Joseph Stalin famously demanded to know “How many divisions does the Pope of Rome have?” Stalin was, of course, asking the wrong question, as the saint whose feast is today finally proved.
It’s safe to say that this event impacted my world not at all.
I vaguely remember a buzz of excitement in my extended family on my father’s side, being that they were both Catholic and Polish.
I saw him only twice.
The first was when he visited Chicago a year after his election. I remember they let us out of school to help line the parade route down California Avenue. Somebody next to me threw a flower at the Pope’s car as it drove past.
When I watched the news that night, the rose was still on the top of the Pope’s car as it drove up to his airplane.
The second time I saw him was in 2005. Now finally a Catholic, I knelt in prayer before his cold, still body arrayed in splendour in Saint Peter’s Basilica.
But even before the first time I saw him, he had visited Poland in June of 1979. There, he started the avalanche that brought down Communist Poland, and eventually the USSR.
…Why, the pope asked, had God lifted a Pole to the papacy? Perhaps it was because of how Poland had suffered for centuries, and through the 20th century had become “the land of a particularly responsible witness” to God. The people of Poland, he suggested, had been chosen for a great role, to understand, humbly but surely, that they were the repository of a special “witness of His cross and His resurrection.”
He asked then if the people of Poland accepted the obligations of such a role in history. The crowd responded with thunder.
“We want God!” they shouted, together. “We want God!”
What a moment in modern history: We want God. From the mouths of modern men and women living in a modern atheistic dictatorship.
The pope was speaking on the Vigil of Pentecost, that moment in the New Testament when the Holy Spirit came down to Christ’s apostles, who had been hiding in fear after his crucifixion, filling them with courage and joy. John Paul picked up this theme. What was the greatest of the works of God? Man. Who redeemed man? Christ.
Therefore, he declared, “Christ cannot be kept out of the history of man in any part of the globe, at any longitude or latitude. . . . The exclusion of Christ from the history of man is an act against man! Without Christ it is impossible to understand the history of Poland.” Those who oppose Christ, he said, still live within the Christian context of history.
Christ, the pope declared, was not only the past of Poland–he was “the future . . . our Polish future.”
The massed crowd thundered its response. “We want God!” it roared.
It’s like something out of the Golden Legend.
People often say that there are no miracles today, not like those in the Bible or in the stories of the saints. Well, here’s a Pope that was instrumental in bringing down a tyranny that enslaved hundreds of millions of people over seventy years.
Here’s a Pope whose actions and prayers helped end the Cold War and the looming threat of global thermonuclear war.
I can’t fathom how people can shrug this off.
Today is the Optional Memorial of Blessed Blessed Pope John Paul II. This coming Divine Mercy Sunday, he will be declared a saint, and today will be his feast day for the universal Church.
Although he didn’t make an impression on me at the time, I have no doubt that with the grace of God, he changed my world.
Blessed Pope John Paul II, pray for us.