By MITCHELL KALPAKGIAN
Saint John Paul the Great: His Five Loves, by Jason Evert (Totus Tuus Press and Lighthouse Catholic Media: Lakewood, CO 80228, 244 pp. $21.95). Available through www.ignatiuspress.com.
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Just as a great portrait painter captures the soul of the person in his art so that the body, face, eyes, and expression reveal the essence of a person’s character, so too good biography glimpses the soul of a person. Like a masterful painting, this book illuminates the heart of a great saint.
The first six chapters of part I provide an engaging biographical account of Karol Wojtyla from his birth in Wadowice, Poland, in 1920 to his pontificate from 1978 until his death in 2004. Although familiar to many from other biographies, the story of the great Pope’s life never ceases to amaze or lose human interest. This book’s account of the saint’s life traces the hand of God’s Providence in the life of the future Pope who suffered great tragedies in the first 20 years of his life and lived under the scourge of Nazism and Communism.
At eight years old Karol returned from school to learn of his mother’s death. At 14 he lost his older brother, a physician who contracted scarlet fever from a patient, and at 20 he found his father’s dead body upon returning home from work during the Nazi occupation: “I’m all alone. . . . At twenty I’ve already lost all the people I’ve loved” — a vast haunting loneliness that “had opened up immense spiritual depths in him.” Laboring for four years in a quarry, the future Pope called this experience an education “worth more than two doctorate degrees.”
During the Nazi occupation, the college student studying Polish literature at Jagiellonian University felt a change of heart. Because of the war, Karol’s passion for literature and drama underwent a change of vocation, especially when “people around me thought I would choose the priesthood” — a decision inspired by the patriotic Poles who sacrificed their lives for the liberation of Poland, noble heroism that reflected “the essence of the priesthood” to the college student.
Secretly studying for the priesthood at night while laboring in the day, the young seminarian knew the price of his vocation as one-third of the Polish priests had already gone to their deaths under Nazism — an introduction to “the culture of death” the future Pope fought throughout his lifetime.
Witnessing the end of the German occupation, the seminarian then confronted another atheistic regime committed to the extermination of religion in Poland. The Communists seized Church property, limited Church publications, imposed censorship on freedom of worship and thought, and imprisoned 2,000 priests. Ordained a priest at 26, Fr. Wojtyla left Poland to begin doctoral studies at the Angelicum in Rome, completing his degree with a dissertation on St. John of the Cross and returning to his native land to begin his priesthood at a rural parish.
Always spied upon by the secret police, the young priest fearlessly taught the faith, organized youth groups, cultivated drama, and held firm to a central tenet of Catholic teaching: “When the laws of a state are not based upon the truth of the dignity of the human person, inhuman conditions and acts inevitably follow.” From the beginning, Fr. Wojtyla defended the civilization of love from the culture of death.
Assigned to a parish in Krakow and then directed to earn a second doctorate, Fr. Wojtyla completed a degree in Christian ethics on the thought of phenomenologist Max Scheler and returned to Poland at age 35 as the chairman of the ethics department at the Catholic University of Lublin. Always eager to win souls and evangelize, the future bishop, cardinal, and Pope — defying Communist orders — organized hiking, kayaking, and camping excursions with “holy defiance” of threats and consequences.
When the Communists refused permission for the building of new churches, Wojtyla — the youngest of the College of Cardinals at 47 — celebrated Mass outdoors in inclement weather as testimony of human dignity, man’s inherent right to worship: “The sight of a bishop and his soggy flock celebrating Mass under umbrellas in a vacant lot made the government look petulant.” Throughout his priesthood the Holy Father fearlessly served God first before he obeyed the state.
Because where a man’s treasure is, there his heart is also as Christ taught, Evert identifies as the treasure of John Paul II’s heart young people, human love, the Blessed Sacrament, the Virgin Mary, and the cross — his five loves. The priest who took students on camping trips became the Pope who organized World Youth Day. Evert explains this special affection for the young as John Paul’s intuitive understanding of their hearts and his admiration of their idealism, their attraction to the good, the true, and the beautiful.
Quoting the Pope’s words, “. . . young people are always searching for the beauty in love. They want their love to be beautiful.” Evert adds, “He knew that their hearts were made for love and their minds were made for truth.” The Pope exhorted the young not to be daunted by the heart’s longing for sainthood, inspiring them “not to be content with anything less than the highest ideals,” and he praised them for their disappointment “with hollow entertainment and passing fads, and with aiming at too little in life.”
Never diluting the truth or pandering to the young, John Paul II boldly proclaimed the Gospel of Life with famous statements like “Without the bond of marriage, sexual relations are a lie” and “Man cannot live without love . . . if love is not revealed to him, if he does not encounter love, if he does not experience it. . . .” The Pope who championed the civilization of love gave most personal attention to the young and to families.
The Pope expressed his second great love for the magnificence of marriage and “the true gift of self” that husbands and wives give and receive. His praise for the beauty of marriage, Evert explains, cherished “the soul of the woman” and appreciated in human love “a visible sign icon of the inner life of God.”
This wonder at human love inspired the Pope’s theology of the body with its inherent language and meaning that Evert summarizes: “Therefore, the total gift of one’s body should only be offered with a total gift of the persons.” The Pope’s writings and letters on marriage and the family restored its noble, heroic sense of vocation and sacrifice for the cause of life in the anti-family culture of legalized abortion.
John Paul II identified the Blessed Sacrament as another great love, a treasure where his heart lay: “For me, the Mass constitutes the center of my life and my every day. . . . Nothing means more to me or gives me greater joy.”
The book captures the Pope’s life of constant prayer throughout the day and night — a sight so moving that Cardinal Schönborn remarked, “I never saw anyone so constantly immersed in union with Christ and God, as though it were a permanent state” — a sentiment also reflected in Cardinal McCarrick’s observation: “I’ve rarely seen anyone in that state of such deep prayerfulness. He wasn’t with us anymore.”
The Holy Father both prayed and wrote before the Blessed Sacrament and often spoke aloud in dialogue with God. To John Paul II the faithful must not only receive the Eucharist but also contemplate it as a source of the profoundest love. He writes that the contemplation of the Blessed Sacrament is like contact with the fire of love: “Love is ignited within us, love is renewed within us.” This love that burns in the Sacred Heart then flows into human hearts, preparing them “in the best possible way for any kind of service.”
The Holy Spirit And Mary
The Pope honors as his fourth great love the Virgin Mary, whose miraculous intercession saved him from the bullet of his assassin, Mehmet Ali Agca — a shot that amazingly missed the aorta by a few millimeters. Marveling at the coincidence of the bullet shot on May 13, 1981, and the Feast of Our Lady of Fatima also on that date in 1917, John Paul II witnessed the hand of divine Providence delivering him from death again through the mediation of the Holy Mother.
Formed by the spiritual writing of St. Louis de Montfort, the Holy Father also consecrated his life to the Blessed Virgin with the memorable words “Totus Tuus” (All is yours) and experienced in his own life de Montfort’s words about devotion to Mary as a reciprocal love: “She engulfs him in the ocean of her graces, adorns him with her merits, supports him with her power, enlightens him with her light.”
According to de Montfort, when the Holy Spirit finds devotion to Mary in the soul, He abides there: “He gives himself generously to that soul according to the place it has given to his spouse.”
Loving the cross for its great redemptive power, the Pope taught that suffering “burns and consumes evil with the flame of love and draws forth even from sin a great flowering of good.” Instead of viewing suffering as useless, he considered it as wealth to purchase souls and a power to release love in others to serve the afflicted.
The Pope also lived the life of the cross from the time he was struck by a Nazi truck in Poland, to his assassination, to accidents requiring hospitalization, to Parkinson’s disease, to feeding tubes and colonoscopies. In the midst of all these sufferings the Holy Father offered gratitude for the gift of suffering: “The Pope must suffer, so that the world may see that there is a higher gospel…by which the future is prepared, the third millennium of families….I am indebted to the Blessed Virgin for this gift of suffering and I thank her for it.”
As this inspiring, heart-searching biography shows, sainthood is to give as God gives, to serve as Christ serves, to forgive as God forgives, to love families as God loved His Mother and Father, and to carry the cross as Christ suffered it on Calvary.
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(Dr. Kalpakgian is a professor of humanities.)