Today marks the centenary of the birth of Pope St. John Paul II—he would have been 100 years old today. Prior to the coronavirus outbreak, preparations for celebrating the 100th anniversary of this extraordinary saint’s birth had been well under way in Poland and the Vatican.
Sadly, the pandemic and consequent lockdowns have led to the cancellation of these events and other celebrations nearer to home. But there are several ways in which we can commemorate the centenary on our own.
How We Can Celebrate St. John Paul II
First, we can watch Pope Francis celebrate Mass at the tomb of St. John Paul II in St. Peter’s Basilica in memory of the centenary. EWTN will broadcast the Mass today at 11:30 a.m. Eastern, 8:30 a.m. Pacific. You can find your local EWTN channel here or watch it online here.
Second, we can remember St. John Paul’s heroic witness of faith throughout his life. Keep reading further for a few biographical highlights.
Third, we can take time to reflect on some of his uplifting words of wisdom. Below, there are 10 inspirational quotes from St. John Paul’s homilies and writings.
Fourth, we can pray for his powerful intercession for ourselves and for our world, in particular during this difficult time of pandemic and lockdown.
Life in Poland
Born Karol Józef Wojtyla on May 18, 1920, in Wadowice, Poland (a small city about 30 miles from Krakow), tragic losses marked the future pope’s early life. His mother died when he was 9 years old, and his older brother Edmund died when he was 12.
Yet, from the age of 18, Karol lived a life of heroic consecration to the Blessed Virgin Mary. He renewed his consecration every day and eventually took the words Totus Tuus, or “totally yours,” as his episcopal and papal motto.
After the German occupation of Poland in 1939, life became more difficult for Karol. At the age of 19, he had to work as a stone-cutter in a quarry, and later as a manual laborer in a chemical factory, to avoid being deported to Germany. In 1941, when Karol was 20 years old, his father died of a heart attack, leaving him as his immediate family’s only surviving member.
At this point, Karol started thinking seriously about the priesthood. When he was 22, he began studying at a secret seminary run by the archbishop of Krakow. After World War II ended, Wojtyla finished his seminary studies and was ordained in 1946.
In 1958, Pope Pius XII appointed him as the auxiliary bishop of Krakow. Thus, at the age of 38, Wojtyla became the youngest bishop in Poland. Six years later in 1964, he became the archbishop of Krakow.
Pope for the World
Elected Pope on October 16, 1978 and taking the name John Paul II, he made history by becoming the first non-Italian pope in more than four hundred years.
A vocal advocate for human rights, Pope John Paul II often spoke out about suffering in the world. A charismatic figure, he used his influence to bring about political change and is credited with the fall of communism in his native Poland.
St. John Paul II was also history’s most well-traveled pope and world leader. He visited 129 countries on 104 apostolic journeys, spreading his message of faith and peace. Wherever he went, he touched the hearts of millions of people.
However, he was close to home when he faced the greatest threat to his life. In 1981, an assassin shot John Paul II twice in St. Peter’s Square in the Vatican. He recovered from his injuries—attributing his survival to the maternal intervention of Our Lady of Fatima—and later forgave his attacker.
Young People, Families, and the Elderly
St. John Paul II is particularly remembered for his love of young people. In 1985, he established World Youth Day, typically celebrated every three years in a different country. (The next World Youth Day, postponed due to the coronavirus, will now take place in August 2023 in Lisbon, Portugal.) This worldwide encounter with the reigning pope brings together millions of young people from around the globe.
Similarly, John Paul’s passion for strengthening the family motivated him to establish the World Meeting of Families in 1994, which usually gathers every three years. (The next World Meeting of Families, also moved, will now take place in June 2022 in Rome.)
Later, from his own experience of growing old, and only five and a half years before his death, John Paul II wrote his moving Letter to the Elderly in 1999. His letter shares and cherishes the experiences, beauty, agony, and dignity of growing old and drawing closer to God.
Divine Mercy Sunday
In a striking way, John Paul II strove to live and teach the message of Divine Mercy. This message originated with the writings of a Polish nun, Faustina Kowalska, who received revelations from Jesus about God’s loving message of Divine Mercy. Simply stated, the heart of the message is that God wants us to recognize that His mercy is greater than our sins, so that we will call upon Him with trust, receive His mercy, and let it flow through us to others.
In his writings and homilies, John Paul II described Divine Mercy as the answer to the world’s problems and the message of the third millennium. He canonized Faustina on April 30, 2000, making her the “first saint of the new millennium.” On the same day, he surprised the entire world by establishing Divine Mercy Sunday (the Second Sunday of the Easter season) as a feast day for the entire Church. Afterwards, he declared, “This is the happiest day of my life.”
Death and Sainthood
In his later years, John Paul’s health seemed to be failing. At public appearances, he moved slowly and seemed unsteady on his feet. He also visibly trembled at times.
At the age of 84, Pope John Paul II died on the vigil of Divine Mercy Sunday, April 2, 2005, at his Vatican City residence. His pontificate lasted 26 years and 5 months, the third longest after that of Pius IX and St. Peter. As part of his special emphasis on the universal call to holiness, he beatified 1,340 and canonized 483 people, more than the combined tally of his predecessors during the preceding five centuries.
His own canonization ceremony, held on Divine Mercy Sunday, April 27, 2014, brought together four popes. Pope Francis led the event to elevate Pope John Paul II and Pope John XXIII to sainthood, which was also attended by Francis’s predecessor, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI.
10 Inspirational Quotes from St. John Paul II
Today’s coronavirus crisis prevents us from gathering together to celebrate this great saint. But we can take time to contemplate 10 of his inspiring sayings on Christ, love, and courage.
“The goal and target of our life is He, the Christ who awaits us—each one singly and altogether—to lead us across the boundaries of time to the eternal embrace of the God who loves us.”
“Today Christ is asking each of you the same question: do you love Me? He is not asking you whether you know how to speak to crowds, whether you can direct an organization or manage an estate. He is asking you to love Him. All the rest will ensue.”
“God’s love does not impose burdens upon us that we cannot carry, nor make demands of us that we cannot fulfill. For whatever He asks of us, He provides the help that is needed.”
“The cross means: love knows no limits—begin with those who are closest to you and do not forget those who are the farthest.”
“Love is a task that God constantly sets for us, perhaps to give us courage to stand up to fate.”
“There is no evil to be faced that Christ does not face with us. There is no enemy that Christ has not already conquered. There is no cross to bear that Christ has not already borne for us, and does not now bear with us.”
“People are made for happiness. Rightly, then, you thirst for happiness. Christ has the answer to this desire of yours. But He asks you to trust him.”
“I plead with you—never, ever give up on hope, never doubt, never tire, and never become discouraged. Be not afraid.”
“The worst prison would be a closed heart.”
“The future starts today, not tomorrow.”
St. John Paul II, pray for us!
Above all, we can celebrate his 100th birthday by asking this great saint for his intercession:
St. John Paul, from the window of heaven, grant us your blessing.
Bless the Church that you loved and served and guided, courageously leading it along the paths of the world in order to bring Christ to everyone and everyone to Christ.
Bless the young, who were your great passion. Help them to dream again, and to find the light that illuminates the paths of life here on earth.
Protect each family and every life that blossoms from the family.
Bless the elderly with the peace of Christ. Help them to share their peace with all those around them.
Bless the whole world, ravaged by the coronavirus pandemic. Pray for us, that we may open our hearts to hope and experience Christ’s healing love.
St. John Paul II, from heaven’s window, where we see you next to Mary, send God’s blessing down upon us all.
© 2020 Maria Vickroy-Peralta. Image: Gabriel Bouys/AFP/Getty Images.