When in Bangkok last December for a meeting of the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences Social Communications Commission, I was deeply struck when the representative of the Youth present at the meeting mentioned in response to a question, that their heroes were Pope John Paul II and Mother Teresa.
The youth, physically strong, young, vibrant and energetic, took as role models for themselves, two persons totally different from them in age, physical energy and strength; but more akin to them than might at first appear, in courage mentality and spirit. When questioned further they said it was the commitment, selflessness, generosity and dedication to spiritual values of these two great persons that stood out. Is it a wonder that Pope John Paul II continues to attract hundreds of thousands of youth wherever he goes? The numerous Youth Days all over the world have been an unqualified success mainly because of the presence of the Holy Father and the massive crowds he attracts.
Pope John Paul II during the 25 years of his Pontificate, has always been a media icon, comparable only to other icons like Mother Teresa and Nelson Mandela. Wherever he goes, whatever he does, every word that he says becomes big news. No other single person in the century has so dominated every shade of the media, be it electronic, print or celluloid, as Pope Woytyla. Himself a constant object of interest of the media, he has always encouraged media and its work, which he called “the modern day Areopagus.” His teachings on the media have been some of the most up to date, relevant documentation in the field. While clearly cautioning against the abuse of this great development of technology, the Mass Media, the emphasis has always been on the positive value of the media through its possible good use for the development of humanity.. Towards this end, he has encouraged the Church to set up their own media offices and to use the media for the betterment of society.
John Paul’s person and thinking have had a tremendous impact for the Church in Asia as for the rest of the world. He has been looked upon as the conscience of the world, as the beacon of light that unwaveringly shines for truth, justice, freedom and love: the four elements of peace. His efforts for peace right from the beginning of his Pontificate, are too well known to be enlisted. His recent, passionate cry for peace and sanity before the Iraq war was loud and clear, had some impact and prevented the war from becoming a bitter feud between two religions. In the twentieth century, Pope John Paul II could be called the greatest ‘prophet of peace’. This call for peace resulted from his deep commitment to the preservation of human rights and the promotion of human dignity wherever he went. His approach to philosophies that sought to submerge the dignity of the individual into the system of the State, was largely contributory to the demise of many totalitarian regimes. Asia sees the Pope as an untiring champion of human rights.
The Pope’s strong emphasis on the duty of richer nations to give assistance for development in other places is very relevant. Aid is not merely a matter of compassion or generosity, but a matter of justice, he repeated over and over again. His strong voice for the need of globalization not to result in the marginalization of the underprivileged and his persistent call for debt cancellation on the occasion of the Jubilee Year had an impact on the thinking and acting of at least some countries. Asia is the continent that especially needs the beneficial effects of development projects, of educational opportunities, of health care facilities, and a true acceptance, understanding, protection and development of human rights. This has been stressed by him, not only encouraging Church institutions to work untiringly for this, but also animating others to focus on the needs of Asia.
The Pope’s immediate response to the calamities in Gujarat and Orissa in India, when these States were hit, the first by a devastating earthquake and the other by a super cyclone – made an impact on the hearts and minds of many people. Similarly when there were serious acts of terror in different parts of the country, his message of sympathy and solidarity in these difficult moments were always comforting.
Asia is essentially a pluri-cultural and pluri-religious continent. Respect for different cultures and faiths is essential for harmonious living and for peaceful growth of all the countries of the region. Pope John Paul II has consistently spoken of the need for this and has himself given examples of this, both on his 1986 visit to India as well as his 1999 visit on the occasion of the promulgation of the Synodal document ‘Ecclesia in Asia”. He spoke on both trips of the importance of dialogue and himself participated in inter-religious meetings. He himself has given a good example of this by assembling leaders of different religions in Assisi every year and together praying with them. This model has been replicated thousands of times all over the world in Christian and non-Christian milieu.
To Asia then, the Pope has been a great gift of God. Pope John Paul II continuous insistence on the need of evangelization: of making Christians and the Gospel values known, appreciated and accepted everywhere, have given great impetus and encouragement to the priests, religious men and women, and lay apostles particularly in mission lands. His clear teachings contain no confusion or lack of clarity about the uniqueness of Christ, the Son sent by the Father to redeem the world. As always the Pope has given clear directions, leaving no room for ambiguity about the Mission of the Church.
On the 25th anniversary of his Pontificate as we reflect on the work and words of Pope John Paul II, we notice the qualities of this great leader of our times: his deep faith, prayerfulness and inner peace, his dedication to the point of sacrifice, his generosity to the point of pain, and his love for the Church to the point of self-oblation. Each of these attributes as very precious to the Eastern mind and heart. Asia is grateful to God for this great modern day saint who has led the Church from the front by his word and by his example. He began his Pontificate with the invitation “Open your doors wide to Christ.” That invitation was the theme of his ministry and the same message comes from him even today. We pray that Mary the Mother of the Church continues to guide, protect and strengthen His Holiness, Pope John Paul II.