John Paul II was a “liberating restorer of the Church” in the turbulent years after the Second Vatican Council, Benedict XVI has said in a letter marking the 100th anniversary of the saint’s birth.
In a message to Cardinal Stanisław Dziwisz, John Paul II’s personal secretary, the Pope emeritus said that the Polish pope had faced “an almost impossible task” when John Paul was elected to the papacy in 1978.
“Yet, from the first moment on, John Paul II aroused new enthusiasm for Christ and his Church. His words from the sermon at the inauguration of his pontificate: ‘Do not be afraid! Open, open wide the doors for Christ!’ This call and tone would characterize his entire pontificate and made him a liberating restorer of the Church,” Benedict wrote.
In a 2,000-word letter that mixed personal reminiscences with theological reflection, the Pope emeritus traced John Paul II’s life from his birth in a newly independent Poland on May 18, 1920, to his death on the eve of the feast of Divine Mercy on April 2, 2005.
Benedict also defended the integrity of John Paul II’s fast-tracked sainthood cause and suggested that history would determine whether he deserved the epithet “the Great”, alongside popes Leo I and Gregory I.
The letter, dated May 4, was released May 15 at 11 a.m. local time by the Polish bishops’ press office, which provided an English translation from the original German.
Benedict, who succeeded John Paul II as pope in 2005, said that his predecessor was born at a time of both “oppression” and “great hope.” Poland had regained its independence in 1918, but was still threatened by Germany and Russia.
He recalled that after the Nazis had occupied Poland in 1939, the young Karol Wojtyła had worked in the quarry of a chemical plant while secretly preparing for the priesthood.
“Of course, Karol not only studied theology in books but also through his experience of the difficult situation that he and his country found itself in,” he wrote.
“This is somewhat a characteristic of his whole life and work. He studied books but the questions that they posed became the reality that he profoundly experienced and lived.”
Benedict said that the future pope was also shaped by Vatican II, whose sessions he attended first as an auxiliary bishop and later as the Archbishop of Kraków.
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