By Alessandro Gisotti
Pope St. John Paul II died 15 years ago, on 2 April 2005. The Christian witness with which he bore his long illness inspired believers and non-believers alike. His example, at this moment of global suffering caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, is particularly poignant.
In this interview with Vatican Media, the Vicar General for Vatican City State, Cardinal Angelo Comastri, recalls the words and witness of Pope St. John Paul II.
What does the life and testimony of Pope St. John Paul II communicate to us in the dramatic context of the Coronavirus pandemic?
The spread of the epidemic, the growing numbers of those who are infected, and the daily death toll, has fallen on an unprepared society, highlighting the spiritual emptiness of many people. Shortly before his death, the Italian journalist, Indro Montanelli, expressed this lucid and honest consideration: “If I were to close my eyes without knowing where I come from, where I am going and what I have come to do on this earth, would it have been worth it for me to open my eyes in the first place? Mine would be a declaration of failure!“. These words of Montanelli are a photograph of the situation of a part of present-day society. This is one of the reasons why the epidemic is so frightening: because, for so many people, faith has died. John Paul II was a believer, a convinced believer, a coherent believer, and faith illuminated the path of his life.
Despite his suffering and long illness, Pope St. John Paul II always conveyed the feeling he was a peaceful man, filled with joy…
John Paul II knew that life is a race towards God’s Banquet: the Feast of God’s embrace, His infinite glory and happiness. But we must prepare ourselves for that encounter, we must purify ourselves in order to be ready for it, we must cast off any reservations of pride and selfishness, so that we can embrace Him who is Love without shadows. John Paul II lived his suffering with this spirit: even in the hardest moments (like during the assassination attempt when he was shot). He never lost his serenity. Why? Because before him he always had the purpose of life. Today many people no longer believe in that purpose. That’s why they live pain with despair: because they can’t see beyond the pain.
In his suffering and pain, John Paul II always found a dimension of hope, a special opportunity to encounter the Lord. We remember his Apostolic Letter “Salvifici doloris”…
Pain undoubtedly frightens everyone. But when it is enlightened by faith it becomes a way to cut back selfishness, banalities and frivolities. What’s more, we Christians live pain in communion with the Crucified Jesus: clinging to Him, we fill our pain with love and transform it into a force that challenges and overcomes the selfishness that is still present in the world. John Paul II was a true master of pain redeemed by love and transformed into an antidote to selfishness: a redemption of human selfishness. This is possible only by opening one’s heart to Jesus: only with Him can one understand and give value to pain.
Easter will be unprecedented this year because of the Coronavirus pandemic, and in compliance with the directives to contain infections. Many will remember how John Paul II’s last Easter was also marked by illness and isolation. What can we learn from that last Easter of Pope John Paul II, in terms of what is happening today?
We all remember John Paul II’s last “Good Friday”. The image we saw on television is unforgettable: the Pope, who had lost all his physical strength, holding the Crucifix in his hands, gazing at it with pure love. One could sense he was saying: “Jesus, I too am on the Cross like you. But together with you I await the Resurrection”. The saints all lived that way. I like to remember Benedetta Bianchi Porro, who became blind, deaf and paralyzed because of a serious illness, and died peacefully on 24 January 1964. Shortly before dying, she found the strength to dictate a wonderful letter to a disabled and desperate young man named Natalino. This is what Benedetta wrote: “Dear Natalino, I am 26 years old like you. My bed has become my home. For months I have also been blind, but I am not desperate, because I know that, at the end of the path, Jesus is waiting for me. Dear Natalino, life is a fast lane: let’s not build our house on the fast lane, let’s cross it holding Jesus’ hand in order to reach our true home“. John Paul II was on this wavelength.
Every day, during this Covid-19 pandemic, many people join in praying the Angelus and the Rosary in live streaming on Vatican News, and through other media. We are reminded of John Paul II’s devotion to Mary, as highlighted in his coat of arms…
Yes, John Paul II chose as a motto on his coat of arms, the words: Totus Tuus Maria (“Mary, I am all yours”). Why? Because Our Lady was close to Jesus at the moment of the Crucifixion and she believed this was the moment of God’s victory over human wickedness. How? Through love, which is the almighty strength of God. Shortly before Jesus fulfilled His sacrifice of Love on the Cross, Mary listened to the words Jesus addressed to her: “Woman, behold your son!”. That is: “Don’t think of me, but think of others, help them to transform pain into love, help them to believe that goodness is the strength that overcomes evil”. From that moment on, Mary took concern for us upon herself, and when we let ourselves be guided by her, we are in safe hands. John Paul II believed this, he trusted Mary, and with Mary he transformed pain into love.
Lastly, is there is an anecdote, something John Paul II said to you, that you might want to share with us as a sign of hope for the many people in the world who are suffering, and for those who have loved, and continue to love, Pope St. John Paul II?
In March 2003, John Paul II invited me to preach the Spiritual Exercises for the Roman Curia. He also participated in those Spiritual Exercises. Afterwards, he received me with great kindness and said: “I thought of giving you a cross like mine”. I reflected on the double meaning of the word, and replied: “Holy Father, it would be difficult for you to give me a cross like yours…”. John Paul II smiled and said: “No… this cross”, and he pointed to a pectoral cross he wanted to give me. Then he added: “You too will have your cross: transform it into love. This is the wisdom that illuminates life”. I have never forgotten this wonderful advice given to me by a saint.