April 2, 2005
It was just today, on the eve of Mercy Sunday, that he breathed his last and found himself at the Gates of Heaven. No doubt Saint Faustina was there to welcome him, along with his other good friend, Blessed Mother Teresa. His father and mother, brother and sister… All were present to greet their Karol as he broke the bonds of earth, running just ahead of the rest of his earthly family, having accomplished the work his Master had asked him to do.
“Holy Father.” Never has the appellation been quite so apt. One glance into those startling blue eyes, and you could see heaven itself. He spoke eight languages, penned fourteen encyclicals and countless letters, and visited almost 130 countries over the course of his twenty-six year pontificate. And yet he always had time to hug a child, write a letter, or extend a dinner invitation. When my husband and I honeymooned in Rome, we were first in line to be presented to Pope John Paul II and receive his apostolic blessing on our marriage. There were eleven other couples behind us, and yet he fixed his full attention on us, his hand extended not in cold ritual, but in fatherly welcome.
He was a man of great passion and intelligence. No other pope was so prolific, or so generous in extending himself for the good of his children. He canonized or beatified more saints than all his predecessors put together, and he was a tireless proponent for human dignity. This is evident even in the way the Holy Father defined the mission of the Church, in which every person – without respect to age, gender, vocation, or nationality – was invited to share in the great work of the New Evangelization.
Without compromising Truth, he extended himself in love to bridge the chasm between Catholics and the rest of the world – Muslim, Jew, Buddhist, and especially other Christians. Time and again, they reciprocated that love and respect.
As a convert to the Catholic faith, I am particularly indebted to Papa John for leading the Church in renewal, so that when I finally got close enough to look inside, I found a faith so vital and relevant, I knew I could never be happy anywhere else.
Like the Prodigal Son, I was welcomed with open arms; unlike him, it was not until I finally wandered home that I realized just how lost I had been.
Time and again, reporters spoke of the “legacy” of Pope John Paul II, asking one person after the other to articulate the Holy Father’s greatest contribution to the Church over the course of his pontificate. In reality, I think this is not the correct question to ask. A shepherd’s work is not about personal ambition. It is about keeping the sheep safe.
Through his writings, his appearances, and especially by his own example, Papa John led the sheep entrusted to him around the pits and brambles of the world in which we live. Though his intellectual capacity and diplomatic prowess were beyond reproach, his true greatness was in his capacity to love.
Your loving daughter, Heidi