October 22 is the feast day for St. John Paul II who is a very special saint for me. There is a personal connection to him for many reasons and he has had an impact on my ongoing faith journey. First, my conversion to the Catholic faith occurred a couple of years after he became the Pope so he was my first Pope. The first impression I had of him, especially with his visit back to his native Poland was this person has courage. As an Army veteran of the cold war, I sensed a comrade in arms with his strong stance against communism. This was no “namby-pamby” guy in a skirt! His model helped me to consider being a Catholic.
Saint John Paul II Remembrances
Over the course of my faith journey, there have been several occurrences where I sensed John Paul II’s influence. My wife and I had the opportunity in 1988 to travel to Poland to conduct some training of Polish physicians. I was overwhelmed by the spirit of the Polish people as the Solidarity movement was getting off the ground. Their reverence for John Paul II was inspiring. The anticipation of freedom was in the air and John Paul II gave them hope. Again, I left with the conclusion that this was quite a guy.
A few years later, we were in Rome and attended his weekly Sunday address that he would give in St. Peter’s square. It was only about a 15-minute speech but the response was overwhelming. There were thousands of people with many youths displaying their country’s flags. He recognized each and as he did, the cheering was deafening. He was treated like a rock star. His impact on young people was amazing. If he was around when I was a teenager, I think I might well have converted to the Catholic faith earlier even though being a student in a Lutheran high school.
In doing background work on a book on the Christian faith-based foundation for why we should be physically fit and active I discovered many addresses and speeches that John Paul II made focusing on exercise and sport and found many valuable quotes such as the one below.
“For this reason, the Church does not cease to recommend the best use of this marvelous instrument (exercise by a suitable physical education) which trains both body and spirit for effort, courage, balance, sacrifice, nobility, brotherhood, courtesy and in a word, fair play.
He encouraged all to exercise and provided a faith-based and doctrinal rationale for why we should be physically fit. John Paul II was a model of physical activity for his entire life, which helped sustain him during his later pain-filled and debilitating years. I felt that we shared a common bond for living a strenuous life. Again, he was a model for all in his later years as an example of how to age.
In preparing for another book that dealt with a Catholic ethic for being a steward of the environment, I found that John Paul II also delivered a number of messages and speeches on the subject of the environment and our role as responsible stewards such as the one below:
It is the duty of Christians and all who look to God the Creator to protect the environment by restoring a sense of reverence for the whole of God’s creation. It is the Creator’s will that man should treat nature not as ruthless exploiter but as an intelligent and responsible administrator.
While John Paull II spoke movingly about the need for environmental stewardship, he also linked it with the need for a human ecology:
More urgent still, though more difficult, is the need to respect the ecology of the human world, by which I mean the truth of the human person and the social implications of this. Placing human well-being at the center of concern for the environment is actually the surest way of safeguarding creation; this in fact stimulates the responsibility of the individual with regard to natural resources and their judicious use.
John Paul II and CREATIO
At the same time as I researched John Paul II writings and speeches, I was introduced to the St. Malo Retreat Center in Colorado and an organization called CREATIO. For many years, I have been involved with CREATIO in providing a variety of faith-based environmental stewardship efforts worldwide. CREATIO has a special relationship with John Paul II.
In many respects, John Paul II serves as the spiritual mentor for CREATIO efforts. John Paul II came to the St. Malo Retreat Center in 1993 to relax and hike as a break from the World Youth Day in Denver. CREATIO reestablished the trail he hiked on as the “John Paul II Trail” and placed meditation stations where he stopped to pray with quotes made by him. At the same time, a special retreat was established called “Following in the Footsteps of John Paul II”. Once I had the privilege of leading members of the Polish American community in Denver on the JPII trail and learned that one of them had known him while he was a parish priest in Poland and he remembered Father Wojtyla speaking often on being a nature steward.
Two outdoor education programs for students were established at St. Malos called the “JPII Adventure Institute” and “Camp Wojtyla”. Unfortunately, the St. Malo Retreat Center was destroyed in a fire in 2011; however, the many memorabilia such as pictures of John Paul II and the walking stick he used on his 1993 walk were saved. In turn, those involved with CREATIO continue to provide such programs along with ecological mission trips, retreats and talks on stewardship of both creation and the body (fitness). I truly believe that the connections to John Paul II and his spiritual influence has facilitated and enabled a continuation of those efforts.
Because of all these experiences. I believe that I have a special connection to John Paul II. As the late Father Richard Neuhaus noted, we should now call him “John Paul II the Great”. I could not agree more.