October 2, 2003

Pope John Paul II: A Tribute

When we think of our Holy Father, Pope John Paul II, two phrases come immediately to mind. Together, they capture with extraordinary effectiveness the spirit and power of his long and fruitful pontificate.

The first of these phrases is "Do not be afraid!" Pope John Paul II has been repeating it over and over again from his very first days as Bishop of Rome. In a stadium in Havana, Cuba, in 1998, he told thousands of men, women and children – and their rulers too: "Do not be afraid! Open yourselves to the Gospel of Jesus Christ." In Central Park here in New York City, in 1995, he delivered the same message. "Do not be afraid," he pleaded with all in attendance. "The power of the Holy Spirit is with you." And he continued the theme in Asia, Africa, South and Central America, Europe and Oceania, indeed, in every corner of the earth. "Do not be afraid!"

In all of these exhortations, the Holy Father is summoning us to courage and to trust in the providence of an all-loving God. Are we hesitant to take a stand for the poor, for peace, for the child in the womb, for the elderly and disabled, for freedom in public discourse or for decency in public displays and entertainments?

The Vicar of Christ has a message for us. "Put aside your uncertainty," he proclaims. "Conquer your fears. Deal with challenges boldly. The Lord is with you. Never allow yourselves to be frightened when what you support and defend is what He would support and defend."

Like the Lord calming His disciples in a storm on the Sea of Galilee (cf. John 6:30), the Successor of Peter calms us amid the storms of our times. His words encourage us. His assurances embolden us. Like the disciples, we are suddenly strengthened and at peace. Nothing seems beyond our powers as long as they are imbued with the grace of our God. Fears and anxieties melt away. We hear the steadying voice of the Shepherd of the Universal Church, and an unexpected and most welcome confidence wells up within our souls. "Do not be afraid!" he tells us. "Do not be afraid!"

The second of the two phrases that so epitomize Pope John Paul II and his 25 years as Supreme Pontiff is best known in its Latin form, "Totus tuus." These words, or better: this lifetime commitment, was borrowed from the writings of a young French priest of the late 1600s, St. Louis Marie de Montfort, by the young future pontiff when he was secretly preparing for the priesthood and laboring at the same time in a factory during the Nazi occupation of his native land. They mean "I am yours, totally yours"; and for both de Montfort and the future pontiff they were directed to the Mother of Jesus Christ, the Mother of the Savior who taught us never to be afraid.

All the world knows with what enthusiasm and dedication the Holy Father has been "totally hers." The words, "Totus tuus," appear on his papal coat of arms. He has preached devotion to Mary in the greatest cathedrals and humblest chapels of the world. He has written about her in encyclical letters and papal declarations of all kinds. He has composed numerous prayers invoking her guidance. He has authored splendid poems about her and even created a fourth set of mysteries for her very special prayer, the Rosary. And in all of this he has taught all of us to be totally the Lord’s by being totally Mary’s as well.

Pope John Paul II is by any measure one of the most celebrated and inspiring leaders of the 20th and 21st centuries. He has championed the law of God when others have lost hope and given in to the demands of a fickle world. He has preached the Gospel with clarity and extraordinary insight. He has guided the Church wisely and touched the hearts of millions outside the fold. He has faced up to any and all expressions of racism and totalitarianism. He has fought for peace and justice with equal vigor. He has been a missionary traveling the world as no one ever before him, and this he has continued even in the face of extraordinary physical infirmities.

On the occasion of the silver anniversary of his pontificate, it will be my privilege to travel to Rome to tell him of the love and admiration of the People of God of the Archdiocese of New York. I will join him in prayer at Holy Mass, and my prayer will not be at all complicated. I will beg the Lord to keep our Holy Father ever in His loving care, and I will ask that we continue to learn from him always to be close to the Mother of our Savior and never afraid.


A Personal Note

One morning almost 20 years ago, when I was working in the Roman Curia, I received a telephone call from the secretary of Pope John Paul II. Five priests, myself included, had been giving a good deal of time and effort to a project for the Holy Father; and he was inviting us to supper to express his thanks.

We arrived at the door of the papal apartment and were led immediately into the dining room. The Vicar of Christ was already in his place at the table. It was his birthday; and before the soup was served, we all wished him well, promising our loyalty and prayers.

When the meal was over, the Bishop of Rome signaled his secretary to bring from a table near the door of the dining room five boxes wrapped in festive paper. Birthdays, Pope John Paul II reminded us, are occasions for the giving of gifts; and ordinarily, he went on, the gifts are given to the one whose birthday it is. However, the Holy Father wanted to do something special to make sure we understood how grateful he was for what we had been doing for him. Accordingly, he had invited us to celebrate his birthday but was reversing the customary birthday procedure by giving gifts to us, his guests.

Mine was a portable radio that received AM, FM and short-wave broadcasts. It has always had a place of honor in any office in which I have worked since the unusual birthday celebration of almost two decades ago. For to me it is not so much a gift as a lesson – a lesson in Christlike kindness from the Shepherd and Teacher of the Universal Church.

Edward Cardinal Egan

Archbishop of New York