John Paul II, the missionary Pope
by Piero Gheddo

Rome (AsiaNews) – When the encyclical Redemptoris Missio was published in 1990, Card Daneels of Brussels wrote: "This document best exemplifies who this Pope is; it is the fruit of his mission in every continent. There is nothing better to define his pontificate than to say: he is a missionary Pope." To add words to this description would be redundant.

Making more than a hundred journeys to 140 countries and reaching some of the most extreme and daunting borders (China, Vietnam, Russia, Myanmar, Iraq, Iran, Algeria, etc.) are what makes his pontificate original and significant.

In doing so, John Paul II made an explicit pastoral choice. "My trips to Latin America, Asia and Africa," he wrote in his message for the Day of the Mission in 1981, "have an eminently missionary purpose".

In Redemptoris Missio, he wrote: (Nº 1) "From the beginning of my Pontificate I have chosen to travel to the ends of the earth in order to show this missionary concern. My direct contact with peoples who do not know Christ has convinced me even more of the urgency of missionary activity".

As missionaries we have truly felt he was like a father to us in our difficult vocation, a 'missionary Pope', one who always encouraged vocations and missionary institutes. His greatest impact was on the 'young Churches', where the Universal Church is starting to blossom and where the Holy Spirit often does wonders as it did in the Act of the Apostles.

Often in his trips to developing countries when addressing leaders and the faithful of the young Churches, he repeated what is clearly spelled out in Redemptoris Missio: (91) "[Y]ou are the hope of this two-thousand-year-old Church of ours: being young in faith, you must be like the first Christians and radiate enthusiasm and courage [. . .] and re-live in your own countries the missionary epic of the early Church. You will also be a leaven of missionary spirit for the older churches."

John Paul II tried to reverse the situation of crisis that is affecting the faith within the Church. "Missionary activity specifically directed 'to the nations' (ad gentes) appears to be waning, and this tendency is certainly not in line with the directives of the Council and of subsequent statements of the Magisterium. Difficulties both internal and external have weakened the Church's missionary thrust toward non-Christians" (R.M., 2).

He has done everything possible to renew the missionary effort towards the nations of the earth, convinced that the "mission renews the Church, refreshes the faith, and gives new enthusiasm and motivation. Faith gets stronger by giving it as a gift" A slogan that is programme.

I followed him in various trips to developing countries. I remember that on the 10th World Youth Day in Manila (January 5 to 10, 1995) he was almost shouting: "To each one of you, Christ says: 'I am sending you'. That is the ideal of the young Christian: to feel that Christ is sending you on a mission; to have a precise purpose in life, which is to fulfill Christ's mandate. No one can live without ideals and the young (and the not so young) need purpose and enthusiasm in their life; they need to set goals to meet, feel they are part of great achievements, stop at no horizon. Here, in a nutshell, is what mission means!"

John Paul II is a man of faith, deeply in love with Jesus Christ. He does not speak about him as someone far away, as a doctrine to be passed on; rather he experiences Him as a living human being that he met and with whom he fell in love. He relays to the faithful this conviction with force for we are truly human to the extent that we let ourselves absorb, be involved, enlightened and changed by the love of Christ. Being Christian is not some external formality, a code about does and don'ts, but is instead loving and emulating Christ.

The message he has conveyed throughout his life is above all one of faith; it is an appeal for conversion.

"People, repent your sins and convert to Jesus Christ", he said in Paris, a message that is not purely 'spiritual' but seeks instead to transform people, families, societies, countries from within and make them live a more human life.

When US President Jimmy Carter met John Paul II at the White House in 1979, he told him: "You force us to re-examine ourselves; you have reminded us of the value of human life and [said that] spiritual strength is the most vital resource people and nations can have".

The President added that "taking care of others makes us stronger and gives us courage, while the blind race of self-serving goals—having more rather than being more—leaves us empty, pessimistic, lonely and fearful".

The New York Times wrote: "This man has a charismatic power unknown to any other head of state in the world. It is as if Christ were back among us".

What better tribute for Peter's successor.
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