Throughout his lifetime, Saint John Paul II revealed his heart to the world through his many writings, teachings, homilies, and prayers.
There are countless things we can learn from the saint’s witness and words, yet five key themes emerge that are predominantly present: young people, human love, the Blessed Sacrament, the Virgin Mary, and the Cross.
These five great loves serve as a window into the movements of his heart and soul, a legacy for generations to come.
From the beginning of his ministry, Saint John Paul II was committed to leading and nurturing young people in the faith. He frequently led camping trips to help his youth groups experience God’s truth and beauty through nature.
His personal experience growing up amidst persecution and oppression contributed to his dedication to helping youth navigate their difficulties and temptations.
Later on, his love for youth came to fruition in establishing World Youth Day, a global celebration of faith for young Catholics. In his message for the 1987 World Youth Day, he said:
“The building of a civilization of love requires strong and persevering characters, ready for self-sacrifice and anxious to open up new paths of human coexistence by overcoming divisions and the various forms of materialism. This is a responsibility of the young people of today who will be the men and women of tomorrow, at the dawn of the third Christian millennium…Dear young people, my friends: be witnesses to the love of God, sowers of hope and builders of peace.”
The conviction that love is an intentional, God-given task was a common theme of Saint John Paul II’s teachings and life. This human love is more than romantic love, it extends to all people and relationships. It comes from our inherent dignity as humans, the love we all deserve to receive and are called to give.
The legacy of this belief is seen particularly in his teachings on Theology of the Body. The call to love self and others is ingrained in our humanity. In the Theology of the Body lecture series, he shared:
“The human body includes right from the beginning…the capacity of expressing love, that love in which the person becomes a gift — and by means of this gift — fulfills the meaning of his being and existence.”
Saint John Paul II kept prayer and the Eucharist at the center of his daily life. He received the utmost joy from celebrating the Mass and encountering Christ in the Blessed Sacrament.
He was so in love with being in the presence of the Eucharist that his staff would try to avoid nearby chapels so he wouldn’t be late for meetings and appearances from praying.
He witnessed to this love of the Eucharist through his actions and writings, saying, “The Eucharist is the secret of my day. It gives strength and meaning to all my activities of service to the Church and to the world.”
His devotion to Mary began before his time as a priest, and it ran so deep that it inspired his papal motto: “Totus Tuus,” Latin for “totally thine.”
The Virgin Mary’s spirit of humility and abandon guided Saint John Paul II’s life, and he aimed to emulate her total ‘yes’ to God. She was such a strong intercessor for Saint John Paul II, and he credits her with saving his life from the assassination attempt in 1981.
Taking a pilgrimage of thanksgiving to Fatima the next year, he presented the bullet to Our Lady of Fatima — it remains at the site, placed in her crown. Saint John Paul II writes in his encyclical “Redemptoris Mater”:
“To believe means ‘to abandon oneself’ to the truth of the word of the living God, knowing and humbly recognizing “how unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways” (Romans 11:33). Mary, who by the eternal will of the Most High stands, one may say, at the very center of those ‘inscrutable ways’ and ‘unsearchable judgments’ of God, conforms herself to them in the dim light of faith, accepting fully and with a ready heart everything that is decreed in the divine plan.”
Suffering as a precedent to holiness was a lifelong conviction held by Saint John Paul II. Presenting our suffering to the Lord and assuming an attitude of gratitude unites us to Jesus’ passion and suffering.
Having experienced many trials, Saint John Paul II embraced redemptive suffering and appreciated how it unified him the the suffering of Christ and others. He often emphasized the evangelization power of suffering — after all, it was Christ’s Cross that made the salvation of the world possible. He explains this in his encyclical “Salvifici Doloris”:
“As a result of Christ’s salvific work, man exists on earth with the hope of eternal life and holiness…Each one is also called to share in that suffering through which the Redemption was accomplished. He is called to share in that suffering through which all human suffering has also been redeemed. In bringing about the Redemption through suffering, Christ has also raised human suffering to the level of the Redemption. Thus each man, in his suffering, can also become a sharer in the redemptive suffering of Christ.”
As we study and reflect on the beautiful life and ministry of Saint John Paul II, it helps to understand the meaning behind his five great loves. We can take each to prayer, integrate each in our own life, and still see their impact today.
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