Remembering a Great Conscience: The Legacy of Pope John Paul II

The first ever Polish and second longest serving Pope. A Pope who kissed the ground every time he landed somewhere new, inspiring true kindness, humanitarianism, and forgiveness in all, regardless of one’s religious faith. A Pope who was perhaps the strongest conscience of the Christian and secular worlds.With such legacies to his name, there is no doubt that Pope John Paul II made a lasting imprint on the Roman Catholic Church during his 26-year papacy. Few popes of any century have had such an impact. I had the unbelievable opportunity to see the Pope twice during my lifetime in Rome, which were truly amazing experiences which I will always treasure. I may be Catholic, but I have little doubt that John Paul II has been one of the most significant figures of the 20th century. He revolutionized the papacy, championing long-standing church traditions and being the most-traveled pope in history – very much a man of the entire world. A question many of us continue to ask is: What can we learn from this great man? As a spiritual leader and social reformer, John Paul II seized the high moral ground in world affairs and has yet to relinquish it. He was not afraid to oppose the Gulf War, speak against abortion and cloning, and even accuse the Western world of fostering a culture of materialism and death. During his papacy, communism collapsed, and he never failed to emphasize the importance of humane leadership that stressed human rights. Undoubtedly, John Paul II reached a height of moral and political influence in the world, something most world leaders today can only aspire to. As he explained in his best-selling 1994 book, Crossing the Threshold of Hope, “We cannot afford forms of permissiveness that would lead directly to the trampling of human rights, and also to the complete destruction of values which are fundamental not only for the lives of individuals and families, but for society itself.” Like many others, I am not saying that I completely agree with all of John Paul II’s beliefs. At times, his omnipresent papacy has had its downfalls. Many continue to question his opposition to the ordination of women, which he defends as consistent with Church doctrine. Nevertheless, we need to focus on the ideals of love, forgiveness, acceptance, and morality John Paul II possessed and continues to represent. We all – in some way – need to have more of his dignity and integrity.Throughout his time as leader of the world’s Roman Catholics, John Paul II made a point of reaching out to young people, appearing at many events geared especially towards them. For example, in 2004, tens of thousands of young people gave him a sort of “rock star” welcome in Lourdes, France. His message there and throughout his papacy was predictable yet poignant: Life is precious and must be defended from the moment of conception. Likewise, at World Youth Day in 2002, John Paul II told the young people, “You are the salt of the earth …You are the light of the world.” Thus, he encouraged the youth to discover their religious roots and history while deepening their knowledge of the spiritual heritage that has been passed on to them. Most importantly, we can all learn from John Paul’s attempts to reach out to other faiths openly and wholeheartedly, in search of reconciliation after centuries of hostility and suspicion. He traveled to Islamic countries and became the first Pope to set foot in a mosque. As a symbol of religious tolerance, his extreme faith in the good of all people – regardless of religion – took on new and significant meaning after the attacks of September 11, 2001. While we may celebrate different religions and begin to view the Pope’s death as yet another tragic event to cope with as the semester ends, I hope you too can be inspired – and moved – by John Paul II’s unique ability to reach many generations, cultures, and faiths with his message of love. Even with his fairly orthodox views of the Catholic faith, he was still able to reach, touch, and command utmost respect from all of us. Now, the question for us remains. Can we allow ourselves to be open to new ideas, mindsets, and people in this time of chaos and stress? Can we find who we really are and reach out to others in need? I urge you to rise to this challenge and start living the very ideals the Pope embodied during his entire life. Only then will we recognize and fully exemplify the true values of kindness and humanity.