How To Say Goodbye: The Wisdom of St. JP2, Pope Benedict, and George Washington

Washington_1772

What the heck does the father of our country have in common with a saint and a pope emeritus? You’d be surprised.

I still remember how I felt when I woke up a few years ago on the feast of Our Lady of Lourdes and heard the news of Pope Benedict choosing to step down as Pope. As someone who grew up in the JP2 Generation, watching a pope choose to step down instead of waiting until God calls him home was unheard of. I was already in an unstable emotional state at the time and Pope Benedict’s announcement was another rug that got pulled out from under my feet.

When I saw Pope Benedict walk through the Doors of Mercy recently, however, I realized that the decision he made three years ago was not an easy one.

There’s a song from Hamilton called “One Last Time,” which recounts George Washington’s decision to step down after two terms of being president. One particular part of the song stood out to me:

[HAMILTON]
Mr. President, they will say you’re weak

[WASHINGTON]
No, they will see we’re strong

[HAMILTON]
Your position is so unique

[WASHINGTON]
So I’ll use it to move them along

[HAMILTON]
Why do you have to say goodbye?

[WASHINGTON]
If I say goodbye, the nation learns to move on
It outlives me when I’m gone

Back in my college days, I had a history professor who joked that the Vatican is one of the last remaining true monarchies in existence. Benedict’s decision to step down made me realize that the papacy is not a monarchy. Like the pope’s Twitter handle @Pontifex, Benedict became a bridge builder, becoming the bridge between the great saint who changed an entire generation and the pope we now have who is spreading God’s love and mercy throughout the world.

Which brings up the question: Why didn’t Pope John Paul II abdicate?

I might be biased because I was born in the 90s, but whenever I see videos or photos of JP2 as he was suffering with Parkinson’s, I don’t see weakness, but strength and courage. To Saint John Paul the Great, the Church was his family. Showing his Parkinson’s to the world opened up opportunities for compassion towards those who were suffering the way he did. I didn’t see weakness in JP2’s last days. I saw a love for the Church and for the world that was stronger than Parkinson’s.

In contrast, seeing Benedict walk through the Doors of Mercy with a cane and an aid broke my heart almost as much as he did three years ago. He wasn’t sick the way that Pope John Paul II was, but he still looked so fragile, it hurt. This is just a guess, but if the world saw this man growing old and frail, it may have validated the secular belief that the church is getting as old and weak as he is right now. Not that Pope Francis is a younger, better model. But Pope Francis is at least young in heart and has a lively spirit that the Church seriously needs.

A Bible verse that George Washington keeps using in his correspondence is from Micah 4:4: “They shall all sit under their own vines, under their own fig trees, undisturbed; for the Lord of hosts has spoken.” This Bible verse gets mentioned in “One Last Time” as George Washington’s motivation for stepping down. I can’t help but think that maybe Benedict wanted the same.

But again, I don’t know for certain why Pope Benedict chose to abdicate. For now, though, I can respect his decision. It takes just as much wisdom to know when to say goodbye as it does to just hold on until the end. 

I still miss ya, Papa B.

Children of the JP2 Generation

I sadly don’t have any awesome stories about how Pope John Paul II impacted my life. I took him for granted growing up and when he passed away, I just thought it was a natural thing. It wasn’t until after Pope John Paul II died that I started learning about how awesome he was. Thankfully, my friend Emily Allen has her own story to tell:

On the 10th anniversary of his death, I have been asked my the lovely Monique Ocampo to share how John Paul II has affected my life. When I was growing up, there was a statue of the pope outside my parish church. This was erected in the 90’s, when he was still alive. It was not a memorial, it was a show of pride. Coming from a Polish family, living in a Polish area, going to a Polish parochial school, it was a big deal to have a Polish pope.  

In the 20th century, many Polish immigrants came after their homeland was torn up and split between various countries. With a culture and a language that was unlike any previous immigrant families from Ireland and Italy, and an influx of foreigners coming to take jobs, there was a fair amount of prejudice against Eastern Europeans. Many tried to assimilate as quickly as possible for fear of being seen as “un-American.” Being proud of being Polish was asking for public embarrassment.  

Back in Europe, things were even worse for Poles. Someone was always invading; always trying to replace the language, the religion, the culture of the Poles. Whether it was Germany, Austria, Hungary, Russia- for a long time, Poland was a country located in the heart, rather than the map. Keeping traditions safeguarded citizenship to the non-existent Poland.    

But this man- Karol Wojtyla, Pope St. John Paul II- changed all that.    

At the end of Karol: A Man Who Became Pope, they show original footage of the announcement of John Paul II’s papacy. My family is always misty-eyed and full of warmth when we see our beloved Pope come out of St. Peter’s. My dad said the day he was elected, the phones were ringing off the hook. “We have a Polish Pope!!!” All of my relatives were calling each other up, crying.  

Now, of course I didn’t experience that firsthand, but the feelings of pride and the notion that to be Polish is to be Catholic, and to always have pride in that, was instilled in me from a very young age. It’s hard to explain, but that strong sense of heritage made him feel like he was family. I thought of him as a grandfather. And so like any child sitting at their grandpa’s knee, hearing stories of the war and walking up hills both ways, I wanted to learn as much as I could about him.  I don’t want to go into too much detail about his life- you can always read books about him from George Weigel or Jason Evert, which I highly recommend- but essentially it was full of suffering and loss. Despite the fact that he had every reason to be full of hate and bitterness, he wasn’t. He contemplated deeply on the challenges he was given so he could better understand the nature of man. He sought comfort in the Blessed Mother and the Cross. He always chose love. He was a writer, a poet, an actor- all things I am extremely passionate about. He believed in the importance of art and beauty.

 He loved new cultures and languages, just like me. He was firm in his beliefs, but he could joke around. He was deep and engaging and philosophical, but he didn’t make it seem like you needed all those things to be holy. He made holiness seem attainable simply by loving Jesus and others.  Most importantly, he loved simply loving other people.  
His view of love is something I can appreciate far more now than I did at the time of his death. I was initially interested in Theology of the Body because of what it meant for marriage, but it is so much deeper than conjugal love. It’s about how to make a gift of yourself to others regardless of your relation to them- be they a stranger, spouse or sibling. Pope St. John Paul II chose love over and over, and he learned to make a gift of himself because he was close to those who did it first- Jesus and Mary. 
Whenever I have the chance to learn more about this remarkable man, I always take advantage of it. Here is someone who is a true example of holiness for our times. You can get overwhelmed by his accomplishments, his prolific writings, his multiple talents, and the fact he did all this on only 4 hours of sleep, but at the heart of it he shows us the simplest, easiest way to get to heaven: love. 
I hope you will follow his footsteps and be inspired as I have been.  He didn’t merely impact my life; he has always been an active part of it.