In his ministry, Pope John Paul II embraced the Second Vatican Council’s renewed emphasis on the universal call to holiness. He reminded us that to ask catechumens: “Do you wish to receive Baptism?” means at the same time to ask them: “Do you wish to become holy?” Throughout his 26 years as Pope, he never tired of placing before us the radical demands of the gospel and he urged us not to be afraid to embrace them. By exhortation but also by example, an example given even with much pain and suffering, he reminded us that for a Christian “it would be a contradiction to settle for a life of mediocrity, marked by a minimalist ethic and a shallow religiosity.”
We remember that in his young days, Karol Wojtyla was an athlete and a sports’ enthusiast. It would be curious to know what he thought of the new “extreme sports” now popularized on T.V.: “extreme” golf, “extreme” skiing, etc. As one pundit said: The Pope has invented a new sport: “Extreme holiness”. But for John Paul II, holiness was not just a pastime; it was the pursuit of his life. And it should be ours as well.
He canonized more saints than any Pope in history to underscore the fact that it is holiness which expresses best the mystery of the Church which incorporates into Christ and the indwelling of his Spirit. Holiness is, he taught us, “a message that convinces without need for words and is a living reflection of the face of Christ.” John Paul II, in his words and in his life, has given us a message that is convincing, a message of hope, a message about Jesus Christ, the source of our hope, the hope that does not disappoint.
“Follow me”, Jesus said to Peter. And, we in turn can never reach Jesus except by the path of faith, the path of Peter who once said to Jesus: “Lord, to whom else should we turn? You have the words of Everlasting Life”. To know the Risen Lord means to walk in Peter’s footsteps. Again, the Holy Father reminds us: “Only the faith proclaimed by Peter, and with him by the Church in every age, truly goes to the heart, and touches the depth of the mystery: ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” As Peter follows Christ, we must follow Peter.
As I write, the Church awaits the election of another who will walk in the shoes of the fisherman. His task will be like that of John Paul II and those who preceded him: to tend to and to feed the sheep. As God’s Mercy worked through the life of this man from a small town in Poland , it will work through the next pope. And this Mercy of God will always appear greater than his or our own weaknesses and unworthiness. He will be entrusted to hand on the gospel in its entirety. That is the Pope’s job – and that is the task of each one of us really – the message of the gospel is entrusted to us to share with the world. It is not for us, or for any future Pope, to alter it to suit to the changing fashions of the world. And those who speculate that the election of a new Pope will bring changes to core Church teachings are sure to be disappointed. For, the challenge before the next Pope and each one of us who wish to follow Christ faithfully is not to change our faith but to live it, to allow it to change us, in changing us to help us become convincing witnesses to the hope that is within us.