Bishop's Interview: The legacy of (soon-to-be) St. John Paul II

Editor: Pope Francis will canonize Blessed John Paul II on April 27, which is Divine Mercy Sunday. Many Catholics have a special place in their hearts for John Paul II. What is his legacy to the Catholic Church and what do you consider his greatest gifts?

Bishop Vásquez: Indeed Blessed John Paul II was our spiritual leader for more than a quarter of a century, and he will always be remembered as an excellent pope because of his leadership in our church. John Paul II was one of those people in history who I would classify as larger than life. He would come into a room and all attention would be concentrated on him, not only because he was pope but also because he was a natural leader. John Paul II was someone with whom people wanted to be engaged and involved.

John Paul II left us a great legacy and the church continues to be affected by his papacy, even now years after his death. He was a champion for life at all stages, defending the most vulnerable in our society, especially the unborn. He spoke strongly in defense of human life and the dignity of all human life in all stages from conception to natural death.

In his encyclical "Evangelium Vitae," John Paul II encourages everyone to defend life. "It is from the blood of Christ that all draw the strength to commit themselves to promoting life. It is precisely this blood that is the most powerful source of hope, indeed it is the foundation of the absolute certitude that in God’s plan life will be victorious," he wrote.

John Paul II was also the most traveled pope and racked up thousands of frequent flier miles traveling to all parts of the world. As pope he was the visible sign of unity in the church. John Paul II was a strong and determined person, and he was always ready to discuss world issues. He was not afraid to address the challenges facing people.

This is not to say that the popes before him were not engaged in public situations. The popes have always done that. But they did it in a limited way; whereas John Paul II brought the church to the modern level of engaging the world. And he did it not to bring attention to himself, no, all of it was prompted by his fidelity to proclaiming the message of Jesus Christ.

John Paul II was determined to bring the message of Christ everywhere to everyone, and in that he was undaunted. He preached the message of Christ in Europe and in Africa, and he preached it in front of world leaders who were, at times, antagonist to the church. John Paul II was firmly convinced that as the successor to Peter, he was called to be an evangelizer.

He also drew crowds like no other pope had drawn –– except for maybe our present Pope Francis –– most likely because they are engaging and their love for Christ is contagious. What motivates these men who God has selected to be pope and Vicar of Christ is their message, a message that the world hungers to hear. Therefore, they are motivated to go out all over the world preaching the Good News.

John Paul II was also a philosopher, a teacher, an actor and a writer. The documents that he wrote during his pontificate will be studied for centuries to come. He was also the first non-Italian pope more than 400 years, which brought a different dimension to his papacy as well.

One of the greatest things he will be remembered for is what he said in his first address to the public as pope, "Be not afraid." And as I said before, he was not afraid to address difficult topics or to reach out to those on the fringes. For all of these reasons, the legacy John Paul II is vast. However, I think the most important thing he did was to bring the church into the modern world. He utilized every opportunity to bring the message of Christ to all parts of the world.

Editor: John Paul II was also very devoted to Divine Mercy, and introduced Catholics and the world to this devotion.

Bishop Vásquez: Yes, Divine Mercy is a very powerful devotion based on the writings of St. Maria Faustina Kowalska, a polish nun who received visions of Christ speaking to her very clearly about forgiveness and mercy for the world. She made it her mission to remind the world of the merciful love of God toward every human being. At the time of her visions –– the 1930s –– the world was fractured and at war.

When he canonized Sister Faustina in 2000, John Paul II said, "Today my joy is truly great in presenting the life and witness of Sr. Faustina Kowalska to the whole Church as a gift of God for our time. By divine Providence, the life of this humble daughter of Poland was completely linked with the history of the 20th century … In fact, it was between the First and Second World Wars that Christ entrusted his message of mercy to her. Those who remember, who were witnesses and participants in the events of those years and the horrible sufferings they caused for millions of people, know well how necessary was the message of mercy … by this act I intend today to pass this message on to the new millennium. I pass it on to all people, so that they will learn to know ever better the true face of God and the true face of their brethren."

John Paul II recognized the world’s need for God’s Divine Mercy. He established Divine Mercy Sunday as an annual feast, which we celebrate on the second Sunday of Easter. This is fitting because the readings on that particular Sunday are always focused on the mercy of God. In the Gospel Jesus comes into the midst of the disciples and says, "Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you." He offers mercy and peace not just to the disciples, but to the entire world.

We must always remember the infinite mercy of God is available to all, we only need to trust in him. On the image of Divine Mercy, is the prayer "Jesus, I trust in you." This is where John Paul II drew strength –– because he trusted in Jesus, he was not afraid. And he wanted us to know that when we trust in Jesus, sin, death, pain, suffering, torture and violence have no power over us. The devotion of Divine Mercy helps us have complete confidence in the mercy and love of God. This devotion continues to grow stronger in the church.

Editor: What are some of your fondest memories of Blessed John Paul II?

Bishop Vásquez: I had the good fortune of being a seminarian in Rome the year after John Paul II was elevated to the Chair of Peter. It was a blessing for me to be so close to the Holy Father, and at different times during my studies there I had the opportunity to be in his presence for the celebration of the Eucharist. I once served as his book bearer during Mass on New Year’s Day. I was in Rome during the assassination attempt, which was a sad moment, but it was definitely a moment when I was blessed to have the opportunity to unite with the whole church and pray for this great man who was nearly killed. Then I watched as John Paul II recuperated, he went to his would-be assassin in prison and forgave him. For me that was a powerful expression of John Paul II’s faith and love.

There were other times too, such as celebrating Mass with him in his private chapel, after I was ordained a deacon, my class was allowed a special audience in Rome. My parents were with me, so those were special moments.

I will always be grateful to John Paul II for calling me to be a bishop. He appointed me auxiliary bishop for the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston in 2002. That act has probably had the most profound effect on my life.

Editor: As we prepare for Easter, what is your prayer for us?

Bishop Vásquez: My prayer is that we will be inspired by the Easter celebrations –– the Triduum and all those beautiful celebrations that we will experience during Holy Week. Soon, we will enter into the very mystery of Jesus Christ, and I pray that our lives and the life of Christ will come together. I pray we will not see ourselves as simply looking at something that happened long ago but rather we will allow ourselves to full enter into the mystery of Christ’s suffering, death and resurrection. My prayer is that we will experience a deep, profound conversion in our hearts and experience Divine Mercy for ourselves and for the whole world. May we pray not just for ourselves but ask God to continue to pour out his divine mercy to the whole world.

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