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Celebrating a life of faith: Pope John Paul II

Uniquely Canadian holiday commemorates a Catholic pope.

On April 2, Canada will once again mark the anniversary of Pope John Paul II’s passing and celebrate his legacy on what Canadian parliament has declared “Pope John Paul II Day.” Why does Canada, a secular country of many faiths, commemorate a Catholic pontiff?

The Pope John Paul II Day Act was proposed by an MP of Polish heritage in 2014. Wladyslaw Lizon said in Parliament that, “This is not a bill to aid or promote one religion over another . . . this is a bill to recognize Pope John Paul II’s legacy, which goes well beyond his role in the Catholic church. He stood for religious tolerance and freedom, and he spent a great deal of time encouraging interreligious dialogue. To me, this represents a big part of what it means to be Canadian.” Though not a legal holiday, Pope John Paul II Day was established the following year. What was this laudatory legacy, and is it really so easily separated out from his role as Pope?

The Legacy

Pope John Paul II’s personal motto was totus tuus, which means “all yours.” This was a reference to his dedication to Mary, in imitation of the disciple commanded by Jesus to take Mary as his mother (John 19:27). As a motto it speaks to his identity as a person whose Christian faith is all encompassing. Saint John Paul II, as he is commemorated within the Church that he served as Pope, has an enormous legacy and it’s no surprise that it appeals to those outside of the Catholic Church. However, one should not separate that legacy from his Catholic faith.

One of his most lauded accomplishments is his stand against the hateful ideologies of the 20th century. When the Nazi invasion of Poland occurred, he performed as an actor and playwright in underground theaters and eventually joined an underground seminary. As the first non-Italian Pope in over 450 years, he stood firm against Communism. His visit to communist Poland disrupted the illusion of communist victory over the Christian religion in its territories by vividly demonstrating that the underground Christian faith was alive and well. Pope John Paul II’s strong support for workers and the poor inspired the creation of a quietly subversive labour union, Solidarity, that challenged communist rule in Poland. He was also credited with sparking the fall of communism in Eastern Europe by none other than Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union.

Perhaps just as importantly for Canadians, he was the first Pope to visit Canada. The first of three visits here was in 1984. As part of this trip, he visited Martyr’s Shrine near Midland, Ontario, the site of a Jesuit mission to the Huron people. A number of Jesuit priests had been martyred there. He acknowledged both the Jesuit martyrs and the first Indigenous Saint, Kateri Tekawitha, in his remarks. He shared his appreciation for the rich culture of the Indigenous Peoples of Canada, and all that they have to offer the Church and world, in his message. It was a subversive challenge to a Western paradigm that often tightly linked the Christian faith and European culture, at a time when Canada still operated residential schools.

World Youth Day begins

Pope John Paul II also carried with him a deep respect for peoples of other faiths. In 1986, he welcomed representatives of the Dutch Reformed Church to Rome, saying that “Ecumenism is a pastoral priority in the Catholic Church and for all Christians . . . We know that the divisions among Christians have been a scandal and an obstacle to the mission of the Church in the world.” Speaking to Muslims in 1999, he reminded all present that “We believe in the same God, the one God, the living God. . .,” and “In today’s world where God is tragically forgotten, Christians and Muslims are called in one spirit of love to defend and always promote human dignity, moral values and freedom.”

Cartoon drawing of a wall with the silhouette of a pope in it.
Pope John Paul breaking down communism.

Pope John Paul II had a special passion for bringing the Christian faith to youth. Among other initiatives, he started an annual event called World Youth Day in 1985. This became a triannual event for youth to gather together to pray, worship and serve. In 2002, Pope John Paul II picked Toronto to host the 17th World Youth Day, which attracted 100,000 young people. One World Youth Day set a Guinness world record for largest crowd when it attracted five million youth in the Philippines.

In his role as Pope, he wrote encyclicals on many topics. Anticipating the direction of our modern culture as perhaps no other, he wrote Evangeliam Vitae or “The Gospel of Life,’’ in which he drew a sharp distinction between the Gospel, which brings life and truth, and the culture of death. He prophetically warned against a future where technological progress enabled “crimes against life” such as abortion, euthanasia and subhuman working or living condtions, on the basis of individual freedoms and rights. A series of his talks were developed into the Theology of the Body, an integrated, Christian view of the body, human dignity and sexuality that is still used by Catholic educators today. In all things, he wrote with a sense of joy, reminding Christians that “We are an Easter People and Alleluia is our song!”

The Canadian connection

The Members of Parliament discussing the Pope John Paul II Day Act were clear that they saw no reason for a secular country to celebrate Pope John Paul II’s faith identity. They separated his actions against communism and his conciliatory attitudes towards other cultures and religions from his faith, with the desire of celebrating only those things. However, those of us who are Easter People will understand where he drew the courage and inspiration to undertake these endeavours, and will have even more reason to remember him on April 2nd.


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