Images of the Priest in the Life and Thought of John Paul II | George Weigel | HPR
If there is one great truth to be learned from the luminous, world-transforming priestly ministry that Karol Wojtyła, Pope John Paul II, gave to the Church, it is this: a true priestly vocation begins with a commitment to radical discipleship.
It has been nine years since the remarkable events that unfolded between February and April, 2005—and still our minds and imaginations, and perhaps our prayers as well, come back, time and again, to the last illness and death of Pope John Paul II. Those memories take on special resonance as his canonization draws near.
It was an extraordinary human drama—perhaps one of the few genuinely global dramas in history. An entire world gathered, metaphorically, around the bed in the papal apartment to help John Paul II through what he called, in his spiritual testament, his “Passover.” Yet, February, March, and early April 2005 unfolded as not just an extraordinary human drama, but as an extraordinary Christian drama and, indeed, an extraordinary priestly drama. For what the world saw (whether it recognized it in these terms or not), and what the Church lived through (and hopefully recognized as such), was manifestly the death of a priest. For the last time, Karol Wojtyła led the Church and the world into an experience of the Paschal Mystery. And that is the essence of the vocation of priests: to lead the Church, and the world, into an experience of the mystery of Jesus Christ, crucified and risen.
How did the late pope do that? As my mind’s eye turns back to those dramatic days, certain vignettes, etched in poignancy, stand out.
I remember the Pope returning to the Vatican from the Policlinico Gemelli hospital on February 10 and March 13, 2005, with throngs of Romans crowding the streets to welcome back the man they had once thought of as lo straniero (“the stranger”) but whom they now thought of, quite literally, as il papa (“father”).
I think of the Pope with a palm branch in his hand at the window of the Apostolic Palace on Palm Sunday.
I remember the Pope in his chapel in the papal apartment on Good Friday evening, holding fast to a crucifix while watching the Via Crucis at the Roman Colosseum on television. On that occasion, the Pope was back-shot, the television camera behind him so that all that you saw were his back and his hands holding that cross. Why, some television commentators asked? It was not, I replied, in order to hide his tracheotomy and his suffering, but rather to underscore the message this most visible of men in history (who had been seen live by more human beings than anyone else, ever) had taken around the world: “Don’t look at me; look at Jesus Christ.”