I have yet to meet a sincere Catholic around my age who does not know where they were when John Paul II died. We were the ones who had never known another pope. And we are, in a way, one of his many legacies to the Church.
John Paul II’s generation is, considering the length of his papacy, a very large generation. A very large legacy.
I was at Franciscan University of Steubenville at the time, a school famous for its explicit devotion to Magisterial Catholic teaching. So famous, in fact, that news cameras crowded campus when John Paul II was dying. They trailed students around the green, hilly landscape and quizzed them about how they felt. This was an event the whole world watched, and in a strange way some TV people fixated on the young Catholics who watched their beloved pope die.
One of my friends was in Rome when he died. She saw the crowds, held candles in vigil. She and her fellow students were one of the many to whom the dying pope whispered, “I have looked for you, you have come to me, and I thank you.” He with his World Youth Days, the giant events where the pope reached out to a new generation of Catholics. Reached out, looking for them. With that winning personality of his, and the conviction that Christ is still and forever meaningful for every epoch in which the Church finds itself.
There are more stories, more friends. Everyone remembers. Everyone in their unique way makes obvious another quality of John Paul II’s legacy. There are too many to list: the encyclicals, the world-travel, the ecumenical effort, the fall of the Berlin wall, the compassion for the Jewish people, the passion for art, and so forth. Too many to list.
So I find myself straying once again to his last encyclical, Ecclesia de Eucharistia (The Church of/from the Eucharist). John Paul II understood that the Eucharist, as the Second Vatican Council had proclaimed, is the “source and summit of the Christian life” (Lumen Gentium 11; cf. CCC 1324). It is the font of our life, and we well up into the life of the Church as if from Christ’s own side – since the Eucharist is, above all, Christ himself. He is the source of our own life. And he is the height of that life, too: the one for whom we are forever striving, forever seeking to be nearer. When we receive the Eucharist at Mass, we give ourselves back again to the one who is our beginning, and who carries us to himself (carries us to the end). We give ourselves back again to his Church, his Body and Bride. There is nothing so expansive, and so demanding, as the Eucharist.
As John Paul II wrote to begin his encyclical, “The Church draws her life from the Eucharist. This truth does not simply express a daily experience of faith, but recapitulates the heart of the mystery of the Church.”
John Paul II worked throughout his papacy to invigorate the Church’s living sense of the Eucharist, to remind us again that in the Eucharist we encounter Christ himself and everything he did and does for us. He not only wrote about the Eucharist, but showed his own, personal devotion. Always, the pope could be found praying before the Eucharist. He encouraged Eucharistic adoration, and over time adoration chapels appeared all over the world. More and more, spread throughout the world like pinpoints of light in chaos.
And there was chaos. It is easy to forget, or perhaps ignore, the sort of chaos the Catholic Church endured (and endures) after Vatican II. The immense confusion over who we are as Catholics, and who we should be. John Paul II’s papacy was a stabilizing influence in the midst of bitter battles. He responded to these through his teaching: as with Fides et Ratio and Veritatis Splendor, which came down like a hammer against a scoffing audience of moral theologians – and which, despite their predictions, won out. He traveled the world, showing that world an active Church deeply concerned for the poor and abandoned. And, most of all, he devoted himself to Eucharist. He gave himself over to Christ, who had given himself to the Church.
John Paul II knew where the memory of the Church always lives, where its beating heart rests, where its call to action burns: in the Eucharist. Everything proceeds from and returns to the Eucharist, to Christ himself, who is with us. Knowing this, John Paul II dedicated his papacy to reminding us. To pointing us back to Christ – not to himself, but to Christ. Just like the Virgin Mary, whom John Paul II loved dearly.
Perhaps we can hope to do the same. To give ourselves, and live our lives, rooted deeply in a Eucharistic faith.
His profound humility, grounded in close union with Christ, enabled him to continue to lead the Church and to give to the world a message which became all the more eloquent as his physical strength declined. In this way he lived out in an extraordinary way the vocation of every priest and bishop to become completely one with Jesus, whom he daily receives and offers in the Eucharist.
Blessed are you, beloved Pope John Paul II, because you believed! Continue, we implore you, to sustain from heaven the faith of God’s people. Amen.
– Pope Benedict XVI, Homily for the Beatification of John Paul II