Good evening, Bishop McAreavey, Mr Jerome Mullen, Honorary Consul for Poland, Mayor, Distinguished Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen. It is a great pleasure and a great honour to be asks to speak to you tonight as we gather to celebrate the canonisation of Karol Wojtyla, the little son of Poland who grew up to become Pope, a man of whom Poland and her people can justly be so very proud, and a man who became so much loved across the world.
Just a few years Declan and I went to Krakow on holiday. it was a wonderful experience, marred for me only by the visit to Auschwitz which had to be done: one cannot in conscience turn away from the pain of others because it is too painful to bear. And so we went to Auschwitz. But on the way home, we caught a little local bus, then another little local bus to Wadowice- Declan is very good at sorting things out, but I did not think we could possibly get to Wadowice.
We didn’t speak Polish, there wasn’t much in the way of tourist guides at that time. But we got there and it was a lovely experience to walk the roads that the little Karol walked, to enter the Church where he lived his young years, to visit his home so close to the Church and to see the exhibition of things from his early childhood, his skis, if I remember correctly, then the magnificent episcopal robes which he once wore. I think it gives a tiny insight into what formed the man whose life we celebrate today.
a sheer and exuberant love of God’s world and God’s people
Saints are ordinary people, and there can be no doubt that, no matter how extraordinary he seems to have become, he was just one of the people. He lived an ordinary life, came from an ordinary family, though that was to change more than anyone could have anticipated.
As we seek to understand his sainthood we must think about the young Karol Wojtyla - his early years, so touched by tragedy, his later years so challenging and accompanied throughout by so much pain, and yet through all that so much of poetry, drama, philosophy, sport and what seemed to me a sheer and exuberant love of God’s world and God’s people. It was an extraordinary life.
Those who come to sainthood often have significant experience of suffering. Karol Wojtyla was such a man. I have often pondered upon some of life’s apparent unfairness, and wondered on occasion why some people seem to suffer so much. The young Karol Wojtyla is one about whom I have wondered. The death, before his birth, of the older sister he might have had, then the loss of his mother when he was just nine years old, an age when little boys are striving to become men; it must have been a terrible loss. Mothers are there to love their sons, to affirm them and to be gentle for them in trying to guide them along the right path. This little boy lost his mother at a very tender age and he must have been bewildered at her loss.
Ten years later he wrote this poem. faith:
Over this, your white grave
the flowers of life in white–
so many years without you–
how many have passed out of sight?
It speaks for itself with such love and
Over this your white grave
covered for years, there is a stir
in the air, something uplifting
and, like death, beyond comprehension.
Over this your white grave
oh, mother, can such loving cease?
for all his filial adoration
Give her eternal peace—
He had a great devotion to Mary, the mother of Jesus. As the third of three children, his brother much older than him, and as the son of a man who was by all accounts a loving but very Spartan father, Karol seems to have learned early the lessons of self-sufficiency and independence. He suffered also the loss of that older brother, the doctor who died too young of illness contracted from his patients, and, at the age of 20, of his father. As he himself said, “At twenty, I had already lost all the people I loved.” There is a deep sadness in that statement.
He once wrote about what the importance of Mary - he said:
“From Mary we learn to surrender to God’s Will in all things. From Mary we learn to trust even when all hope seems gone. From Mary we learn to love Christ her Son and the Son of God!”
That could only be written by someone who had really known suffering and darkness, yet who was carried through it by faith.
He is talked of as a man who was never without his rosary beads, who prayed whenever he had the opportunity. There are stories of him praying all night when faced with particular challenges. The constancy with which a man can pray all through the night is something to be marvelled at. I don’t know many people who do that do you? This was man who lived so closely to God. That is why he is a saint today.
He who visited many shrines to Mary - Guadalupe, Jasna Gora, Loreto, Lourdes, Knock, Fatima and others, and he said that she saved him when Mehmet Ali Agca tried to kill him in St Peter’s Square.
He spoke of her role in protecting the Church in the first book of his which I read, “Sign of Contradiction”:
“Precisely in periods when Christ, and therefore his Church, Pope, bishops, priests, religious and all the faithful become became the sign which provokes the most implacable and premeditated contradiction, Mary appears particularly close to the Church, because the Church is always in a way her Christ, first the Christ-child and then the crucified and risen Christ.”
Speaking in Knock on his visit to Ireland he talked of how very little is recorded in the Gospels of what Mary said. He pointed out that at Cana she had said to the servants “Do whatever he tells you.” He told us:
“This same message she still speaks to us today.”
In speaking to the sick he told them:
“remember that Our Blessed Mother, Mary, is close to you, just as she was close to Jesus at the foot of the cross. And she will never leave you alone.”
It has often seemed to me that these very simple messages were the messages that his own mother must have given him on many occasions. For this is what he seems to have done as young man, priest, bishop, archbishop, cardinal and Pope.
Whilst much has been written of his poetry and his love for philosophy and drama, of the mountaineering, the canoeing trips and the sport, the years of his university education and his seminary formation were also very tough years. It seems amazing now that a man who worked in the stone quarry would one day occupy the throne of Peter.
He wrote a poem about what it was like in the quarry, about the blasting of the stone, the hardness of the rock, the dust and the mud, It is about the death of a fellow worker. Listen carefully:
He wasn’t alone.
His muscles grew into the flesh of the crowd, energy their pulse,
As long as they held a hammer, as long as his feet felt the ground.
And a stone smashed his temples and cut through his heart’s chamber.
They took his body and walked in a silent line
Toil still lingered about him, a sense of wrong.
They wore gray blouses, boots ankle-deep in mud.
In this, they showed the end.
How violently his time halted: the pointers on the low voltage dials jerked, then dropped to zero again.
White stone now within him, eating into his being,taking over enough of him to turn him into stone.
Who will lift up that stone, unfurl his thoughts again under the cracked temples?
But the man has taken with him the world’s inner structure,where the greater the anger, the higher the explosion of love.
The political environment in which he came to maturity and to ordination was so very tough. He fought communism and materialism. He is credited internationally with having contributed much to the end of Communism. He constantly asserted the right to freedom, recognising that:
“Freedom consists not in doing what we like, but in having the right to do what we ought.”
He asserted the right to life in so many spheres, not just abortion and euthanasia. He had a number of serious accidents and as Pope he was nearly assassinated, finally succumbed to the crippling arthritis and to Parkinson’s Disease. He seemed to bear it all with a fortitude and grace, and with humour and love. He was, above all, a man who believed the words of Jesus: “Be not afraid.”
The 263rd successor to St Peter was, in some ways, an unlikely character. Although he held the titles of bishop, archbishop and cardinal when he became pope, he was not known in the world as some candidates for the papacy have been. When he died he was probably the most widely known person in the world. He strode the world’s stage with grace and constant compassion. As a younger pope he was very fit and continued to engage in various sporting activities. When he became old he was almost unrecognisable as the fit young man he had once been. His achievements are legendary.
His twenty-six years as Pope encompassed the greatest period of change in the Catholic Church for centuries. His greatest call, I think, was the call to each of us to recognise that we are called to holiness and to understand and live that call. I never met the man. I stood in Phoenix Park with Declan on 29 September I979 with a million and a quarter other people and saw him from a huge distance. I would dearly have liked to have met this man who came through so much, and who in his living and in his dying lived the Gospel in a way which touched the souls of so many.
For me the most compelling thing about Karol Wojtyla was the power and conviction with which he articulated and communicated his faith in all its aspects. There were those who criticised his use of the media, for example, when he went to visit in prison the man who tried to murder him, he did not go without the cameras. He once said:
“The question confronting the Church today is not any longer whether the man in the street can grasp a religious message, but how to employ the communications media so as to let him have the full impact of the Gospel message.”
In a scene so reminiscent to all Catholics of a confessional scene, he was shown sitting leaning forward and listening attentively to Ali Agca. What it said to us all was that the Pope had forgiven the man who tried to murder him and wanted him to know that. For all those who have suffered at the hands of others it was an example of how we should forgive as we are forgiven.
His compassion which seemed obvious to me, showed also that forgiveness is not just a giving up of anger and bitterness at the harm caused, but it can also be a reaching out to those who have harmed us in the most terrible ways. I remember watching him and thinking this is real Christianity. I could only see this and learn from it because he took the cameras with him.
A few years previously I had lost in pregnancy a much-wanted first baby when I was caught in a bomb explosion. My anger at those who had denied my child life was massive. As I watched the Pope forgive the man who had sought to kill him, I had much to ponder on.
As John Paul II walked through the world, travelling to extraordinary places, especially places of great conflict or deprivation, from Northern Ireland to Cuba, to Africa and India the media were always there. I said on RTE the other night that for me he was the Pope who brought the Papacy and the Vatican to Ireland, where previously it had been a distant place and the Pope an even more distant figure, who lived in Rome, ruled the church, appeared at intervals gorgeously robed to give blessings and produced densely scripted encyclicals (and I do know there was more to it than that!), this man brought the truth of the Gospels wherever he went.
He prayed and talked to ordinary people and to world leaders, and in his work he changed the world so much that there were powerful people who feared him enormously, because what he taught was the antithesis of what they sought.
Much of what John Paul II wrote has been published in dense format with very limited circulation. This is a pity for he has so much to tell us. His book “Crossing the Threshold of Hope” is different. It had wide circulation. In it the he talked of how the conscience of the peoples and nations of the world:
“needs to grow in the certainty that Someone exists who holds in His hands the destiny of this passing world”
He tells us:
“this Someone is Love – Love became that man, Love crucified and risen. Love unceasingly present among men. It is Eucharistic Love. It is the infinite source of communion. He alone can give the ultimate assurance when he says “”Be not afraid.””
These words have been of great importance to me both in my professional life and as a wife and mother – there have been times when the challenge has seemed too great, and yet I have learned, as John Paul said, “The power of Christ’s Cross and Resurrection is greater than any evil which man could or should fear.” We must just hold on and “be not afraid.”
I am sure that many of you have had similar experiences.
These words, which I first heard as a little girl, and which were so clearly articulated by this Pope who had so much cause to be afraid, have stayed with me over the years. To watch this man stride the world in his younger years, and falter slowly but not hesitatingly in his later years, was to watch living faith.
No matter how much his health failed he never gave up. I was among those who thought he should have stepped down, that the world needed a younger, vigorous Pope, who would concentrate his energies on the emptying churches, the falling vocations in the west, the challenge of secularism. Yet I came to realise that he was doing all those things in his failing years.
Just as he had modelled strength and determination and huge communication skills in his earlier years, so in his latter years he modelled for us the dignity and wisdom of age, the great love which valued all people, and the importance of knowing that we are held in Christ’s hands all of our days.
We live in a culture in which age is not valued as it should be. In other cultures the old can be reverenced for their wisdom. That rarely happens here. And here we have the nightmare of abortion, and now the threat of euthanasia and assisted dying as mediums through which the world can be relieved of the need to look after those who are old and sick. In all he did John Paul witnessed to the sacredness of each human life, of each person made and loved by God. He said:
“The inalienable dignity of every human being and the rights which flow from that dignity - in the first place the right to life and the defense of life - are at the heart of the church’s message.”
His testament was a testament of truth for it spoke eloquently of love and joy, and peace and patience, and goodness and all those other gifts of which we learned, but which we did not know, when we were children. It spoke perhaps most of all of the truth of the Resurrection.
John Paul marched across the world’s stage, a man of intellect, but above all a man of faith. he addressed all aspects of all human life in the world - politics, philosophy, science, interfaith dialogue - it was he, against the advice of many who brought 120 religious leaders together to pray and reflect on faith - who spoke so courageously against violence and war, of the need for peace, the sanctity of human life, the importance of people’s dignity - the need for each of us to contribute to the other, to live our lives not for ourselves but for others.
He did not fail to challenge when challenge was necessary but not easy - for example to America: Radical changes in world politics leave America with a heightened responsibility to be, for the world, an example of a genuinely free, democratic, just and humane society.
Of science he said:
“Science can purify religion from error and superstition. Religion can purify science from idolatry and false absolutes.”
To those who would use all ends to secure social justice:
“Social justice cannot be attained by violence. Violence kills what it intends to create.”
In his Papacy he was brave enough to try to deal with the wrongs of the past, he apologised for so much of the Church’s wrongdoing over the centuries, that he was criticised for apologising too much. He apologised for the treatment of Galileo; the Inquisition and the religious wars that followed the Protestant Reformation; some Catholics’ involvement with those responsible for the African slave trade; the wrongs done to women; the failures of many Catholics during the Holocaust, and he made the early apologies for clerical sexual abuse.
Where wrong has been done we are called to confession, contrition and reparation. That is what he was modelling as the leader of the Church which had sinned. He could have just ignored it, but his was a life lived for reconciliation and peace and justice.
His words in Drogheda in 1979 when he came to Ireland and pleaded for peace made an enormous impact. I remember it as if it was yesterday. He spoke of the “inalienable rights of human beings.” He spoke “in language of passionate pleading” to the men and women engaged in violence, telling them that “violence only delays the day of justice. Violence destroys the work of justice” begging them to “return to the ways of peace.” He prayed “for peace and reconciliation, for the victory of justice and love over hatred and violence.”
No saint was ever perfect. Peter denied Jesus three times, Augustine lived a wild life causing his mother to pray endlessly, as mothers everywhere do for their sons! The great St Francis too lived a life of wealth and disregard for others before he came to holiness. So it is not surprising that there are things which John Paul did and said in his time which led to controversy. Some of those things may in due course be revisited by the Church, but the essence of this man is that he lived his life for others, that he was a man of prayer and faith, that he did not spare himself in working for the Lord.
There are those who say that his canonisation has come to soon - but the reality is that our world has changed so much that we know more about this man who was Karol Wojtyla than we do, probably, about any other saint. His writings are available to us, much of his life was recorded in the media. He was studied and analysed by philosophers, scientists, journalists and so many others. His cause survived the process of making him a saint.
I do not believe it is too soon. We live in a different, more informed, more open and transparent world and it is in that world that John Paul II lived and worked. He himself made many saints, more than all the other popes in history it is said. He worked to identify ordinary men and women of great holiness and to identify them as people whose holiness we can try to emulate.
His holiness was there for all to see. It is not too soon.
John Paul II was a man of heroic virtue, he struggled at times in his life, he was not perfect, we know that, but the magnitude of the spirit and soul and intellect of this great man was very clearly demonstrated by the millions across the world who came to listen to him speak, who attended his dying and who mourned at his passing. This was no ordinary man, no ordinary bishop. This was a man of God and it is wonderful that we can be together this evening and celebrate his life and his great love and compassion for the world.