rome (1986) surprised Church authorities and launched a pattern of global gathering every two years: Buenos Aires, Argentina (1987), Santiago de Compostela, Spain (1989), Czestochowa, Poland (1991), Denver, Colorado (1993), Manila, Philippines (1995 – where upwards of five million people attended the papal mass and Pope John Paul II had to use a helicopter to get to the stage), Paris, France (1997), Rome for the Great Jubilee (2000), Toronto, Canada (2002), and Cologne, Germany (2005, with Pope Benedict XVI).

World Youth Day was Pope John Paul II’s attempt to personally reach the next generation of Catholics, to speak to them from his heart, to sing and laugh with them, and always, always to invite them to follow Christ, who alone is the fullness of life and happiness. Through his magnanimous and playful interactions with youth and young adults, Pope John Paul II changed the way young people viewed the papacy and inspired numerous vocations to the priesthood and religious life. As a result, reaching out to youth and crisscrossing the globe has become standard for the Vicar of Christ.

Lasting Legacy #4: Healing of Jewish Relations.

Growing up in Poland, some of Pope John Paul II’s closest childhood friends were Jewish. When soccer teams were organized, he never hesitated to play on the “Jewish” team. When the Nazi’s invaded Poland and rounded up and shipped off his Jewish friends, Karol Wojtyla’s sensitive heart was pierced through.

One of those friends was Jerzy Kluger. Growing up, the future Pope frequently helped Jerzy with his Latin studies and spent time with his family in their Jewish home. The two were separated in 1938, and Jerzy was eventually arrested by the Russians and sent to a Siberian gulag. Then, in 1965, Jerzy and “Bishop Wojtyla” were re-united in Rome during Vatican II (each had thought the other had died under communist occupation) and recemented their childhood friendship.

When Pope John Paul II was elected in 1978, Jerzy agreed to be his personal emissary to the State of Israel, thus helping to heal Jewish-Catholic relations. Their lifelong friendship paved the way for beautiful fruit: On April 13, 1986, Pope John Paul II was the first Pope known to officially visit The Great Synagogue in Rome (with Jerzy present, of course). In 1993, Pope John Paul II embraced the “Fundamental Agreement” between the Holy See and Israel, thus re-establishing diplomatic relations between the two states. In the Great Jubilee of 2000, Pope John Paul II made a historic 5-day trip to Israel and was the first Pope to pray at the Western Wall. After decades of strained kinship, maintaining the bond of faith between Catholics and our Jewish brethren is now an integral part of papal responsibility.

Lasting Legacy #5: Toppling Communism.

Pope John Paul II’s direct influence on the demise of communism remains unknown, since he never publicly crusaded against it. However, his indirect influence is undeniable. In his book, The End and the Beginning, Catholic historian and Pope John Paul II biographer George Weigel details the KGB’s unrelenting strategy to discredit and destroy Cardinal Wojtyla/Pope John Paul II, whom the Kremlin regarded as a mortal enemy – and rightly so.

During his three trips to communist Poland, Pope John Paul II strategically avoided criticizing communism by name. Instead, he preached relentlessly about human dignity, the right to religious freedom, the triumph of culture and truth over human political systems, and a revolution of the spirit rather than insurrection.

Renowned historian, John Lewis Gaddis insightfully observed that “when John Paul II kissed the ground at the Warsaw airport on June 2, 1979, he began the process by which communism in Poland – and ultimately everywhere – would come to an end.” (John Lewis Gaddis, The Cold War: A New History, p. 193) Even Wikipedia tips its hat to the Polish Pope by noting: “John Paul II has been credited with being instrumental in bringing down communism in Central and Eastern Europe,  by being the spiritual inspiration behind its downfall and catalyst for ‘a peaceful revolution’ in Poland.”

In a post-communist world, we can easily forget the death-dealing chill of the Siberian gulags, the demolition of religion and human dignity carried out by the all-controlling “State,” and the collectivization of land and industry that stripped individual citizens of opportunities for personal initiative and prosperity. But we should never forget that Pope John Paul II was the initial detonator whose unrelenting voice of truth and human dignity unhinged the USSR through an unbloody revolution.

Lasting Legacy #6: His Pen was Mightier Than the Sword.

Pope John Paul II was a poet and philosopher with a passion for ideas and language. As Pope, he wrote constantly: He released 40 official major papal documents (encyclicals, apostolic exhortations, etc.), 45 less formal documents (apostolic letters, letters to particular groups of artists, families, women, etc.), thousands of homilies and Angelus addresses, 5 books, and…the Theology of the Body.

As a lover of language and ideas, Pope JPII understood well that ideas have consequences: Good ideas have good consequences, and bad ideas can have very bad consequences. Moreover, these good and bad ideas and consequences play out on the stage of history, whose leading actors and actresses are not the State and political systems, but man and woman bound together in the covenant of marriage. Man and woman God created them…not Chief in Command and subordinates. Society, equality, governance, and the future all depend on how we understand man and woman, the meaning of masculine and feminine embodiment, and the unbreakable connection between marriage and family.

While promoting every dimension of Pope John Paul II’s lasting legacy is crucial, the portion of the JPII Vineyard entrusted to me has obviously been #6 – keeping the Trinitarian, spousal, and sacramental vision of Pope (now Saint!) JPII ever-present in the Catholic consciousness. This is the ongoing inspiration for TOB Tuesdays and the reason why my life “began anew” on April 2, 2005.

Here in the USA, there are many things we must never forget: 9-11, the Civil War, segregation laws, etc. Likewise, as a Universal Church, there are many things we must never forget, and principal among them is handing on the lasting legacy of a Pope and Saint who broke the Italian mode, made papal globetrotting standard, reconciled Catholics and Jews, detonated the fall of communism, and foresaw the need to anchor our understanding of reality in a Trinitarian God and the unchanging spousal nature of man and woman.

This week, I invite you to consider how Pope John Paul II impacted your own life and the way the Pope is viewed now compared to 40 years ago. You may even want to do a quick Internet or YouTube search on one of the “lasting legacies” above and increase your own understanding how Pope JPII re-landscaped the papacy. Finally, spend some time in prayer asking the Holy Spirit how you can be part of this mission to keep the lasting legacy of Pope Saint John Paul II alive in the Church and the world. And remember…you are a gift!

For further reading:

Articles on Pope JPII and communism: https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/pope/communism/


A Pope and a President: John Paul II, Ronald Reagan, and the Extraordinary Untold Story of the 20th Century by Paul Kengor

Also, a YouTube search on “Pope John Paul II” will bring up a handful of movies on his life, the NBC news announcement of his passing, and numerous other videos.

© Katrina J. Zeno, MTS