Tuesday, April 2, 2013

April 2 - Karol Wojtyla, Pope John Paul II, Friend of the Jews, Apologizer


Karol loved soccer. He loved it enough that he took any opportunity to go and play it with his friends. In many ways, it was a type of escape for young Karol who had lost his mother one month before he turned nine-years-old and had lost his brother and his sister long before he had left childhood behind. Though life was hard for young Karol in Poland he found comfort when he was playing goalkeeper in the games that he and his friends were able to play. It didn't make the pain go away but it gave him something else to care about for a little while. It helped that Karol was an able goalkeeper and often asked to play as one. In the part of Poland that he was raised in there were many Jews and Karol was friends with their children. Many times the soccer games were devised along religious lines: a team of Roman Catholics versus a team of Jews. They would play their competitive but friendly game and Karol was always quick to volunteer to be a goalkeeper for the Jews if they couldn't find one or didn't have enough players. This attitude--this reaching across lines of religious difference--would continue in Karol's life even when he began to be known as John Paul II. Karol's love for his brother--perhaps brought about by the tragic loss of his immediate family--was not bound up in labels and restrictions.

When Hitler and those who committed atrocities with him swept into Poland Karol was attending university and doing well in his studies. Yet, soon the Nazis shut down the university and forced all of its male students to work in the jobs to which they were assigned. While he refused to take up a weapon or commit violence he was forced to serve as a manual laborer in a limestone quarry among other things. In 1941, when Karol was only twenty years old, his father died and Karol was suddenly without any immediate family. In the wake of his father's death he began to hear a still small voice whispering quietly of a calling to the priesthood. He risked his life and welfare to attend the underground seminary in Krakow run by the Archbishop. He proved to be an excellent student and soon had learned nearly twelve languages. While studying he was occasionally forced into hiding when the Nazis would crack down on potential uprisings but this was not the only risk he experienced. He endeavored to protect Jews from the Nazis even though he knew it could cost him his life if he were caught. Eventually, the Nazis would recede from Poland and roughly a year later Karol was ordained to the priesthood.

Karol's priestly calling was an excellent fit for him. He was lauded as a priest who genuinely loved the people of his parish. He rose through the hierarchy to bishop, archbishop, cardinal, and finally pope. As he became more and more involved in the leadership of the Roman Catholic church he found himself in the position to shape the stances and positions of the Church that he loved. He was present at the Second Vatican Council and he was influential in the statement concerning religious freedom. Further, he helped craft the Roman Catholic stance on life and combating what he saw as a "culture of death" in the modern world. As pope he did something incredible:he made confession and penance on behalf of the whole Church. He apologized for the Church's treatment of Galileo Galilei. He apologized for the Church's role in slave trafficking in Africa. He apologized for the Roman Catholic executions and torturing of protestant Christians. He apologized to Muslims for the Crusades. He apologize for victims of inquisition. He apologized for the Church's mistreatment and abuse of women. Perhaps most dearly, he apologized for the Church's inactivity and silence during the Nazi atrocities. He insisted that apology was the way forward for the Church just as it was the way forward for individuals.

John Paul II died on the second of April in the year 2005. Though an assassination attempt had been made on his life--and he pardoned the man who shot him--it was not a bullet that took his life but simply old age and a hard life lived well. He was mourned with passion throughout the world by both Roman Catholics and non-Roman Catholics alike. John Paul II had traveled throughout the world and every place that he had touched--every place where he had knelt down to kiss the earth--cried out at the world's great loss in his death. He had led the Church forward in reconciliation and growth that had been inspired in him by the need for love and forgiveness in a world that favored death and destruction.

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