Vinoth Ramachandra

Honouring John Paul II

Posted on: April 30, 2014

Last Sunday, Pope Francis formally canonized John Paul II as a Saint of the Church. While disliking the notion of canonization, I nevertheless share in the celebration of John Paul II’s life. He was, undoubtedly, one of the most courageous Bishops the Church has produced, as well as being one of the great theological voices of the twentieth century.

John Paul II was Karol Wojtyla, the Archbishop of Krakow, before he became Pope. His fellow Pole, the poet Czeslaw Milosz, who won the Noble Prize for Literature in 1980, composed an “Ode on the Eightieth Birthday of John Paul II” which I reproduce below. (Ignore the woodenness of the English translation- I’m sure it is more lyrical in Polish!). It is an inspiration to all of us who continue to live under oppressive regimes and fear that our feeble words and actions carry little weight. Stalin’s famously derisive challenge to the Church- “How many divisions has the Pope?”-was answered ironically by a man who showed that, in his native Poland, divine truth could overthrow a demonic empire.

“We come to you, men of weak faith,
So that you might fortify us with the example of your life
And liberate us from anxiety
About tomorrow and next year. Your twentieth century
Was made famous by the names of powerful tyrants
And by the annihilation of their rapacious states.
You knew it must happen. You taught hope:
For only Christ is the lord and master of history.

Foreigners could not guess from whence came the hidden strength
Of a novice from Wadowice. The prayers and prophecies
Of poets, whom money and progress scorned,
Even though they were the equals of kings, waited for you
So that you, not they, could announce, urbi et orbi,
That the centuries are not absurd but a vast order.

Shepherd given to us when the gods depart!
In the fog above the cities the Golden Calf shines,
The defenseless crowds race to offer the sacrifice
Of their own children to the bloody screens of Moloch.
In the air, fear, a lament without words:
Since a desire for faith is not the same as faith.

Then, suddenly, like the clear sound of the bell for matins,
Your sign of dissent, which is like a miracle.
People ask, not comprehending, how it’s possible
That the young of the unbelieving countries
Gather in public squares, shoulder to shoulder,
Waiting for news from two thousand years ago
And throw themselves at the feet of the Vicar
Who embraced with his love the whole human tribe.

You are with us and will be with us henceforth.
When the forces of chaos raise their voice
And the owners of truth lock themselves in churches
And only the doubters remain faithful,
Your portrait in our homes every day remind us
How much one man can accomplish and how sainthood works.”

New and Collected Poems 1931-2001 (Penguin Modern Classics)

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