This week, the Catholic Church celebrates World Youth Day in Krakow, Poland. Fittingly, Pope St. John Paul II was chosen as one of the patron saints of the week, both as a figure who fits into the theme of the Year of Mercy and as a beloved Polish Saint who once served as the Archbishop of Krakow.
John Paul II has a central place not only in the history and tradition of the Catholic Church, but also in world history as one of the driving forces behind the collapse of the Soviet Union and the subsequent fall of several totalitarian regimes around the globe. He was a voice for truth at a time when many people, including Christians, had resigned themselves to the idea that the Cold War tension and oppressive regimes were too formidable an obstacle for the world to overcome.
In an article for First Things, George Weigel wrote of his enduring hope and courage of conviction:
[H]e refused to accommodate to the “tyranny of the possible”: the idea that some things just can’t be put right; that we’re stuck with the way things are, however much we may dislike them…
He refused to believe that the false ideas of the human person and human history embodied in communism could divide Europe indefinitely; and by igniting a revolution of conscience behind the iron curtain, the man the last president of the Soviet Union called “the world’s greatest moral authority” became an agent of liberation for his Slavic brethren and the precursor of new possibilities in international affairs.
Pope St. John Paul II is remembered for constantly repeating “do not be afraid.” In his inaugural homily as the newly elected Pope in St. Peter’s Square, he spoke to the world:
Brothers and sisters, do not be afraid to welcome Christ and accept his power. Help the Pope and all those who wish to serve Christ and with Christ’s power to serve the human person and the whole of mankind. Do not be afraid. Open wide the doors for Christ. To his saving power open the boundaries of States, economic and political systems, the vast fields of culture, civilization and development. Do not be afraid. Christ knows “what is in man”. He alone knows it.
At a time when there was much to fear, when millions in his home country and around the world struggled under the heavy injustice of despotism, he reminded us to continuously find strength and guidance in faith and truth. He refused to accept the world as it was or to participate in the rhetoric of the inevitable decline of the free world and the Church. His commitment to truth in the face of tremendous fear and uncertainty was unwavering.
Today, the Iron Curtain has fallen and the fear of a nuclear apocalypse is not so pressing in the minds of everyday citizens, but new challenges have emerged: terrorism, instability in the Middle East, growing movements toward socialism, institutionalized degradation of life, and a decline in church membership in the West. Some Christians despair and have ceded all hope for an improved future. In these trying times, we must remember the conviction and courage of Pope St. John Paul II in the unrelenting battle against evil, and we must continue to take his humble, but powerful, advice to heart: “Do not be afraid.”