Published April 3, 2005
[This article was republished in the Courier Mail of Queensland, Australia under the title “Driving Force for All to Live Without Fear.”]
He was the most visible human being in history. Throughout the world today, hundreds of millions of men and women are conjuring up living memories of Pope John Paul II; those who never saw him in person are sifting through a large memory bank of photographs and film. As I reflect on 25 years of writing about John Paul and more than a dozen years of conversation with him, however, the image that comes to my mind is one with which the world may not be familiar.
It’s not an image taken from one of the dramatic public moments of his pontificate: his papal installation of Oct. 22, 1978, with its clarion call, ”Be not afraid! Open the doors to Christ”; his epic first pilgrimage to Poland in June 1979, nine days in which the history of the 20th century pivoted, marking the beginning of the end of history’s greatest tyranny; the confrontations with Nicaragua’s Sandinistas in 1983 or with Chilean rioters in 1987; the World Youth Days; the two great addresses to the United Nations; the opening of the Holy Door at the beginning of the Great Jubilee of 2000.
Rather, my personal memories of John Paul II — my attempt to get the meaning of his life into focus — center on something that took place away from the camera’s inquiring eye.
It was Sunday, March 26, 2000, the last day of John Paul’s jubilee pilgrimage to the Holy Land. A week of televised drama on the Mount of Beatitudes and in Bethlehem, Nazareth, and Jerusalem was coming to an end. That morning, the pope had prayed at the Western Wall of Herod’s Temple, Judaism’s holiest site, then celebrated Mass at Jesus’s tomb in the Holy Sepulcher — two very public expressions of his faith in the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Jesus. It seemed to everyone concerned that the only thing left was for John Paul to complete the farewell ceremonies at Ben-Gurion Airport and return to Rome.
He had another idea.
Quietly, during lunch, he asked whether he could return to the Basilica of the Holy Sepulcher privately, to pray as a pilgrim. The authorities were aghast — how could security be arranged so quickly? But matters were eventually worked out, and John Paul, who had a different kind of security in mind, returned to the Basilica.
It soon became clear why he wanted to return.
That morning, the schedule hadn’t permitted him to pray at the 11th and 12th stations of the cross on an upper floor of the great church. So now, a man just short of his 80th birthday, a man who walked with difficulty and pain, climbed the steep, spiraling stone steps to Calvary. Having challenged the world to fearlessness — having embodied fearlessness himself for more than two decades — he had to pray at the place where Jesus, taking all the world’s fear upon himself, had offered that fear, and himself, to the God he called ”Father.” At the deepest level of his Catholic conviction, John Paul believed that Christ’s self-sacrifice, and the divine answer given it in the resurrection, enabled all to live without fear. That was why the pope had to pray at Calvary. He had to pray at the place where fear had been conquered through radical obedience and self-sacrificing love.
Karol Wojtyla’s entire life comes into focus here. John Paul II was many things for the church and the world: a brilliant teacher, an inspiring leader, a shining personal example. He was all of those, however, because he was first and foremost a Christian disciple. His exceptional talents and personal magnetism can’t explain his accomplishments, nor do they get us to the core of his person. We have to look deeper.
We have to look to his faith. No one could ever understand Karol Wojtyla without confronting one adamant fact: He truly believed that Jesus Christ is the answer to the question that is every human life. This was the conviction on which he staked his life. This was the truth that drove his teaching, that made possible his accomplishments, and that gave his personality its rich human texture.
He was the great Christian witness of our time. No other description suffices.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.