A Spiritual Reflection on the Life of Servant of God John Paul II

Author: Cardinal Camillo Ruini

A Spiritual Reflection on the Life of Servant of God John Paul II

Cardinal Camillo Ruini
Vicar General for the Diocese of Rome

Faith and freedom furnish the way: 'Do not be afraid!'

On Monday morning, 2 April, in Rome's Cathedral, the Basilica of St. John Lateran, at the closing session of the diocesan investigation into the life, virtues and fame of holiness of the late Pope and Servant of God John Paul II (Karol Wojtyla: 18 May 1920-2 April 2005), Cardinal Camillo Ruini, Vicar General for the Diocese of Rome, spoke to those present, presenting a profile of the Servant of God. The following is a translation of his Address, given in Italian.

At the opening of this diocesan phase of the Cause for the Beatification and Canonization of the Servant of God Karol Wojtyla — John Paul II — I briefly outlined his life.

Now, at the closing session held on the second anniversary of his death, deeply moved and grateful to God, I dare to offer a small reflection, a meditation on his spiritual stature as it were, in no way violating the secrecy to which we are bound as Officials of the Cause but drawing from those sources available to all.

To start with, the central and supreme focal point of such a portrayal cannot but be Karol Wojtyla's personal relationship with God. In his childhood years this relationship appeared strong, intimate and profound; it never ceased to grow, to thrive and to bear fruit in all the dimensions of his life.

Here, we are in the presence of the Mystery: first of all, the mystery of the special predilection with which God the Father loved this Polish boy, united him to himself and kept him in this union, not sparing him the trials of life.

On the contrary, over and over again God associated him with the Cross of his Son but also gave him the courage to dove this Cross and the spiritual knowledge to glimpse the Face of the Father himself through it.

In the certainty of being loved by God and in the joy of responding to this love, Karol Wojtyla found the meaning, unity and purpose of his life.

Prayer takes pride of place

All those who knew him, intimately or only at a distance, were in fact struck by the riches of his humanity and his complete fulfilment as a man. Yet, the fact that in the end this fullness of humanity coincided with his relationship with God, that is, with his holiness, is even more illuminating and significant.

If this unity is dissected, in a certain sense, into its multiple components, what emerges first of all is that authentic gift of prayer, taste for prayer and joy in prayer, which Karol Wojtyla possessed from his childhood and to which he was ever faithful, even in the hours of his agony.

This prayer had, so to speak, two dimensions: in the first place, that of the time he kept exclusively for prayer, starting early with morning adoration, praise and meditation, and then Holy Mass — for him, "absolutely the centre of his life and of every day", as his former Secretary, today Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz, testifies to us in his book Una Vita con Karol, which I have recommended to everyone.

Then there was further prayer in the chapel, immediately after lunch, in which I was frequently able to take part. This was followed by a lengthier period of prayer after his afternoon rest; the daily recitation of the entire Rosary — his favourite prayer —, the continuous reading of Sacred Scripture, Holy Hour on Thursdays, the Way of the Cross on Fridays... and above all the recollection, indeed, the total surrender to which Karol Wojtyla gave himself when he prayed.

The other dimension of his prayer was expressed through the extraordinary ease with which he combined prayer with work, so that not only was his work itself offered to the Lord but it was also penetrated and steeped in prayer. Two proofs of this are the table-priedieu on which he studied and wrote in the chapel of the Bishop's Residence in Krakow, and the passages from prayers with which he began his manuscripts and numbered their pages.

The prayer of Karol Wojtyla — John Paul II, so profound and intimately personal — was at the same time wholly ecclesial and bound to the tradition and piety of the Church. Indeed, in it dwelt first of all the three divine Persons of the Father, rich in mercy, the Son Incarnate, Crucified and Risen, and the sanctifying and life-giving Spirit, but also and pervasively Mary, the Mother to whom he truly and totally belonged, the icon of the Church and our guide on the pilgrimage of faith.

And together with Mary was Joseph, whom he never separated from Mary, and Jesus, and whose name he was very happy to have as his own middle name.

Additionally, in his prayer dwelt that myriad of people of every nation and condition who turned to him to obtain God's help, their own or their spouse's physical or spiritual health: therefore, the Pope kept the petitions sent to him in the drawer of his priedieu so that he could present them personally to the Lord.

Many signs of 'freedom'

Freedom was a second essential component of Karol Wojtyla's personality which also derived from his intimate relationship with God, an extraordinary inner freedom that was expressed in many ways.

To start, let us say, at the "bottom", that is, with his relationship with material goods, even as Pope he was a man of radical and concrete poverty. He lived poverty modestly, spontaneously and effortlessly, he did not seem to need anything and was totally detached from money and things.

And he was also detached and free from himself, he did not seek his own success or autonomous fulfilment: it is likely that he acquired this freedom in the years of his youth when he accepted the call to the priesthood, overcoming the attraction he felt for another vocation, to the theatre, art, literature.

It was precisely freedom from himself which made him very free also with regard to others. He was ready to listen and to accept criticism, he welcomed collaboration and respected the freedom of his collaborators, but then he knew that he was autonomous in taking definitive decisions; above all, in the years of his ministry in Poland, he did not shrink from taking difficult and "inconvenient" positions for fear of the reaction of authorities hostile to the Church; or, in the years of his Pontificate, from the misunderstanding and hostility of predominant public opinion.

Indeed, his decisions were never dictated by any concern other than for the Gospel and the good of the human being, the "way of the Church". The famous words: "Do not be afraid!", with which he opened his Pontificate, were born from this inner freedom, nourished by faith, and in the context of history were contagious words that set Poland free — and not only Poland — from fear and from political, cultural and spiritual subjection.

That same union with God and interior freedom which detached Karol Wojtyla from worldly goods also gave him a very great capacity for appreciating and enjoying the beauties of nature and art and the warmth of friendship, as well as for daring thought, sustained effort and sporting prowess. It consequently contributed to making him a well-rounded and totally fulfilled person.

In a certain sense, he personified the truth of the theological principle that grace does not substitute and destroy nature but presupposes, purifies and perfects it and brings it to fulfilment.

Authentic love of God is inseparable from love of one's neighbour and from zeal for his salvation. Therefore, anyone who loved God as fervently as John Paul II could not but be an exemplary witness of dedication to his brethren. His life truly overflows with testimonies of this. They start with Fr. Kazimierz Figlewicz's description of Karol as a "very good" boy when he was an altar server in Wadowice, and with his constant visits to a sick priest in the hospital when he was 12 years old.

Human being as centre

As a priest, but also as a Bishop and as Pope, he "focused" his attention, so to speak, on the human person and his problems. His interventions in the Christian spirit of charity are simply countless, a charity which "is first of all the simple response to immediate needs and specific situations" (Deus Caritas Est, n. 31).

In practice, these interventions concerned giving material aid to the poor and destitute, and he allocated to them the donations he received from others; but once he also gave his own blanket to a needy family, as a Polish woman testified in a letter dated June 1967.

In addition were his close attention and deep consideration for the sick, demonstrated by his constant visits to, as well as prayers for, them, and all his other expressions of concern for peoples' various difficulties. In fact, John Paul II had a soft spot for the poor, the "little" and the suffering, and this explains the profound spiritual affinity he felt for Mother Teresa of Calcutta.

The same Christian charity motivated Karol Wojtyla to offer to everyone first of all Jesus Christ, the Bread of life and Redeemer of humanity. Karol Wojtyla was a "spontaneous communicator" of the Gospel to everyone and in every circumstance because he lived, hence, transmitted, what Cardinal Dzwisz describes in his book as "evangelical freshness".

Therefore, when his pastoral responsibilities extended extended across the world, he launched the great programme of the "new evangelization" and was the first to dedicate himself personally to putting it into practice through his constant missionary Journeys.

In particular, he sought tirelessly to give fresh vigour to the Christian faith in Europe, burdened by secularization. He produced that impressive evangelizing "invention", the World Youth Days, a universal expression of his special preferential love for young people, from his very own heart.

In fact, behind the inexhaustible energy of his witness to the truth of Christ was his rock-solid faith. It was the simple faith of a child and at the same time the faith of a great man of culture, well aware of today's challenges; above all, it was the faith of a man who, in a certain sense, had already seen the Lord, had had a direct experience of the mysterious, salvific presence of God in his own spirit and his own life.

Hence, he could never ultimately be shaken or troubled by doubt but felt within him the pressing need and duty to offer and to convey to all the truth that saves. This attitude enabled John Paul II, in difficult years, to strengthen the whole Church in the faith.

Pro-life issues, ecumenism

The same synthesis of faith in Christ and of love and passion for man spurred him to take on the defence and promotion of dignity and rights: in a word, the genuine and concrete good of people and peoples. He opposed with a courage that would admit of no obstacles the multiple "threats" that burden the humanity of our time (cf. Redemptor Hominis, nn. 15-16)

Although to superficial observers his struggle for liberation from Communist totalitarianism, his intransigent claim for justice, for starving peoples, his strenuous efforts for peace in the world — and to ensure that religions be champions of peace rather than of intolerance and violence — seemed in opposition, in fact they originated in the above-mentioned synthesis.

In an identical spirit, he led the great battle for human life against abortion and every other denial of life and of the family, and against all the impulses that contribute to its break-up. He did not perceive and fight these two battles, as has frequently been said, as if they were a violation of women's rights, but on the contrary as an affirmation and defence of the authentic dignity and special genius of women.

If I may mention a personal memory: I still have a vivid impression of the unexpected force with which John Paul II reacted to a sentence of mine which seemed to him to blame mainly women for the responsibility and sin of abortion.

I have already referred to the profoundly ecclesial character of Karol Wojtyla's prayer and spirituality. In all his work as a Christian and Pastor, love for the Church was an essential and "internal" dimension of his relationship with God in Jesus Christ.

In the ways and methods with which he acted, his "ecclesial", non-political and non-worldly character was already to emerge in its clearest form: this was one of his constant preoccupations and a decisive criterion for his behaviour.

His Apostolic Journeys, like his Visits to the parishes in Rome, were inseparably, evangelizing action and an act of love and service for the Church which lives in the different parts of the world. Even before expressing it in his Magisterium and government, he carried in his heart and lived in prayer concern for the Church's internal unity and for the deep roots of this unity, found in her union with Christ and in the conversion and effective sanctification of her members.

In his book, Cardinal Dziwisz recalls a sentence of John Paul II: "Ecumenism is what Christ wills, ut unum sint, that they may all be one. This was also what the Second Vatican Council desired. And it is my programme independently of problems, misunderstandings and at times offences". I can say that I too heard almost the same words on his lips, and not only once.

His dedication to the ecumenical cause, as well as his request for forgiveness for the sins of the Church's children, expresses that determination, gentle but unwavering, to be conformed to Christ, to follow him alone and to take the "way" which is Christ himself. For Karol Wojtyla this was his choice of spiritual life and nourishment.

Suffering with grace

I have thus far spoken of his extraordinarily profound relationship with his one Lord, his great freedom and his boundless capacity for loving and for giving himself.

We must now consider the aspect of his life which became obvious in his last years but which had in fact been present since the time when, as a child, he lost his mother and shortly afterwards his brother and, while he was still very young, also his father; he lived the tragedy of war and oppression, experiencing in addition physical pain when he was hit by a German lorry and quite seriously injured.

We all remember with emotion the way in which suffering burst into his life on 13 May 1981. Imbued with trust in God who directs history and in filial abandonment to Mary Most Holy, John Paul II was always convinced that it was only Mary's intercession and the intervention of the Almighty that prevented the shot from killing him.

Then, with illness, a long, continuous martyrdom began which, in the last pages of his book, Cardinal Dziwisz enables us, so to speak, to relive step by step from within.

The Pope suffered in body and in spirit, seeing himself increasingly forced to reduce the commitments that went with his mission: I too witnessed his chagrin at being obliged to give up his Visits to the 333 parishes of Rome, which he had virtually completed.

However, he bore illness and physical suffering with authentic Christian vitality, tenaciously continuing to carry out his duties as far as possible without allowing his ailments to bother others.

Of course, certain signs of impatience surfaced, not because of pain but rather because of the narrowness and limitations that his motor deficit caused him, with the increasing need to be transported. In fact, Karol Wojtyla had learned to make room for suffering and for the cross, not only from his own life experience but also, and more profoundly, from his spirituality itself, from the personal relationship with God that he had established.

His Testament began with the words "I want to follow him" (The Testament of John Paul II, L'Osservatore Romano English edition, 13 April 2005, p. 4) and, desiring as a basic choice to follow the Lord, he had understood and interiorized the need to accept all that God disposes for us: this is the certainty that already shone from his Apostolic Letter Salvifici Doloris.

The final step

For some time he had been preparing for the final step in his earthly pilgrimage. He began to write his Testament during the spiritual exercises of March 1979 and updated it several times, always during the retreat. It was an opportunity for him to renew his promptness in presenting himself to the Lord.

In his prayers, the Apostle Paul's words became more and more his own: "I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ's afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the Church" (Col 1:24).

When the end drew near and the test became harder, with the operation on his trachea to avoid a further crisis of suffocation, as soon as he recovered from the anaesthetic he wrote these words on a piece of paper: "What have they done to me! But... Totus tuus!".

Even in the profound suffering he felt at no longer being able to rely on the voice he had used to proclaim the Word of the Lord, he renewed his total abandonment in Mary's hands.

And when, on Easter morning, he had no voice to bless the crowds in St. Peter's Square, he whispered to Mons. Stanislaw: "Perhaps it would be better if I were to die, if I am unable to carry out the mission entrusted to me"; but he added straightaway, "may your will be done... Totus tuus".

On the day of his death, the Pope, as was his habit throughout his life, wanted to nourish himself on the Word of God and asked that the Gospel of John be read to him: the reading continued until chapter 9. And also on that day, he recited with the help of those present all the daily prayers: he accomplished his adoration, meditation and even read in advance the Office of Readings for Sunday.

At a certain point he said in a very weak voice to Sr. Tobiana Sobotka, his true guardian angel: "Let me go to the Lord".

Then, he entered into a coma and the Vigil Mass for Divine Mercy Sunday was celebrated in his room. Mons. Stanislaw once again succeeded in giving him, as Viaticum, a few drops of Christ's Blood.

It would be right to end this small spiritual commemoration of our most beloved Father and Pope precisely with reference to Divine Mercy, and to another Polish Sister, Faustina Kowalska, a conversation partner and herald of the Merciful Jesus whom John Paul II beatified and later canonized.

Indeed, Divine Mercy was at the heart of his spirituality and his life: from it he learned to conquer evil with good (cf. Rom 12:21), in it he saw the inviolable limitation which God sets on evil, and from it he drew that steadfast hope which sustained him throughout his life.

I end with a heartfelt "thank you" to Mons. Gianfranco Bella and all the personnel of the Diocesan Tribunal, as well as to Mons. Slawomir Oder, the Postulator, for having managed and concluded in only 21 months, from 28 June 2005 until today, this important undertaking.

I add my deep thanks to the Sister Church in Krakow, and to her Diocesan Tribunal, for the role that she played with admirable thoroughness and speed.

Furthermore, I thank the Historical Commission which accompanied the Tribunal's work. In fact, it has been an extremely demanding venture because of the multiplicity of persons and events, their concentration and their complexity, as well as the abundance and wealth of testimonies.

However, may I be permitted to say that it was also a stimulating and exciting undertaking, for, from contact with Karol Wojtyla flowed and continues to flow a river of incentives to live the Gospel: in this regard, I would dare to say that our work in these 21 months has even been easy, with the easiness of joyful enterprises.

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
25 April 2007, page 6

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