Forty years ago today, a clarion call rang from the celebrant’s chair in Saint Peter’s Square: “Do not be afraid. Open, I say open wide the doors for Christ!” With those resounding words—so familiar now to myriad Catholics across the globe—Pope Saint John Paul II initiated a pontificate that for nearly 27 years would penetrate to the depths of the human heart and call all mankind to the greatness that is rightly his. For at the core of Saint John Paul’s very being, forged by a lifetime of grave suffering, was a profound reverence for the cosmic drama of the human condition and an unyielding confidence in Jesus Christ, who alone knows what is in man (cf. Jn 2:25).
This “what” that is “in man” is, of course, the imago Dei, the image of the Trinitarian Godhead etched upon the soul such that only total union with God himself can satisfy the human heart. And at the root of this precious dignity bestowed upon the human person is the gift of freedom. Every man’s life, as John Paul so keenly understood from his years living under the brutality of Nazism and communism in Poland, necessarily unfolds in a moral context because man is the sole creature who can deliberate, choose, and act—who can say, “I may, but I need not” (The Acting Person, 115).
The grand tale of human freedom began in the Garden of Eden, where a singular, serpentine proposal disclosed the question at the root of every human choice: to trust in God, or to trust in man? Eve’s tragic error and Adam’s even more pitiful evasion of responsibility reveal that the couple’s foremost sin is distrust in God—a distrust which we have since inherited—that the Lord in His infinite perfection is somehow not enough to satisfy the desires of man, the very man whom He formed from dust and beheld as very good (cf. Gen 1:31, 2:7).
In entreating all peoples and nations to not be afraid, then, Saint John Paul cuts to the heart of the matter: it is in placing a radical trust in God and His providence, in “welcoming Christ” into the heart, in “opening wide the doors” of one’s being to Him and “accepting his saving power” that man realizes who he is and for Whom he has been made. For, as John Paul’s favorite words from Vatican II read, “Christ, the final Adam, by the revelation of the mystery of the Father and His love, fully reveals man to man himself and makes his supreme calling clear” (Gaudium et Spes 22).
Forty years and a cultural seachange later, man’s “supreme calling” perdures. As in every age, “so often today man does not know what is within him, in the depths of his mind and heart. So often he is uncertain about the meaning of his life on this earth. He is assailed by doubt, a doubt which turns into despair” (homily, Oct. 22, 1978). In that despair, man fails to trust in “the Father and His love” and instead succumbs to disordered temptations that smother the longing for divine life smoldering deep within him. He then trades his celestial vocation for the fleeting goods of a fleeting life—a span of mere 70 years, or 80 for those who are strong (cf. Ps 90)—thereby rejecting the ineffable gift of union with God and resigning himself to existential mediocrity in this life and everlasting death in the next.
Time and again, Saint John Paul reminded us that only Jesus Christ, the true pattern of humanity, can shake us out of such spiritual slumber and inflame that smoldering desire for God into a blazing fire. It is entirely fitting that those trademark words of the Polish mountaineer-turned-pope—do not be afraid—are the exact words that Christ himself uttered more than any others in the Gospels. While fear and despair cause man to cower from the divine majesty, the grace of God inspires authentic trust and hope, which draw man out of himself and enable him to recognize that his fulfillment is found not in “having more” but in “being more” (Redemptor Hominis 16).
Indeed, the God-Man who proclaimed, I came that they may have life and have it abundantly (cf. Jn 10:10), also emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross (cf. Phil 2:7-8). If the Redeemer of Man revealed the abundance of life through treading a path of self-emptying obedience, then surely man himself, “who is the only creature on earth which God willed for itself, cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself” (GS 24). It is precisely in this radical self-gift back to God, this fundamental act of love—which John Paul would coin “the Law of the Gift”—that mankind discovers true freedom and the abiding happiness that flows from holiness. When that takes root in culture, society is transfigured, and a civilization of love is born.
It would be hard to propose a figure of the 20th century who proclaimed and lived these truths more profoundly, more publicly, and more enduringly than Pope Saint John Paul the Great. From his vital days as a young priest-philosopher-outdoorsman, to his robust years as a globetrotting middle-aged pope, to his slow, public martyrdom at the hands of Parkinson’s at twilight, Saint John Paul expended every last ounce of his being for Christ. To the end, he loved (cf. Jn 13:1) with the tender heart of a shepherd, the incisive mind of a scholar, and the joyful zeal of an apostle. Such is the charism of his pontificate.
Today, John Paul’s legendary clarion call—which was his very modus operandi—rings on to all mankind. And now, as then and forever, it has just one right answer: yes, I will open, I will open wide the doors for Christ!
Photo from Liberating a Continent: John Paul II and the Fall of Communism (used with permission)