The renowned Pope John Paul II biographer George Weigel gave a moving keynote presentation on suffering in the life of St. John Paul II at the 2005 national conference of the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious. The conference theme was Healing and the Mystery of Suffering. I was there to give my testimony of suffering and healing in the family but the greatest witness we heard was Weigel on the life of Karol Wojtyla. In the latter days of his life that played out on the theatre of the world, the Polish Pope became an image of the Suffering Servant of whom the prophet Isaiah wrote so eloquently.
Pope John Paul II’s apostolic letter on the meaning and value of human suffering (Salvifici Doloris, 11 Feb. 1984) contained a prophetic message—one of many. The theme of Christian suffering will permeate three points presented in this reflection on the life of a saint who forever changed my life.
During my three trips to his beloved Poland, I traced his footsteps praying along the way for the grace to be a lover of God and souls under the mantle of Mary according to Wojtyla’s example. The six times I saw Pope John Paul II in Rome I experienced Christ’s love radiating through this chosen prophet, priest and exorcist. I attended his canonization on 27 April 2014 because I owe him a debt of gratitude.
St. John Paul II: The Prophet
In an address during the 1976 Eucharistic Congress in Philadelphia for the bicentennial celebration of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, Cardinal Karol Wojtyla said:
We are now standing in the face of the greatest historical confrontation humanity has ever experienced. I do not think that the wide circle of the American Society, or the whole wide circle of the Christian Community realize this fully. We are now facing the final confrontation between the Church and the anti-church, between the gospel and the anti-gospel, between Christ and the antichrist. The confrontation lies within the plans of Divine Providence. It is, therefore, in God’s Plan, and it must be a trial which the Church must take up, and face courageously…
This 38-year-old prophecy is unfolding now when a great battle is underway for the soul of the Church. Pope John Paul II prepared us to take up the trail that lies within the plans of Divine Providence. He repeatedly taught, be not afraid—echoing the words of Christ in scripture where the same message is repeated over 100 times—fear not! St. John Paul was a prophetic voice, a prophet of courage, and like all prophets he was either accepted or rejected. What is the Catholic understanding of courage? St. Thomas Aquinas teaches, “Fortitude of soul must be that which binds the will firmly to the good of reason in face of the greatest evils.”
Karol Wojtyla’s life is a profile in courage from the time of his youth fraught with loss and danger to his old age fraught with physical diminishment displayed on the stage of the world for a mysterious audience whom he loved like Christ loves.
The Christian must have fortitude, forbearance, and the ability to confront fear, uncertainty and intimidation from the world and the evil one. St. John Paul II said, “In the inner heart of every person the voice of God and the insidious voice of the Evil One can be heard. The latter seeks to deceive the human person, seducing him with the prospect of false goods, to lead him away from the real good that consists precisely in fulfilling the divine will” (Angelus, March 9, 2003).
St. John Paul II: The Priest
Karol Wojtyla lived his priesthood to the fullest. The Sacrament of Holy Orders transforms an ordinary man into a priest who is a beloved son of the Eternal Father, a chaste spouse of the Church, a spiritual father of souls, the head of the body of Christ and a shepherd who lays down his life for the flock.
In his book, Gift and Mystery the Pope’s personal testimony reveals the difficult situation that marked his vocational discernment. The crucible of suffering is never far from a saint in the making.
But let us go back to 1 September 1939. The outbreak of the war radically changed the course of my life. True, the professors of the Jagiellonian University tried to start the new academic year in the usual way, but lectures lasted only until 6 November 1939. On that day the German authorities assembled all the teachers in a meeting which ended with the deportation of those distinguished scholars to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp. The period of my life devoted to the study of Polish language and letters thus came to an end, and the period of the German occupation began.
Karol Wojtyla was ordained to the priesthood on 1 November 1946 by Archbishop of Krakow, Cardinal Sapieha. He loved his priesthood and his brother priests with fatherly affection as evidenced in his annual letters on Holy Thursdays.
12. Dear Brothers, …In each of our diocesan communities we are going to gather together, on this birthday of our Priesthood, to renew the grace of the Sacrament of Orders, to stir up the love which is the mark of our vocation. We hear Christ saying to us as he said to the Apostles: “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends… No longer do I call you servants…, I have called you friends.” Before him who manifests love in its fullness, we, priests and Bishops, renew our priestly commitments. We pray for one another, each for his brother, and all for all. We ask the eternal Father that the memory of the Cure of Ars may help to stir up our zeal in his service. We beseech the Holy Spirit to call to the Church’s service many priests of the caliber and holiness of the Cure of Ars: in our age she has so great a need of them, and she is no less capable of bringing such vocations to full flower. For my part, I assure you once more of my great affection, and, with your Bishop, I send you to my Apostolic Blessing. (Vatican, March 1986)
St. John Paul II: The Exorcist
The Pope’s 1986 encyclical on The Holy Spirit (Dominum Et Vivificantem) teaches, “Not only the devil is involved in spiritual warfare, but the Holy Spirit is equally involved, or more involved in it, bringing men and women of goodwill the ability to overcome evil in their lives, so that they too can say: “Where evil abounded, grace super-abounded!” (Rom. 5:20).” On the subject of spiritual warfare, Pope John Paul II placed a fresh, strong emphasis on the role of the Holy Spirit. Priest exorcists and their teams rely fully on the Holy Spirit in every case where liberation from evil spirits is required.
According to interviews with Rome’s chief exorcist, Fr. Amorth, (quoted in José Maria Zavala’s book Así se vence al demonio) Pope John Paul II carried out at least two or more exorcisms against “extremely powerful demons”. Fr. Gabriel says: “I remember it perfectly. I know Francesca, the young lady who was present that morning during the Papal Audience at the Vatican. Previously, the bishop of the girl’s diocese asked the Pope if he would be willing to perform an exorcism on her, and he gave his consent without hesitation. The Pope proceeded immediately to do the exorcism, in his private chapel in the Vatican. Francesca did nothing but spit, writhe, and crawl on the ground. The people around the Pope could not believe their eyes: ‘We have never seen a scene like the ones described in the Gospel’, they admitted. Indeed, John Paul II said: ‘Everything that happens in the Gospels still happens today’.”
Regarding the other exorcism, it would be too much for this brief reflection. But as a final point, Fr. Amorth remembers that he once asked the devil why he was so afraid of John Paul II, “He told me that this had happened for two reasons: first, because the Pope had foiled his plans with the fall of communism in Europe. And then because he had snatched the souls of many young people during his papacy.”
In John Paul II’s own words: “Begone, Satan!’ The Messiah’s resolute attitude is an example and an invitation for us to follow him with courageous determination. The devil, the “prince of this world”, even today continues his deceitful action. Every man, over and above his own concupiscence and the bad example of others, is also tempted by the devil, and the more so when he is least aware of it.”(Vatican Archives: Angelus 17 Feb 02)
St. John Paul The Great, graciously pray for us that the Holy Spirit will transform the human world from within so that we can overcome evil by doing good and become courageous prophets of joy.
image: Monument to John Paul II (Warsaw) by PhotoRK / Shutterstock.com
For more information on the meaning and value of human suffering, please visit www.foundationforpriests.org Learn More section on The Offering of Suffering.