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Happy birthday to St. John Paul II

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Well, I’m not in Poland.

As you may recall, last winter I told you I was leading a pilgrimage to celebrate St. John Paul II’s 100th birthday in Poland. I was really excited about it. I love him, and I couldn’t imagine a better way to celebrate his centenary than to visit his homeland, walk in his footsteps and bask in everything about his life.

But COVID-19 is a destroyer of dreams, and this one bit the dust early in the course of the pandemic. So, instead of waking up today to the first morning of my Polish adventure, I woke up to another day at home, in my sweats. Day 400,000 of quarantine. Or so it seems.

But all things work for good for those who love him. Apparently, the good Lord had his own ideas about how we should be celebrating the birthday of his beloved servant. And he certainly delivered.

A few weeks ago, I received an invitation to participate in the Theology of the Body Virtual Conference. Over 50 speakers, all giving talks on St. John Paul II’s beautiful meditations on God creating us in his image and likeness.

I enthusiastically agreed. And went to work preparing, recording and submitting my talks.

Meanwhile, the participant count grew. I believe there were 10,000 registered when I signed on. That’s a lot of people for a conference. But then it was 20,000, then 30,000. They sent us graphics with registration numbers to promote the conference on social media. They kept sending new versions. 40,000. 50,000. The last one I received said 68,000. The final email reported a grand total of more than 70,000 participants.

That, my friends, is a lot of people to be interested in the message of a 100-year-old pope.

Why? What is it about his message that still resonates so strongly, 15 years after his death?

For some insight into that, let’s look at some of the talk topics. I gave three: Sex, Love and the Theology of the Body; the Theology of the Body and the Feminine Genius; and the Theology of the Body and Work. Others spoke on the TOB and: healing, the afterlife, same-sex attraction, marriage, the family, single life, justice, infertility, sports, vocations, COVID-19, prayer … need I go on?

St. John Paul II was beloved for many, many reasons. He was accessible. He was the first pope to really travel the world. It has been said that he was likely seen in person by more people than any other human being. Ever. And when he saw those people, he brought love. Not just his own love, but the love of Christ. He radiated it. It seemed to ooze from every pore of his being.

But those who have delved a little deeper into his writings have found deeper reasons to love him. He met us “where we live.” He talked about things that matter to us — not in a shallow, superficial way, but with a combination of depth and accessibility that can only come from the grace of God. And he presented truths that still apply, 40 years later, in circumstances he could have never foreseen during his earthly life.

I discovered the Theology of the Body in 1985, shortly after he finished giving the talks. And as I have written many times before in this space, it changed the course of my life. Those beautiful meditations on our humanity revolutionized my understanding of God’s plan for sex, love and marriage. But, as you can see from the list above, their impact doesn’t stop there. They touch virtually every area of our lives. And, thanks to the efforts of speakers, authors, teachers and theologians all over the world, that message is still spreading from its origins in St. Peter’s Square 40 years ago, and reverberating throughout the world. And it is being applied to every area of life. Not because it is some kind of new theological invention. But because it is a fresh presentation of the eternal truths of Scripture, the truth about our creation, our dignity and our redemption by the God who loves us.

I have spilled a lot of ink on these pages over the years, trying to unpack for you the wisdom of St. John Paul the Great, and to help you apply it to your daily life. God willing, I will spill many gallons more in years to come. But for today, I simply want to offer encouragement, and thanks.

First, the encouragement. Papal biographer George Weigel has said that the key to understanding St. John Paul II’s effectiveness was “radiant, Christ-centered faith." He was a “radically converted Christian disciple.” It wasn’t him. It was God, working through him, because he had turned himself over completely. His life offers us an example of what that looks like, and the reminder that we are called to do the same. I want to encourage you to do that.

A good start along that path would be to immerse yourself in the works of that great example. Read his encyclicals and apostolic letters. Learn about the Theology of the Body. Sign up for the TOB Virtual Conference — access to the talks is still available. Let his mind transform your mind — and your heart.

And finally, I want to offer thanks to God, for bringing this amazing man into our church and our lives. The good Lord spared his life many, many times, so that he could lead us to the fullness of life in Christ. Countless lives were changed. The 77,000 who signed up for our conference were a good start, but I’d be willing to bet that figure is merely a drop in the bucket. He touched the hearts of millions. Hundreds of millions.

Thank you, Lord, for the great gift of St. John Paul II.

St. John Paul the Great, pray for us.

And Happy Birthday.

Bonacci is a syndicated columnist based in Denver.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2020