Washington, D.C. -- "Be not afraid!"
No better eulogy can be written for Pope John Paul II than this exhortation from
his inaugural Mass on October 22, 1978. His simple statement resonated from the
halls of the Kremlin to the streets of Eastern Europe, from the jungles of
Central America to the oppressed tending rice paddies in Communist China. These
words even touched hearts here in secular America.
Those three words -- "Be not afraid" -- from Matthew, quoting Christ's command
to a group of fearful men in peril on a dark and dangerous sea -- defined who he
was and what he did. At every opportunity, this man who would become the most
loved, viewed, and likely one of the most feared men on earth, urged
fearlessness in the face of all that life offers -- right up to death itself.
Loved? Certainly. Viewed? No doubt. More than 100 million people in 129
countries can claim to have seen him -- not on a screen -- but in person. But
feared? Yes, John Paul was indeed feared by despots and dictators, the cruel and
those who would deny the sanctity of human life that he espoused in every sermon
and in all of his writings. His faith, strength of character, and devotion to
the dignity of every person informed everything he did. Those virtues are
terrifying to tyrants and can change hearts in ways that military force and
economic might never can.
Best of all, his life will continue to inspire. Few know the given name of any
of this pope's predecessors. But almost everyone who has ever heard of John Paul
II know that he was once a parish priest, Karol Wojtyla. And because of all that
has been said and written of him, hundreds of millions of people know that his
courage and steadfastness were forged in the crucible of adversity -- first
under the boot of Nazi oppression -- and ultimately beneath the Soviet proxies
who ruled Poland after World War II.
In the early 1950s, the communist regime constructed Nowa Huta, a "model city"
on the outskirts of Krakow. When Archbishop Karol Wojtyla discovered that this
new "worker's paradise" wouldn't have a church, he set out to change their
minds. He lobbied the apparatchiks. They ignored him. He went to the Communist
Party authorities. They threatened him. So he went to the people -- and began
badgering the bureaucracy for a permit to construct a place of worship.
Increasingly vexed, officials vowed to restrict the annual Corpus Christi
procession through Krakow to a single walk around the cathedral. The threat
prompted a wonderful example of the future pope's courage and wit: "I am
inclined to think that such actions do not favor the process of normalization
between the Church and the State." In 1967 when the permit to build a church in
Nowa Huta was finally granted, it was Archbishop Wojtyla who swung a pickaxe to
Though his message was spiritual -- not political -- the demise of the Evil
Empire can be traced to his tenure as Archbishop of Krakow. Karol Wojtyla had
braved threats of arrest to preach, "We are citizens of our country, the
citizens of our city, but we are also a people of God which has its own
Christian sensibility. ... We will continue to demand our rights. They are
obvious, just as our presence here is obvious. We will demand!"
1979, as Pope John Paul II, he took that message back to his native Poland and
inspired millions of his countrymen who ignored government intimidation to hear
and see him. His message, "Be not afraid," resonated in Gdansk, with the rise of
"Solidarnosc" -- Lech Walesa's famous "Solidarity" labor union. On New Year's
Day 1982, less than a month after the communists in Poland declared martial law
and arrested thousands of Solidarity activists, John Paul denounced the "false
peace of totalitarian regimes." There was no moral equivocation. The message was
clear and the result was certain: truth was superior to falsehood; the light of
hope would dispel the darkness of despair; and the freedom inborn in every human
being could not be crushed by all the theories, laws, and chains devised by man.
John Paul II didn't just admonish others to "Be not afraid," he lived that way
himself. Though he'd nearly been killed by an assassin's bullet in 1981, he
insisted on traveling again as soon as he was able. Some were critical of his
decision to do so, but he was never rash or unresponsive to good advice. In 1983
while the pope was enroute to visit El Salvador, our government intercepted a
communication between two FMLN terrorist cells, discussing where the Marxist
guerrillas would ambush his motorcade. I was dispatched to the Papal Nuncio with
the raw intercept to urge that he advise the pope to use an alternative route.
He did so and the ambush was averted. As I was leaving, the Cardinal sought to
reassure my concerns about sending a message to the papal aircraft by telling
me, "Don't be concerned, we sent it in code. No one has ever broken the Vatican
By the time he left us, Pope John Paul II had faced the hectoring of Sandinista
mobs in Managua, told Castro to free his people, and delivered the same message
to Mikhail Gorbachev. Through it all, his life was a witness to his faith. We
are poorer for his departure, but eminently better for his life. In a world that
increasingly devalues human life and exalts "choice" at the altar of the self,
the selfless service of Karol Wojtyla, Pope John Paul II, inspired billions and
shook the foundations of the world. "Be not afraid," indeed.