Pope John Paul II. Wikimedia Commons

Do Not Fear

In recognition of the ceremony in which Benedict XVI proclaims him blessed, we present memories of (and current happenings related to) a Pope to whom we owe a great deal.
Alessandra Banfi

He challenged the anguish that gripped Italy and the world, and warned against ideologies on both sides of the Iron Curtain. Above all, he based everything on a "taboo": Jesus Christ and His claim to be the "center of the cosmos and of history." In recognition of the ceremony in which Benedict XVI proclaims him blessed, we present memories of (and current happenings related to) a Pope to whom we owe a great deal.

There was a terrible downpour and yet around dusk the sky cleared and I remember that Polish priest, half lame, who accompanied us. I'm not sure what modern neuroscience says, but my memory works this way. Going so far back, flashes of memory remain, like in a dream. If I have to think of the beginning of everything, the first time I even considered the hypothesis of a Polish pope, I go back to that afternoon of August 1977. It was the second year that CL organized the pilgrimage in Poland, from Warsaw to Czestochowa, and how beautiful it was to be there chatting with that priest in the light after the storm.
The visible light of central Europe was already a kind of preview of what was about to happen. It's not easy to recount 30 years with a saint, 30 years of our life so greatly marked by this incredible man, who found himself designated Bishop of Rome when fear dominated the scene, and who then accompanied us through so many passages. However, the beginning was there, and then another flash image of memory: as if from one light to another, to that autumnal and clear light of Saint Peter's Square in Rome, in October 1978, when he said, "Do not be afraid. Open the doors to Jesus Christ!"

Karol Wojtyla, the man from the East, had grasped our deepest feeling: fear. Between the summer of the pilgrimage and that of the three popes, there had been the kidnapping of the Italian Christian Democrat leader Aldo Moro, and we were living under a cloud of anguish and with the sense that the Church was about to be definitively swept away by the powers of the world. I remember our beloved Paul VI, almost bent over with pain in the dark Church of Jesus, celebrating the memory of his politician friend, Aldo Moro, in the end, murdered by Communist extremists of the Red Brigade. The articles of Pier Paolo Pasolini on the Via Crucis, gone deserted to the Colosseum, and then the incredible dashed hope the last night of that pontificate that lasted only 33 days: Albino Luciani, a good parish priest, and a good pastor for Italy, had died.

The Polish Oak
And instead, here came the Polish oak, a young man who presented himself to the world intertwining two key words: fear, as we said, and then the other word, the other almost taboo word of those insane times: Jesus Christ. The Church could move forward if she rediscovered her deepest origin: her Lord. It seemed revolutionary to say so: just entrusting oneself to Him in order not to fear. It appeared crazy to propose to the world, to the whole world, Christ, and Christ crucified. In continuity with what had happened, he chose the name John Paul II. Tradition and innovation.

It is not surprising that his first great encyclical was Redemptor Hominis, with a message that enthused us greatly, because it was the heart of our experience. Jesus fulfills humanity. He doesn't castrate it, doesn't limit it, but realizes it in all its potential. We accepted the challenge to be Christians in order to be better women and men, happier, truer, more serious with our destiny. "Christ, the center of the cosmos and of history"–what power of intuition, what an overturning of perspective compared to the official Catholic culture that dominated in those decades!

We had a pope who loved to sing, to skip protocol, to spend time with young people. The friends of the Rome community told us that he always celebrated "monthly birthdays" with choirs and guitars, with a simplicity of friendship that in the beginning was almost stunning. Over the years, it became clear that Pope Wojtyla wanted to be and would be the Pope of the young, of journeys, of contact with the people, of the improvised song that comes to the heart of the simple. He loved communion, and he made liberation the great theme with which he challenged and encountered the contemporary world.

In August 1980, Solidarity (Polish: Solidarnosc) was born, with those incredible photos that invaded our homes of the confessions in the shipyards, the workers striking in Dansk, the Black Madonna on the gates... In just two years, the world changed its attitude toward the Pope and the Church. The first spiritual son of John Paul II was a worker called Lech Walesa, and the Western mass media soon fell in love with him. The new Pope traveled untiringly to the East and the West. The Walls that held up the world began to show cracks, not only physical walls and those of political and military power, but also spiritual ones, atheism, secularism, and consumerism. In the Church, a process of re-thinking began about the post-Vatican II theological fashions. But there was no master plan, no pre-defined strategy: the consequences of the first explosive years of his pontificate arrived suddenly as if out of distraction.

And when Ali Agca shot the Holy Father in Saint Peter's Square on May 13, 1981, it was suspected that another worldly power conspired against the man come from afar. The hatred of the world exploded in only one terrible excess of Evil, which, however, was not definitive. From then on, John Paul II would bear physical pain and perhaps a new spiritual and cultural threat; he was a witness, and from then on also a martyr.

John Paul II was an earthquake for the Italian church as well. "You're without a homeland," he had said personally to Fr. Giussani, and repeated it, so that the idea would penetrate in us that we were a movement that never felt tranquil and that nonetheless participated with obedience and commitment in the vicissitudes of Italian Catholicism. But Wojtyla, as if to re-arrange the pieces of a modern mosaic, shook the habitual rites and hierarchies with the conference of the Italian Church in Loreto in April 1985. There, he gave a precise and clear mandate for unity among Italian Catholics and for evangelization of our nation, pointing to the lay associations and movements. "In the promotion of ecclesiastic communion and in their capacity for apostolic presence of the Church, the great variety and vivacity of aggregations and movements, above all lay ones, that characterize the current Post-Vatican II period, appear very significant and charged with promise," he said. It came as no surprise that Loreto was followed by a new season of Catholic Action and a new engagement of the Italian Episcopal Conference, guided by Cardinal Camillo Ruini. In the beginning, the Polish pope provoked divisions and created many enemies, ecclesiastical as well, and entire progressive editorial groups campaigned against him in open war, no holds barred. Only time would bring things back to normal.

His Sollicitudo Rei Socialis and the principle of subsidiarity that it pointed out and encouraged fueled the locomotive of Solidarity, beyond the Berlin Wall, and also catalyzed the attention of all Catholics who were committed in public and social life, at all longitudes and latitudes. The end of the Socialist and Soviet systems, marked by the collapse of 1989, gave a surprise closing to the 20th century, which in the papacy of Wojtyla found a final and epochal form of redemption.

But this was not the end of history, at least for John Paul II and his Church. Rather, it was the beginning of a new phase, with insistence on peace and human rights. For those of us who experienced the epic of pacifist choice on the occasion of the first Gulf war (1991) in the editorial offices of Il Sabato, those years were exciting. Once again, the Pope unhinged the habitual pattern (one deliberately pushed by the mass media) of the alliance of the Catholic Church and Western interests. Only 48 hours after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Pope firmly rejected the role the mass media assigned him as chaplain of President Bush.

He was controversial in his inter-religious prayer gathering in Assisi, extraordinary and prophetic in the first mea culpa of the Colloseum; the true apex of his pontificate was dominated by the word mercy, in prayer and in behavior. His pontificate was gladly and immediately Marian, close to the popular religiosity of the common people, the everyday saints, but also of the great Mother Teresa, a personal friend, or Padre Pio, who were raised to beatification and sainthood with the certainty of the Pastor and the ardent determination of a mystic. His pontificate was luminously dedicated to Mary (Totus tuus) and the simple, repeated pilgrimages to Lourdes, Fatima, Loreto, Czestochowa.

A Humble Servant
Over the years, his testimony before everyone became increasingly limpid, bringing to the extreme his initial invitation to open the doors to Jesus Christ. He himself, John Paul II, was the incarnation of a humble servant who offered himself to women and men and to the world, defenseless, unarmed–a humble servant who could also be denied and rejected. A man of pain, he showed all the sick of the cosmos and of history that they were no longer alone and that Jesus loved them, too.

The last flash image is that of the Spring of 2005, marked by those three deaths, so close together and unforgettable: that of Sister Lucia, the seer of Fatima, that of Fr. Giussani, and, soon after, the extraordinary and memorable departure from this earth of Karol Wojtyla. It was a farewell that lasted days, with young people in line, women and men in prayer, and an entire world moved–the last (or first) miracle of a man many wished to be declared a saint immediately.