Remembering John Paul the Great a centenary after his birth

Remembering John Paul the Great a centenary after his birth Archbishop Jude Thaddeus Okolo stands at the shrine to St John Paul II at the Church of Our Lady Help of Christians, Navan Road Dublin. Photo: Chai Brady
He was an evangelist who steadied the ship after the turmoil following Vatican II, the Papal Nuncio exclusively tells Michael Kelly


A hundred years ago this week, Karol Wojtyla was born in the small Polish town of Wadowice. Some 58 years later he would be catapulted on to the world stage as the 263rd Successor of St Peter when he was elected Bishop of Rome in 1978.

He was one of the most influential Popes of the modern era and travelled the world tirelessly promoting the Gospel message of justice, peace and the innate dignity of the human person. Above all, he preached the Gospel in season and out of season and became a towering figure on the world stage revered by millions and even winning grudging admiration from those who disagreed with him.

While he took the papacy to the modern world like no other Pontiff before him, he was not a politician but an evangelist. He set the tone in his first homily as Pope in 1978 when he appealed to people: “Do not be afraid to welcome Christ and accept his power. Help the Pope and all those who wish to serve Christ and with Christ’s power to serve the human person and the whole of mankind.”


In words that he would repeat in every corner of the globe, he said: “Do not be afraid. Open wide the doors for Christ. To his 
saving power open the boundaries of states, economic and political systems, the vast fields of culture, civilisation and development. Do not be afraid”.

Apostolic Nuncio to Ireland Archbishop Jude Thaddeus Okolo first encountered the Slavic Pope when he was called from Nigeria to work at the Vatican in the mid-1980s. He would serve him as a papal diplomat until the Pontiff’s death in 2005 and saw his impact throughout the world.

“He knew how to attract people to his teaching, even when the message was tough and demanding. He was very influential in all that he undertook,” the archbishop told The Irish Catholic.

For Dr Okolo, the legacy of St John Paul II is immense. He said it relates to “every aspect of life: whether spiritual, ecclesial, inter-faith, political, diplomatic, social, economic or health was impacted by this great man.

“Everyone felt his message directly and personally. He had a universal outreach – no continent monopolised him. No faith, no religious group was indifferent to his outreach. And of course, he respected the faiths and beliefs of others,” he said.


The Pope has a dual role as a world leader, but also the chief shepherd of the Christian world. Bishop Wojtyla has participated in the groundbreaking Second Vatican Council (1962-65) and Archbishop Okolo said his ministry as Pope “helped to create the needed balance following the implementation of the Decrees of Vatican II.

“Together with Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, he championed the correct interpretation of Vatican II, calmed the dissent of theologians, and gave authentic orientation to newly evolving theologies, including the theology of liberation,” he said.

Archbishop Okolo also sees John Paul II as bringing a freshness to the truths of the faith. “It is interesting that, although he was bent on developing the faith, and promulgated the catechism, John Paul II did not define any new dogmas, nor did he deny, dilute, or tamper with the revealed truths he was entrusted with as Supreme Pastor of the Universal Church. “What he did was to explain the Faith and doctrine in modern language, in a brighter light and with enthusiasm,” said Archbishop Okolo.


During his years as a student, priest and later bishop Karol Wojtyla’s life was marked by much darkness as Nazism and later communism ravaged his native Poland with devastating consequences and constant attacks on the Church.

Suffering, according to Archbishop Okolo, helped John Paul II reach people. “He knew the pain of suffering, and therefore his message resounded also among those who were in pain. He associated with all who suffer, because of the sufferings of his own past; he lost a brother (a doctor), and his parents when he was still very young.

“He grew up under Nazi and Communist oppression. He was shot at close range by Ali Agca. He laboured under the weight of governing the Church in difficult times. He had to bear the pain of untold and unimaginable calumnies.

“In his last years, he had to bear the pain of Parkinson’s disease.”

During his papacy, he made 104 trips outside Italy. Archbishop Okolo sees that as part of his mission to bring the Church to the world. “In a way, his frequent use of pastoral visits to communicate directly with local Church members and the society in which they live became a clearly distinctive mark of his papacy.

“The trips gradually became an effective means of responding to a Church and society constantly threatened by secularisation. It was a way of drawing people closer to God,” he said.

John Paul II played a decisive role in the fall of Soviet-style communism. Lech Walesa, founder of the Solidarity movement drew huge inspiration from his compatriot in challenging the system in Poland. He was not alone: “with the silent nudge of Pope John Paul II, many Poles drew the courage to demand for change, and they obtained it. From Poland, the influence spread all over, spilling onto the velvet revolution in Prague, and elsewhere,” according to Archbishop Okolo.

{{He was a pathfinder. He redefined the way of governing the Church…he changed the vision of the papacy for a modern age”

The final illness which was to claim the life of John Paul II was marked by a profound outpouring of sentiment. Each evening in St Peter’s Square as the Pope was dying, thousands of young people gathered to pray for him and keep silent vigil. It is reported that when the Pope heard them he asked what was going on and then asked for the window to be opened so he could hear.

His personal secretary Stanislaw Dziwisz would later recall that this brought John Paul II huge comfort in his last hours. His entire papacy was marked by a particular attention for young people.

According to Archbishop Okolo, “all through his pontificate, Pope John Paul II championed the animation of youth. His interest and attention towards them was almost like an extension of his successful work with youth when he was a young priest”.


John Paul’s death in 2005 was a massive outpouring of grief around the world. Archbishop Okolo said he is privileged to keep in the archives of the Apostolic Nunciature in Dublin some of the many books of condolences that were collected from all over Ireland. From Donegal to Wexford, from Kerry to Antrim it is evident from the message the enormous impact John Paul had on so many Irish people.

The achievements of Pope John Paul II are immense. Every Pope has to be evaluated within the context of the times in which he lived, and, for Archbishop Okolo, “it is evident that very few Popes of any century have had such an impact, either on the Church or the times in which they lived.

“He was a pathfinder. He redefined the way of governing the Church. Instead of remaining in the Vatican, he chose to move out and meet people in their contexts, in the countries, where they lived. John Paul II travelled to practically every corner of the world to meet his flock, and changed the vision of the papacy for a modern age.”

As we discuss his impact further, I point to the fact that a book co-authored by Pope Francis and Fr Luigi Maria Epicoco has been published to mark the centenary. The book is entitled San Giovanni Paolo Magno (St John Paul the Great). While many of the successors of St Peter have been canonised, only three Popes have ever been declared ‘great’. “It is an audacious title for a book,” I put it to Archbishop Okolo. “It is audacious,” he agrees. “but then, John Paul was a great Pope.”