Forty-one years ago, the Church celebrated the inauguration of Pope John Paul II to the office of St. Peter on Oct. 22, 1978. Twenty-seven years later the world seemed to pause as news broke that the pope was mortally ill.
In the days leading up to his death on April 2, 2005, TV cameras broadcast his lit bedroom window, waiting for news of his recovery or of his passing, while tens of thousands of pilgrims gathered in St. Peter’s square to be near him and to pray for him.
His funeral, which was celebrated that April 8, was attended by world and religious leaders including four kings, five queens, more than 70 presidents and prime ministers, and 14 leaders of religions other than Catholicism. It is estimated that more than four million mourners gathered to remember his life and two billion watched it on TV.
The reason for all of this attention was simple: the whole world realized it had witnessed an extraordinary life. The Church officially recognized what we all knew when John Paul II was canonized in 2014, with his feast day to be celebrated each October 22, the anniversary of his inauguration.
Long before he became pope, Karol Wojtyla had lived a life of heroic virtue. Wojtyla was orphaned in his early 20s, and survived both the Nazi and Communist regimes in Poland. By the time he was elected pope, he was already an important teacher in the Church with writings that included his wonderful book, Love and Responsibility.
After his election, the way Pope John Paul II carried himself in public – leaning on his training as an actor – caught the world by storm following his election in 1978. In the age before the Internet, John Paul II drew tremendous crowds wherever he went and left a lasting impact on both the religious and secular world.
The final leader of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, credited John Paul II with having played a key role in the fall of communism. If John Paul II had never lived, if he’d been caught or killed at any point by his country’s occupiers, or if the 1981 attempt on his life had been successful, our world would be a very different place.
Sadly, many people find it difficult to see this sort of value in an individual life. We can look at a life like that of John Paul II and say he mattered – but many others don’t see themselves in a similar light. Like George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life, there are many who believe the world might be better off without them. Bailey is given a unique privilege: the opportunity to see what the world would have been like if he hadn’t been born. And he is floored by how many lives have been impacted by their interactions with him – and how different it would be if he’d never been there. He’s able to return to his everyday life with a much deeper appreciation of what his individual life means to others.
Among the many lessons we might take from St. John Paul II is to recognize that value first, in our own lives, and then in the lives of others. In any group of teens I present to, I know there are some who feel that even their parents don’t love them, others who’ve been betrayed by friends and family, and still others who feel like their own bad decisions have made them unworthy of being loved in the first place. There are people who’ve been taken advantage of and then thrown away with no more care than you might show a used piece of gum. And finally, there are those who feel like they don’t fit into the “mold” that an ordinary, well-adjusted human being ought to fit into. And this feeling is not just reserved to the young – there are many adults who feel the same way.
To put it simply, there are far too many people who don’t feel loved, valued, and needed. They don’t feel like their life is worth much.
At the closing Mass for World Youth Day 2002 in Toronto, John Paul II offered an encouragement to this specific situation: “We are not the sum of our weaknesses and failures; we are the sum of the Father’s love for us and our real capacity to become the image of his Son.”
It’s incredibly beautiful how God has woven human existence so that none of us can properly live in total isolation from one another. Much like a spider’s web, each strand plays a key part in the whole – and if we were to sever one strand (and lose a “George Bailey”) the impact reaches far beyond what we can imagine. A team is short a player who makes a great play on the field. A character is missing from a dramatic performance. A friend is absent at the moment another needed a shoulder to cry on. Some beautiful piece of art is never created. A joke never told. A project is never started or never completed. Two people are never introduced by a mutual friend… who go on to fall in love and raise a family of their own.
If you’re the person who feels today – for whatever reason – that your life does not matter, please believe me when I tell you that you’re wrong. You are wanted and needed in this story – because what you have to bring to our world is unique and valuable.
It may be that those who are closest to you are unable to recognize this value, or that you feel so overwhelmed by the drama of your life that you have a hard time believing this, so I’ll say it again: your life matters. And somewhere in your life is someone like me – perhaps a teacher, counsellor, neighbour, parent, aunt or uncle, boss, or friend who will walk with you to show you this truth. We are not the same without you – not today, and not years from now when the full impact of your life can be understood.
When St. John Paul II was growing up in Poland – and even when he was elected Pope in the fall of 1978 – few would have imagined the impact he would leave on the world. His successor, Benedict XVI pointed out how true this is of every human person in his inaugural homily as pope when he said: “We are not some casual and meaningless product of evolution. Each of us is the result of a thought of God. Each of us is willed, each of us is loved, each of us is necessary.”
You truly have no idea how much you mean not only to us, but also to God. And I pray that you might come to know this not only in your head, but deeply, in your heart.
— Mike Landry is chaplain to Evergreen Catholic Schools west of Edmonton, and serves as an occasional guest speaker and music minister in communities across Western Canada. Mike and his wife Jennifer live in Stony Plain, Alta. with their five children.