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April 2005

Totus Tuus: The Source of John Paul's Greatness

- by John Mallon, Contributing Editor, Inside the Vatican

HOW BEAUTIFUL AND FITTING, AND SO MUCH IN THE TRADITION set by Pope John Paul II of being with the people, that when news of the Holy Father's entrance into Eternal Life finally came, Cardinals Sodano, Szoka, Law and other bishops were with the people in the Piazza leading them in prayer for the Pope.

They were not hidden from view or closeted away but with the people. The family of the Church shared the bittersweet mixture of grief and joy of our earthy father's passage from our temporal sight into the embrace of Jesus, his lifelong friend, Master and Lord. And, of course His Blessed Mother. Imagine that smile and embrace of welcome! He left us and heard the words, "Well done, good and faithful servant!"

This moment came on the last day of the first week of Easter, on the vigil of Mercy Sunday, a feast he established based on the mystical experiences of a 20th century Polish nun whom he canonized. By popular acclamation he is already referred to as John Paul the Great.

Somewhere around September, 1919, God created an extraordinary soul who would be named Karol Wojtyla. By the time he was 20 he was alone in the world, his immediate family had all died, and the Nazis had marched into his homeland, and set up Auschwitz, the most notorious killing center the world had ever known, 20 miles from his hometown.

God became his Father, the Mother of God his mother and the Church—and ultimately the world—became his family. He entered the seminary clandestinely at a time, when, after the Jews, the largest single group of Nazi victims in Auschwitz were Polish Catholic priests. Pope Paul VI is said to have called him a "magnificent, brave man."

Even his detractors have been acknowledging his greatness. But perhaps John Paul would be most pleased with a discussion of the source of his greatness, of which little has been said, but which he so often urged upon others.

Every moment of his life was directed toward the moment he would meet Jesus. It is precisely from his directedness toward Christ that his greatness derived. Blessedly, the world, as if keeping vigil at his bedside, witnessed it. Church tradition gives us a Prayer for a Holy Death, and as with so many other Catholic traditions the Holy Father showed us how it was done.

The clue to his greatness lies in his motto: "Totus Tuus." Totally yours. He had given himself completely over to the Mother of God, which, as every Catholic knows, also means he was totally given to Christ. He was completely sold out to Christ. For him truly, as St. Paul said, "To live is Christ." (Ph. 1:21)

It occurred to me recently that I had never seen John Paul show any self-doubt, hesitation, vacillation or second-guessing of himself. He always spoke with certitude and with authority, as Jesus did, (see Lk 4:32).

This is not because he had an ego, but just the contrary. It occurred to me that the Pope did not appear to have any ego, that whatever ego he had was entirely subsumed in Christ. He most certainly had an identity, and that identity was Christ. His ego and identity were entirely surrendered in Christ, and it was this that gave him his extraordinary humanity and personality.

The root of the word virtue is from vir, Latin for man. The more perfected in virtue we are the more fully human we are, the more fully alive we are. John Paul was bursting with life and love and love for life. Even as age and illness ravaged him his intellect continued to sparkle. He continued working, praying and blessing the crowds.

He was a man of passion and emotion, great love and even great anger—anger born of love, and never on his own behalf, but anger on behalf of the honor of God and human dignity.

Some traditions of the spiritual life describe the Beginner, the Proficient and the Perfect. The first two speak for themselves, but the Perfect describes the person who lives moment to moment in the presence of God, open to the constant promptings of the Holy Spirit. This does not mean the person is "perfect" in the usual sense, or without sin, but it is hard to imagine anyone fitting this description better than John Paul II. He showed us what it means to be truly in Christ and in the Holy Spirit.

One only arrives at such a level through constant prayer. Those who have witnessed him praying have described him as being in a mystical state of apparent conversation with the Lord, where he emits small groans. This is reminiscent of St. Paul's description, "the Spirit too comes to the aid of our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit itself intercedes with inexpressible groanings." (Rom. 8:26)

When John Paul took the throne of Peter the Church was weary. The despair which is dissent was claiming the Church had to "change" unchangeable truths in order to be "acceptable" to the modern world; as though the Church had to bend the knee to the world instead of the world bending the knee to Christ in the Church.

John Paul II changed all that, replacing "dissident chic" by reinvigorating the romance of orthodoxy. The young loved him because he respected and loved them enough to call them to virtue via the narrow way of Christ, rather than "easy" but destructive path of the world to which dissent bowed (Matt. 7:13-14).

People would say about the Rosary, "You don't need that! That's 'old church!'" Now, healthy Marian devotion is at an all-time high, second only to the Mass in nourishing the spiritual lives of Catholics.

John Paul II rejuvenated an entire Catholic culture in prayer, intellectual life, music, arts and publishing (including this magazine).

Ever the teacher and champion of life, his passion and death followed on the heels of a high profile but tragic death of a Catholic American woman, Terri Schiavo, a victim of the Culture of Death, linking the two events in the public mind.

Some commentators have mentioned the work the Pope left unfinished. But just recall the amazing dynamism of the young Pope of 1979. Now imagine John Paul II completely unfettered by the constraints of his body as a soul—an intercessor—in heaven—a saint.

He has only just begun.

John Mallon is a Contributing Editor to Inside the Vatican magazine.