Pope John Paul II, Even in Dying, Proclaimed Christ

You’ll pardon me, I trust, if I “take a walk down memory lane” this Holy Thursday, with Easter so close, and recall Holy Week 2005, the last one for the man Pope Benedict XVI will soon beatify, so we will be able to call him “Blessed John Paul II.”

I guess that, for most of us, Easter Week will always remind us of Pope John Paul II. It was Easter Week 2005, when the world united in a “death watch,” as we waited for the inevitable word that the Pope, already referred to as “the Great,” was near death.

We knew it was serious during Holy Week, remember, when he was unable to celebrate any of the moving liturgies? On Good Friday we caught a glimpse of him in his own private chapel, clutching a crucifix, watching on television as then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger led the Stations of the Cross at the Coliseum.

And we all waited for Easter morning. Would he be able to greet the throng of pilgrims who had come to Rome for our “high holy days”? The Pope, of course, is the Successor of St Peter. It was St. Peter who—as we will read at the Easter liturgy—was one of the first to discover the empty tomb, one of the first to proclaim the epic news that Jesus had indeed risen from the dead. And it is the successor of St. Peter to whom the world looks every Easter to lead us in our confession of faith that Christ is risen.

That year 2005, the dying pope did not let us down. He came to his window overlooking St. Peter’s Square and waved to the quarter-million pilgrims assembled below. We waited for him to speak…the microphone was placed near his quivering mouth…we waited…we watched… he opened his mouth…and nothing came out. He kept trying to speak, to tell us the “good news” that Easter was here, that Jesus had conquered sin, Satan and death—and he could not get a word out. He kept trying…he grimaced…he teared up…he blessed us…he waved goodbye…it was the last time we would see him.

I wonder if it was then that he knew his earthly journey was over. By Easter Wednesday, he was in a coma, on Easter Saturday, the vigil of the Feast of Divine Mercy—the very feast which this year will see his beatification—he was dead. And I wonder if it was because he was unable any longer to proclaim to us the Resurrection of Jesus.

That, of course, was his “job description” as Pope: to proclaim that Jesus is risen from the dead. He did that faithfully, heroically, in his life, in his dying.

That, of course, is our job description, too. For any of us who claim to be His faithful followers, Christians, members of His Catholic Church, our “job description” is to confess that Jesus is Lord and to believe that He is risen from the dead. That makes us all heralds of hope, witnesses to the empty tomb, people who cling to faith and who radiate joy and trust. No one, nothing, can ultimately get the best of us, for our Savior has conquered sin and death.

CNS file photo from L’Osservatore RomanoPope John Paull II silently prays during a pastoral visit to Abuja, Nigeria, in March 1998.

In a world that often looks more like Good Friday afternoon—dark, gloomy, bloody, desperate, ugly, hateful, vicious, false, meaningless, deadly…we speak confidently of light, hope, beauty, love, goodness, truth, purpose and life. We “fast forward” to Easter morning.

With our blessed Mother, with the Magdalene, with St. Peter, with the beloved disciple, and with soon-to-be-Blessed John Paul the Great, we confess that the heavy rock which had crushed our dreams on Friday as it sealed the grave has been rolled away, that the tomb in which all our hopes had been buried is now empty…that “He has risen as He said, alleluia, alleluia.”

A blessed Easter!