The canonization of John Paul II gives us a fitting opportunity to reflect on his legacy. One way to do that is to return to his first homily as pope (which, along with a lot of other useful material, is available on the Vatican website). Not surprisingly, much of what he had to say is of lasting value. Three themes that stand out are sacrifice, humility, and courage.
Sacrifice: John Paul II reminded his listeners that the papacy was an office that called for sacrifice, even to the point of martyrdom. He recalled the story of the first pope, Saint Peter, who ended up being crucified.
In this city, in fact, Peter completed and fulfilled the mission entrusted to him by the Lord.
The Lord addressed him with these words: “…when you were young you put on your own belt and walked where you liked; but when you grow old you will stretch out your hands and somebody else will put a belt round you and take you where you would rather not go” (Jn 21:18).
Peter came to Rome!
What else but obedience to the inspiration received from the Lord guided him and brought him to this city, the heart of the Empire? Perhaps the fisherman of Galilee did not want to come here. Perhaps he would have preferred to stay there, on the shores of the Lake of Genesareth, with his boat and his nets. But guided by the Lord, obedient to his inspiration, he came here!
According to an ancient tradition (given magnificent literary expression in a novel by Henryk Sienkiewicz), Peter wanted to leave Rome during Nero’s persecution. But the Lord intervened: he went to meet him. Peter spoke to him and asked. “Quo vadis, Domine? “—” Where are you going, Lord?” And the Lord answered him at once: “I am going to Rome to be crucified again.” Peter went back to Rome and stayed here until his crucifixion.
Humility: The new pope, following the example set by his immediate predecessors, dispensed with being crowned with the papal tiara. He indicated that he believed the association of the tiara with the pope’s temporal power was mistaken, but he still thought it better to forego this apparent symbol of worldly power.
In past centuries, when the Successor of Peter took possession of his See, the triregnum or tiara was placed on his head. The last Pope to be crowned was Paul VI in 1963, but after the solemn coronation ceremony he never used the tiara again and left his Successors free to decide in this regard.
Pope John Paul I, whose memory is so vivid in our hearts, did not wish to have the tiara; nor does his Successor wish it today. This is not the time to return to a ceremony and an object considered, wrongly, to be a symbol of the temporal power of the Popes.
Our time calls us, urges us, obliges us to gaze on the Lord and immerse ourselves in humble and devout meditation on the mystery of the supreme power of Christ himself.
Courage: Finally, and most famously, the pope issued a call to the world that he repeated many times: “Do not be afraid.” It is worth remembering that the first time he made this call, John Paul II was asking us not to be afraid of God, not to be afraid of serving him in all things.
Brothers and sisters, do not be afraid to welcome Christ and accept his power. Help the Pope and all those who wish to serve Christ and with Christ’s power to serve the human person and the whole of mankind. Do not be afraid. Open wide the doors for Christ. To his saving power open the boundaries of States, economic and political systems, the vast fields of culture, civilization and development. Do not be afraid. Christ knows “what is in man”. He alone knows it.
So often today man does not know what is within him, in the depths of his mind and heart. So often he is uncertain about the meaning of his life on this earth. He is assailed by doubt, a doubt which turns into despair. We ask you therefore, we beg you with humility and trust, let Christ speak to man. He alone has words of life, yes, of eternal life.