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For John Paul, Tragic Deaths Built a Heroic Life

This Sunday is Easter Sunday 2, the eighth day of the Easter Octave: Divine Mercy Sunday. And this Sunday is the day John Paul II, along with John XXII, will be canonized in Rome.

The feast of Divine Mercy is the reason this Sunday was chosen for John Paul’s canonization. John Paul created the feast of Divine Mercy; he canonized St. Faustina, the apostle of Divine Mercy; and he died on the vigil of the feast of Divine Mercy, the ninth day of the Divine Mercy Novena that she popularized.

What did he see in Divine Mercy?

“Love is stronger than death,” he writes in Dives in Misericordia (On Divine Mercy). That was a lesson Pope John Paul II learned through the enormous losses he suffered throughout his life.

Emilia

Karol Wojtyla, the future John Paul II, was born in 1920 to Emilia Wojtyla, a part time seamstress who called him by his nickname, Lolek. He would lose her at age 9.

“The Pope’s mother was particularly close to her son,” a friend of Emilia once said. “She was proud of him. All mothers are, I suppose, but Emilia was different. She was an absolute darling.”

Emilia would tell her friends: “You will see: My Lolek will become a great man.”

Anyone who knows 9-year-olds knows that they are quite capable of understanding — and being motivated by — that kind of confidence from their mothers.

When John Paul was a young man, he wrote a poem that must be inspired by this loss from his youth:

“Oh, how many years have gone by / Without you? — how many years / Have passed over your white grave? / Still, mother, my beloved, you are gone.”

Her death was a presence throughout his life.

Edmund

It was two years later that Karol’s brother and only sibling died at age 26.

The little brother was in awe of his much older brother. Edmund took Lolek hiking and taught him to ski. Karol was present when his brother graduated magna cum laude from medical school in Krakow. Seeing his successful brother in academic regalia receiving honors may have helped launch his own academic ambitions.

Edmund died after caring for a scarlet fever patient, and the Pope has said that losing his brother was harder on him than losing his mother. “My brother’s death became deeply engraved in my memory,” he said.

That his brother died a hero, suffering for others, probably made as much of an impression on Lolek as the rest of what his brother did.

Late in his life, John Paul II would say, “The Pope has to be attacked, the Pope has to suffer, so that every family and the world may see that there is … a higher Gospel: The Gospel of suffering, by which the future is prepared, the third millennium of families, and every family and of all families.”

Karol Sr.

Lolek’s guide through all of this tragedy was Karol Wojtyla Sr.

Pope John Paul II said later, “After my mother’s death, my father’s life became one of constant prayer.”

Captain Wojtyla was an impressive man already. A Polish army record that George Weigel found describes the captain as “extraordinarily well-developed, with a righteous character, serious, well-mannered, modest, concerned about honor, with a strongly developed sense of responsibility, very gentle and tireless.”

John Paul II remembered his dad in his last memoir, Arise, We Must Be Going.

“The violence of the blows that struck him opened up immense spiritual depths in him. His grief found its outlet in prayer. The mere fact of seeing him on his knees had a decisive effect on my early years,” he wrote. “Even now when I awake at night, I remember seeing my father kneeling and praying.”

He summed it up: “My father was the person who explained to me the mystery of God.”

It is good that he did, because the 20-year-old Wojtyla needed to be prepared for another shock. He came home from work one day to find his father dead. He spent the night on his knees beside the body, crying and praying.

Later, he told a friend, “I’ve never felt so alone.”

Karol Jr. didn’t just survive emotionally, he used his priesthood and pontificate to promote the idea that love is more powerful than death.

Death to Death

John Paul learned to hate death. Mercy for Pope John Paul II was not the love by which God does away with death finally. He wrote, in Dives in Misericordia, “Death has justice done to it at the price of the death of the one who was without sin and who alone was able — by means of his own death — to inflict death upon death.”

When it came time to accept his own impending death, he wrote the following in his Last Will and Testament:

“Each of us must bear in mind the prospect of death. And must be ready to present himself before the Lord and Judge — Who is at the same time Redeemer and Father…. I wish to entrust myself totally to the Lord’s grace. He Himself will decide when and how I must end my earthly life and pastoral ministry. In life and in death, Totus Tuus in Mary Immaculate.”

So this Sunday, when the Gospels tell how Jesus breathed on the apostles and gave them power to forgive sins, we can celebrate with John Paul the death of sin and death.

And this Sunday when Pope Francis canonizes St. John Paul II, we can celebrate his decision to turn sorrow into love and spend his whole life preparing for his entrance into heaven.

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A shorter version of this article appeared in the National Catholic Register.

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