To be able to live in the lifetime of a pope and a saint is a blessing. Many of us have been blessed with the immense privilege of living in the lifetime of one of the greatest popes in history: St. John Paul the Great.
Yes, St. John Paul has been bestowed the title of not just “Saint”, but also “the Great”. Only 2 other popes in history have been bestowed that title: Pope Leo I (440-461), and Pope Gregory I (590-604).
As explained by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, what gave St. John Paul II the title of “Great” was principally his huge role in history. He was the Pope who helped bring down the atheistic Soviet Empire: “The power of faith turned out to be a force that finally unhinged the Soviet power system in 1989 and made a new beginning possible. Undisputedly, the pope’s faith was an essential element in the collapse of the powers. And so, the greatness that appeared in Leo I and Gregory I is certainly also visible here.’’
But for many of us, who had the grace to live under this great saint’s lifetime, St. John Paul II was great for many other, more personal reasons.
The Pope Conquers Hearts in Manila
I still remember the time that St. John Paul II visited Manila way back in 1995 for World Youth Day. I was only 17 years old at that time. Life was so much simpler back then. We lived in the era of fax machines and landline phones. There were no iPhones. The internet wasn’t that prevalent yet. Mark Zuckerberg was only 9 years old at that time, and was still many years away from inventing Facebook.
And yet, despite the fact that there was no social media back then, the visit of the Pope to Manila was truly a huge one, and was very much the talk of the entire Philippines. I was one of the many millions of people who braved the crowds, and tried to fight my way to a good spot - just to catch a glimpse of St. John Paul II.
I remember one particular encounter with the Pope. I was scrambling with my friends to find a good spot, since we knew that the Pope’s motorcade was about to pass a certain location. We didn’t think we could make it to that spot, but we ultimately did.
The motorcade passed, and we caught a glimpse of the Pope - his face beaming and smiling, waving at us. I remember the feeling: it was overwhelming, to say the least. I truly, truly felt the Divine Presence during that short moment when I encountered the Pope. It is hard to explain, but the Presence of God in the saintly Pope was like an overpowering wind that simply overwhelmed me, and embraced me with an explainable feeling of joy, peace, exuberance.
The “Totus Tuus, Maria” Pope
Beyond his huge impact in the world stage, for me, what makes John Paul II truly great boils down to two things: his love for the Madonna, and his love for the Holy Eucharist.
St. John Paul II lived by the motto “Totus Tuus, Maria”, which means “Totally yours, Mary”. He dedicated his entire pontificate - his entire life - to the Madonna. The Pope was heavily influenced by one of the greatest Marian saints - St. Louis de Montfort. As a young man, he said that he was initially “worried” about loving the Blessed Virgin Mary “too much”. Is it really possible to love the Blessed Mother “too much”?
St. Louis de Montfort’s book, “True Devotion to Mary”, changed the Pope’s outlook completely. He learned, through that book, that when one is truly devoted to Mary - when one offers one’s life completely to Our Lady - one is ultimately led to Jesus Christ. When we love the Madonna, she does not keep the love to herself. She ultimately offers our love to Her Son, Jesus. She leads us to Jesus. Indeed, the perfect way to love Jesus, is to love Him through and with Mary, His Beloved Mother.
The Pope taught me that we cannot love the Blessed Mother “too much”. After all, it is impossible to love her more than Jesus loved her!
He “forced his broken body to kneel” before the Eucharist
When he was at the twilight of his life, St. John Paul suffered from Parkinsons Disease - a truly debilitating disease that made it difficult for the great saint to hold on to anything without his hands shaking.
One of the most enduring images of St. John Paul II to me was witnessing his heroic love for the Eucharist. Despite his condition, I remember seeing him holding the Holy Eucharist, hands shaking severely, and willing his body to kneel down and adore the Lord. His body was broken, but his heart was not. He loved our Eucharist Lord till the end, and despite his broken body, he still willed himself to worship the Eucharistic Lord with the very last ounces of his waning strength.
Cardinal Robert Sarah, former prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, called on everyone to follow St. John Paul II’s example. He said that the Pope “forced his broken body to kneel” before the Eucharist. Cardinal Sarah said: “Of Pope St. John Paul II's respect for Jesus in the Eucharist, Sarah said:
“The whole of the life of Karol Wotyla was marked by a profound respect for the Blessed Eucharist. Much could be said, and much has been written about this. Today I simply ask you to recall that at the end of his life of service, a man in a body wracked with sickness, John Paul II could never sit in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament. He forced his broken body to kneel. He needed the help of others to bend his knees, and again to stand. What more profound testimony could he give to the reverence due to the Blessed Sacrament than this, right up until his very last days.”
Why Have a Devotion to St. John Paul the Great?
I firmly believe that all Catholics should have a devotion to St. John Paul the Great! He was a spiritual father for many of us, when he still lived amongst us as Pope. Now that he is in heaven, he becomes a much more powerful spiritual father for us all, interceding for us with his beloved Madonna, our Mother, and the Eucharistic Lord.
St. John Paul the Great, pray for us!