Pope John Paul, a great pro-life champion, was born 100 years ago today

Editor’s note. Thanks to the invaluable Jeff Jacoby, virtually the lone voice of sanity at the Boston Globe. In a column published this morning, Jeff recalled for us that it was one hundred years ago today that Karol Wojtyla, later to be Pope John Paul ll, was born in the Polish town of Wadowice.

Over the years NRL News wrote a number of articles about “the most charismatic and consequential pope in modern times” (in Jeff’s words) who was a tower of pro-life strength. It was Pope John Paul ll who first used the  phrase the “Culture of Life” in a 1991 encyclical  and then famously expanded upon it in the encyclical Evangelium Vitae (the “Gospel of Life”).

The following appeared immediately after his passing on April 2, 2005.

Caring for Those “Especially in Need of Help”

Pope John Paul II
Photo: Dennis Jarvis

It is a testimony to Pope John Paul II’s longevity that the 264th occupant of the throne of St. Peter is the only Pope half the world has ever known.

It is a testimony to the power of his personality and the incandescence of his commitment to Christ that leaders of other faiths were as generous in their praise of the Pontiff as they would have been had their own spiritual leader died. It did not go unnoticed that Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, became the first serving leader of the Church of England to attend a Pontiff’s funeral.

It is a testimony to the way he commanded the world’s stage for more than 26 years that his final illness, preparations for his funeral, and the funeral itself were virtually around-the-clock staples of cable television and, to a lesser extent, the major networks. The world was captivated one last time by Karol Wojtyla.

It is a testimony to the Pope’s magnetic hold, and not just on youth, that in some sense we all thought of him as Father. It is a testimony to the respect in which he was held that the secular media unselfconsciously used religious idiom pervasively in its wall-to-wall coverage.

Nancy Gibbs’ first paragraph in Time magazine weaves these latter two threads together beautifully.

“You feel smaller when your father dies because he was strong and lifted you, carried you and taught you, and when he’s gone the room feels too big without him,” she wrote. “So it was in St. Peter’s Square, where pilgrims kept vigil, their faces traced in low light by candles, murmuring ‘Don’t leave us.’ Among the believers was almost disbelief that death still comes even to a man this strong – – the Holy Father who had carried his people so far, lifted them so high, taught them so much and now finally was slipping away.”

For pro-lifers, it is difficult to image a man more committed to our cause than Pope John Paul II, or more eloquent. It was the Pontiff, of course, who coined the phrase, “The culture of life.” It is an idea so powerful that those who are more comfortable with the culture of death are forced to address it.

Susan Wills has written that in his 1995 encyclical, The Gospel of Life, the Pope “identifies particularly disturbing aspects of modern threats to life. The very institutions which once protected the vulnerable – – the state, the family, and the medical profession – – are today complicit in denying their very right to existence. Crimes such as abortion and euthanasia are now promoted as ‘rights’ and protected by law.”

In his encyclicals, major addresses, and responses to anti-life initiatives, Pope John Paul II raised his voice up on behalf of the most defenseless – – the unborn child and the severely disabled – – refusing to “measure their lives on scales gauging their usefulness or ‘quality of life.'”

The Pope was a fierce opponent of suicide, in all its guises and pretenses. No less so did he staunchly battle those whose first thought when they look at the severely disabled is that they’d be “better off dead.”

He will be remembered for his pivotal role in re-orienting the debate over how we treat people stricken with major brain injuries. It is incalculably important that Pope John Paul II insisted that no matter how injured they might be, “they retain their human dignity in all its fullness.” 

In his March 20, 2004, speech to a conference in Rome, the Pope “clarified and reaffirmed our moral obligation to provide normal care to these patients, including the food and fluids they need to survive,” Richard Doerflinger wrote in NRL News. As the Pope said in his speech, “The loving gaze of God the Father continues to fall upon them, acknowledging them as his sons and daughters, especially in need of help.”

The Pope died a few days after Terri Schindler Schiavo was starved and dehydrated to death. It is a testimony to the rabidly pro-death ethos of the New York Times that “its official editorial on the life of one of the dominant figures of the 20th century” was about how “John Paul II lived and died to show that the Times was right in its editorial viewpoints about the Terri Schiavo case,” as the online web site Get Religion sarcastically observed.

The Times contrasted what it called the “long, bitter fight over the unknowing Terri Schiavo” with “the passing of this pontiff, whose own mind was keenly aware of the gradual failure of his body.” It is such an affront to everything Pope John Paul II stood for that it sets your stomach to churning and positively takes your breath away.

It is a completely understandable response to wish that leading up Pope John Paul II’s passing, he’d retained a measure of his youthful vigor and athleticism. But he taught us “another kind of example.” Let me quote this from David Van Biema, writing for Time magazine. 

“Once proud and private, John Paul showed a youth-obsessed world that illness and old age are not badges of shame. From a wheelchair, he gave audience after audience and celebrated Mass after public Mass.”

For the countless number who grieve his passing, let me conclude with the final paragraph of Nancy Gibbs’ moving tribute:

“It is of some comfort, when we wait for those we love to die, to celebrate the way they lived. For Christians this is a season of mystery and grace, and during the final days, John Paul II gave his people one last gift: the message of his visible pain and transcendent love, like a bell ringing out over St. Peter’s Square, clear and resounding as it carried up to heaven.”

The world has lost a Godly man, a spiritual and moral force who spoke loudest for those who had no voice. By the time you read these remarks, a new Pope will probably have been chosen.

We pray that God will empower him to carry on the work of that great pro-life champion, John Paul II.