Mark Hart

The Gentle Lion: JPII Up Close and Personal

I recall every moment of the event as if it were yesterday. Just days after our wedding in Rome my wife, Melanie, and I were headed to the Vatican for a special Papal blessing on our new Sacrament. Seated not fifteen feet from the Peter’s chair, we watched breathlessly as (then) Pope John Paul II was wheeled into the auditorium for his Wednesday audience. Parkinson’s had set in pretty severely at that point. He had limited mobility, had lost sensation in part of his face and he shook intermittently throughout. Watching (now) St. John Paul the Great in those final months was like watching a soul drag a body behind it.

For years this landmark Pope had catechized us on how to live and, now, he was showing us how to die with dignity and humility… and without shame. At the end of the audience, my new bride and I scaled the steps and made our way toward St. Peter’s successor.

This was the moment I’d dreamt of and prayed for since my teenage years. This was my chance to look into the eyes of my hero and say, “Thank you” for what his shepherding and pontificate had meant to me both personally and professionally. We knelt down. I clutched his hand. Fighting back overwhelming tears of joy, we kissed his ring and received his saintly blessing. He spoke to us, briefly, through muddled speech and a wide grin. Tapping the rosary I had wrapped around my hand (now a second class relic ), he smiled wide and uttered, “Totus Tuus” (which means “totally yours” — his Papal motto, signifying his devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary).

While the entire visit lasted only a couple of minutes, our lives and marriage were immeasurably graced and forever changed. Two weeks after our meeting the great Polish prince was taken to the hospital and, shortly thereafter, to heaven.

Reflecting back on that moment over the years two things have always struck me.

First, St. John Paul II looked physically depleted and his body was shutting down, but there was still a ferocity within him. While one eye had little sharpness to it, the other reflected the strength and fire of a twenty-year old. His grin and joy were unstoppable. His hands, though wrinkled, were still quite strong. They were not delicate and well manicured but, rather, “used” and expressive; they reflected a life truly lived.

Next, though he was the Pontiff (a French word, meaning “bridge”), he was still a priest. He sat upon a beautiful chair in a pool of light. He donned the white papal garments and the official ring. He was surrounded by Cardinals and Papal assistants and the Swiss Guard but make no mistake – in his estimation he was still “just” a priest. He was a shepherd in lamb’s wool. Actually, he was a lion disguised as a lamb… just like Christ, Himself.

St. John Paul II embodied everything a priest is called to be, beginning with his joyful humility. Few priests in the past century have captured the world’s attention like Pope St. John Paul II did. His charisma was tangible; his joy, contagious. What made John Paul II a great pope, however, was, first, that he was open to the Holy Spirit.

So how did he become so extraordinary? How did he go from being “Karol Wojtyla” – the poor Polish youth – to JPII, the man who millions of youth would travel across the globe just to see? The answer is the Holy Spirit.

How did this actor and playwright, this outdoorsmen and adventurer make his way from the streets of Poland to the streets of heaven… to sainthood? How does an Olympic-caliber athlete in futbol (soccer), an avid skier and mountain climber become a Cardinal and, later, our Holy Father? The answer, again, is the Holy Spirit.

This is a man who lost his mother when he was only nine years old. Three years later he lost his only brother and, then, his father all by the age of just twenty-one.

This is a man who survived the Nazi invasion of his home country, forcing him to attend seminary “illegally” and underground. How does all this happen? How does such greatness erupt from such a simple and seemingly “insignificant” child, born into obscurity, poverty, suffering and, even, Communist oppression? Yes, the answer is the Holy Spirit.

It happens by allowing the Holy Spirit to unleash the greatness of your soul. It happens through a devoted prayer life. It happens by frequent encounters with Christ in the Sacraments, most specifically in the Eucharist. And it happens by allowing the Blessed Mother to truly become your own mother, as Christ intended (John 19:27). It happens by accepting the challenge to live a heroic virtue, pursuing greatness through humility every day before your feet even hit the floor.

It’s ironic that the Greek word St. Paul often uses for the Holy Spirit’s power is dynamis (it’s the root word from which we get “dynamite), because John Paul II knew how to blow things up…literally. Many don’t know that while the future Pope was still just a teenager named Karol, he worked as a shot-firer in a Polish mining quarry. His job was to go into the quarry where they were blasting rocks, lace the fuse through the sticks of dynamite and run the cable out to its detonation trigger. Even as a teenager, he was a young man of courage and of adventure…a man not afraid to take a risk to get the job done.

How about you? Are you willing to risk it all to accomplish the plans God has for your life?

By virtue of the Sacramental grace within you, you already have the gifts you need to change the world. What you need to do – like John Paul II did – is to actively allow the Holy Spirit to “blow up” your plans and your life and lead you where He wants you to go – to unleash the fullness of your gifts and your power!

God isn’t concerned with what you think you’re capable of – He knows what you’re capable of, He created you (Jeremiah 1:4-8, Ephesians 2:10). He knows not only how great you are but how great you can become with the help of His grace (2 Corinthians 5:15, Galatians 2:20).

You may not have the vocation to become Pope, but you do have the vocation to love. You’re probably not called to face down Nazi oppression but there is plenty of depression at your local school or job that would benefit from Christ’s light shining forth from within you. You might feel obscure, forgotten or insignificant in the grand scheme of things, but Christ is calling you greatness, and to a personal mission just as He did St. John Paul II.

All the Holy Spirit needs is your permission and, together, you can do great things for the Kingdom.

Now is the acceptable time to take the keys and live the life God’s designed for you!

Editor’s Note: This blog is an excerpt from “The Keys to Life: Everyday Wisdom from Saint John Paul II” available now in the Life Teen Store.

Mark Hart

About the Author

My childhood plan was to be a jedi. My teenage plan was to be on Saturday Night Live. God's plan was to have me in ministry. God won - and I'm glad He did.