"Are you ready? Let's go."
It was a Sunday, January 15, 1995. I was twelve years old. Pope John Paul II was in the Philippines for his second visit, and my mother and I were going to the World Youth Day Mass at Rizal Park in Manila.
We went to the park in the early morning, and it was a sea of humanity. There is a famous photo of the papal helicopter arriving, with the gargantuan crowd beneath it. It was as if the park itself was made of humanity. It was later estimated that up to five million people were in the park for the Mass - the largest single gathering in history. Filipinos and other members of the Universal Church gathered as witnesses.
What could be the explanation for such a great phenomenon? The fire of faith? The Pope's magnetic charisma? The exhilaration of youth for what some call the "Catholic Woodstock"?
All of the above, maybe. But one thing is also clear: the sea of humanity at World Youth Day 1995 in Manila and elsewhere is a microcosm of the yearning of the Universal Church for evangelization - to know the Good News and to share it. And perhaps no other Servant of the Church has done more to help facilitate this need than Pope John Paul II.
That this is so should not come as a surprise or an aberration to anyone who can be acquainted to his remarkable life. Born in fervently Catholic Poland to devoutly Catholic parents, in a time of new-found freedom and independence for the country, Karol Wojtyla (Pope John Paul II's real name) grew up to his adolescence and early manhood amidst personal tragedies as well as happiness. The horrors of the Nazi occupation and the Soviet "liberation" did not dampen his faith; they served to strengthen it further and were influential in his decision to study for the priesthood.
Ordained in 1946, Father Wojtyla was a caring parish priest who already manifested the signs of intellectual and philosophical prowess. Later, as Archbishop of Krakow and a Cardinal, he further contributed to reinforcing his constituents' spiritual well-being, in defiance of the Communist puppet-rulers of Poland. And he also participated in the Second Vatican Council, a watershed event whose results would prove crucial to the Church and his Papacy.
When he was elected Pope in 1978, his first words to the Church were "DO NOT BE AFRAID!". And those words will become the signature of his service.
Be not be afraid to proclaim the faith. Be not afraid to live as witnesses to Christ. Be not afraid to admit your shortcomings and repent. Be not afraid of death and the culture that promotes it.
Be not afraid to proclaim the faith. Pope John Paul encouraged the faithful to know it and to live it, to serve as embodiments of what Christ taught.
Be not afraid to live as witnesses to Christ. Pope John Paul II encouraged all, especially those living under authoritarian regimes and totalitarian dictatorships, to stand up for their rights and for their faith. That the Pope was influential in the collapse of the communist empire of lies in his own Poland and the rest of Europe is a vindication of the truth against the lie.
Be not afraid to ask for forgiveness. Pope John Paul II himself asked for forgiveness for the sins of members of the Church had done. How many leaders can do that?
Be not afraid to do the right thing. What is popular may not necessarily be legitimate.
Pope John Paul II's greatest legacy may be his reminding the world of what true humanism means. The world knows what false humanism can do, when the unbridled desire for what one wants is let loose. It did not lead to a utopia; it resulted in Auschwitz and the gulags. And he also taught that false humanism can also exist in democracies, when the presence of freedom can be misconstrued as just doing what one pleases and subjecting everything to the trap and hollowness of atheism and moral relativism.
Pope John Paul II taught the world not to be afraid of Christ-centered humanism; to respect each other as a creature of God with a soul, with rights, and with dignity. A human person is not an object of utility, to be judged as being useful or not; a person is an individual subject with freedom. And Pope John Paul II reminds us that we are here on Earth to live for the truth and we should use our freedom for good.
"Freedom consists not in doing what we like, but in having the right to do what we ought" - Pope John Paul II, in his homily in Baltimore, Maryland, 1995
And that is why he is now a saint.