“Be not afraid!”
With these famous words, Karol Wojtyla, the former Polish Cardinal, addressed the crowds at St. Peter’s Square, beginning his pontificate as John Paul II.
John Paul II entered the papacy in October of 1978, the year of the three popes, succeeding the fifteen-year reign of Pope Paul VI and short-lived papacy of John Paul I, the former Archbishop of Venice. The College of Cardinals assembled again to select a new pope, and to the surprise of many outside the Vatican selected the first non-Italian pope in centuries and the first Polish pope.
In her latest work, John Paul the Great, Peggy Noonan reflects upon one of the twentieth century’s most prolific heroes. Noonan combines the personal with the theological in her lucid, rich description of John Paul’s service to the Church and the world.
The political setting surround John Paul’s ascendancy to the papacy differs dramatically from today. John Paul rose in a Poland overrun by conflict for four decades, first by Nazi and then Communist oppression. Only months into his papacy, he yearned to return to the place he had served as Archbishop and later Cardinal.
Noonan writes that over the course of ten days, John Paul challenged his countrymen to see the reality around them differently. Instead of the division of Europe, understand the truth: “We are Christians, we are here, and we are united.” In his final outdoor Mass, with two million in attendance, John Paul commanded the gatherers to “never lose your spiritual freedom.”
Discussing her personal admiration of John Paul, Noonan devotes space to the story of visiting the Vatican for an audience with the Pope. With her were groups from around the world, gathered to see their earthly spiritual leader. During the moving encounter, the Pope presented each with a simple rosary, and Noonan reflects upon the impact of this meditative tool on her spiritual life, encouraging other Catholics to take it up.
As Peggy Noonan journeyed towards “serious Catholicism,” she felt that John Paul came to play the role of a spiritual father. She relates two stories of visits by the Pope to New York City and St. Patrick’s Cathedral. She tells of the accidental, though symbolic expulsion during the first visit and the accidental, yet miraculous entrance into the Cathedral during the second visit.
John Paul is beloved for what he believed. In his masterpiece Veritatis Spledor, he wrote that all of humanity travels through history asking similar questions about life’s purpose and happiness, questions that act as a “preparation for God.” Asking questions reveals the human freedom to make choices towards what is good.
Noonan paraphrases John Paul’s message that human freedom finds its authenticity and fulfillment in the acceptance of the law of God. Without freedom, there can be no morality, no choice of right and wrong. In the midst of our personal choice, she writes, “we are oriented by nature, as human persons, to look for what is true.” And to journey toward truth is to journey toward God.
Other segments of Noonan’s work bring to the modern reader the work of John Paul on Catholic teaching on marriage and the body. She also spends some time discussing the pedophilia scandal that rocked American churches. Both Catholic and non-Catholic audiences will appreciate her style of writing and discussion on John Paul’s influence in the world.
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