Arriving for a consistory that would elect the short-lived John Paul I successor to Pope Paul VI, we remember the Cardinal from Krakow saying, “No, no. I am not papabili.” His Eminence, Karol Wojtyla, was thus diverting press attention from himself. And yet, as they gathered around him in the Vatican gardens or on the steps of St. Peters, the young Catholics of Rome all seemed to know him, and he them. Not surprising, for he had spent much time in Rome, and was not this stranger from Poland that much of the press pictured him to be.
And he was approachable. It seemed a wonder that this Prince of the Church inspired so little awe among these youngsters in various stages of religious life that they thought nothing of running up to him, of conversing with this smiling man who was of course papal material, and would in fact become Pope in little more than a month.
Years later it was still evident, this approachability. Speaking to young Poles in his homeland, John Paul II said: “Tell me what your love is, and I will tell you who you are.”
This affinity for the young, and understanding of them, has not been fully explained or explored, I believe, in the maundering obituary material offered thus far. It belies a commonly expressed belief that somehow his selection as Holy Father annoyed or disappointed liberal American Catholics who, to hear some tell it, were expecting someone on the order of a de-frocked Unitarian.
No. To the very end, John Paul II was a social conservative. No ordination of women; no homosexual marriage; no abortion on demand. And yet, have any of the anchors explained what that large “M” stands for on his shield, his coat of arms? It is Mary, Mother of God. This Pope was probably the most Marian of them all. Visiting the shrine of Jasna Gora in his native country in June of 1979 he announced, “Mary’s will is being fulfilled.” As he lay a golden rose on the altar of the Black Madonna, he further declared: “Mother, I am yours and all that I have is yours.”
Tradition has it that St. Luke painted the Madonna on a table top in the home of the Holy Family (art critics have some other favored origins) and the dark figures of Mother and Child are the central figures of Catholic Poland. And if there was a favored place in John Paul II’s heart, it must have been Jasna Gora, translated “bright hill,” and located on the edge of the province capital, Czestochowa. Why else would he have given a treasured artifact from his darkest-brightest moment, to Jasna Gora?
In 1983, two years after he was shot twice by the assassin, Ali Agca, in St. Peter’s Square, the pontiff sent the bullet-pierced belt from his cassock to Jasna Gora, where it is to be displayed among the several icons and artifacts at the foot of the shrine of the Black Madonna. It represents in not too mysterious a way an intercession emblematic of the site. For, two years after he was shot, the Pope visited Agca in prison and, we are told, forgave him. Agca had been sentenced to life imprisonment, only to be pardoned by Italy’s premier in June of 2000. He was returned to his native Turkey where he is in jail for a previous murder and will be eligible for release in 2010.
For those who wish to pay personal homage to John Paul II, the place to go is probably not the sprawling and familiar St. Peter’s. It is more likely the bright hill of Jasna Gora, and the Marian figure within who oversees a piece of white cloth signaling devotion.
Ah, and for those without the means to travel all the way to Poland, how about this: take a moment to talk to and with a group of youngsters. Say to them: “Tell me what your love is, and I will tell you who you are.”
Then listen. He’d like that.
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