Remembering John Paul II in everyday life
Among the numerous canonized saints from Church history, Saint John Paul II is a recent example of a saintly model for young students. Born in Poland with the name Karol Wojtyła in 1920, he lived an inspiring and surprisingly varied life in the face of oppression during World War II and its aftermath. His Feast day is Oct. 22.
One of the first lessons that can be taken from the life of JPII is that faith and culture matter and are tied up in all other disciplines of life and study. During the Nazi occupation of Poland in 1939, the invaders did everything they could to destroy the identity of the Catholic population. They closed down the university and suppressed any expression of Poland’s rich history in literature and the arts. This was combined with a general suppression of the strong Catholic faith of the nation in order to erase any sense of self and make them easier to control. Karol joined an underground organization dedicated to performing historic plays and poems to keep the Polish culture alive. He was a skilled athlete, a brilliant intellectual, and an actor, but all of it served his central identity of faith.
The second lesson students can learn from St. John Paul II is faith in courage. His resistance to tyranny and persecution didn’t stop when he became a priest. When the Communist party replaced the Nazis as Poland’s occupiers, the oppression of Catholic faith continued due to the incompatibility between Catholic doctrine and socialist ideology. First as a priest and professor, and later as the Auxiliary Bishop of Krakow in which he worked to preserve the autonomy of the Church. As pope, he was instrumental in inspiring the collapse of the Soviet Union and made personal trips to Poland without any sense of fear. His famous phrase when he first became pope was “be not afraid” because he knew that faith in God drives out all fear of worldly persecution. Just so, students can be inspired to peruse and speak the truth without fear of the inevitable backlash. Even when it seems that all the power in the world is against you, having as confident a faith as John Paul II can make you as strong as the force that opposes you.
The third lesson from Saint John Paul II is the value of the young. It’s easy to be overwhelmed in the transitional phase of life that is being a college student. In some instances, no matter what you’ve done to prepare, it can be easy to feel inadequate due to being so young and inexperienced in the workplace and “real world.” St. John Paul II would tell you that your youth, far from being a downside, makes you invaluable. He was the first pope to institute the annual Would Youth Day celebration. As a priest, he would spend time camping with his students and going on cannoning trips with them. They affectionately called him “Uncle Karol”. These trips served the double-purpose of being secret opportunities for him to say Mass in the woods, far from the Communists eyes, while also connecting and creating a safe community.
His great work, “The Theology of the Body” serves, to this day, as an excellent guide to the preservation of a healthy youth by helping them avoid the pitfalls of navigating relationships and sexuality. He reminds us that it is well worth investing in the proper spiritual formation of the next generation, something that may speak even deeper to those college students training to be teachers.
These are just a few of the details of the inspiring life of St. John Paul II, not nearly enough to do him justice. A saint of great learning, courage, and understanding, his examples and teachings can serve to guide us in many areas of our lives, as well as remind us to keep all areas of our life centered on one thing: trust and faith in God.