My Encounter with John Paul the Great
Nine years ago, I found myself in Rome, waiting in line with millions of people, hoping to get a glimpse of the late Pope John Paul II. John Paul was a hero of mine and I happened to be traveling through Europe when he passed away. I immediately changed my plans and traveled to be part of the celebration and mourning of this great saint. The scene in Rome was surreal. The line into St. Peter’s stretched all the way out of Vatican City, across the Tiber River and around the neighborhoods of Rome. People were singing, chanting for John Paul II and there were homemade signs and flowers all over the Vatican that said Santo subito! [Saint now!].
After several hours of waiting, I arrived inside St. Peter’s, where I had a few moments to pay my respects to the late John Paul II. I’ll never forget the moment, because I broke down sobbing. John Paul II had an enormous impact on my life, which is remarkable considering this was the only time I had ever come in contact with him.
“Only the chaste man and the chaste woman are capable of love.” – John Paul II
Everyone loved John Paul II. His impact on the world was immeasurable. He was instrumental in fall of communism in Eastern Europe. He revolutionized the Church in the post-Vatican II era. He traveled more than any pope in human history, bringing the joy of the Gospel to millions. John Paul had endeared himself to the youth; he was the founder of World Youth Day.
For me, his greatest work was his teachings on human sexuality. No pope in the history of the Church has written or spoken more about love and sexuality than John Paul II. As a young priest, John Paul spent time with married couples, learning from their example and their witness within their vocation. As a Cardinal, he wrote Love and Responsibility, a masterpiece on the defense of Catholic teaching in the realm of the family and sexual ethic. He wrote a play called The Jeweler’s Shop, where the protagonists and story revolved around the relationship and challenges of a marriage. These early works by John Paul demonstrated his great love and devotion to marriage and the family, as well as giving a pastoral understanding and inspiration to all people in the area of sexuality.
“Love consists of a commitment which limits one’s freedom – it is a giving of the self, and to give oneself means just that: to limit one’s freedom on behalf of another.” – Karol Wojtyla (John Paul II)
It was no surprise then, that in his first five years as Pope, John Paul II gave a weekly address to Christians in his Wednesday audiences on the topics of love, sexuality, marriage and the family. This five year labor of love became known as The Theology of the Body—perhaps one of the greatest works ever in Christianity. In an era when all of Western Civilization had become entrenched in the Sexual Revolution and the common perception of Christian sexual ethics was that Christian teaching was puritan and out of touch, John Paul II stood before the world and pastorally offered a different understanding of our sexuality. He taught us about God’s plan for us as male and female and helped us understand the unique expression of love that occurs when “the two become one flesh.” He taught us that sex is an expression of love that communicates the vows of Holy Matrimony and images the love of Christ for His Church. John Paul taught us how to love and encouraged us in chaste living so that we might discover both God’s beautiful plan for love and sex and God’s amazing plan for our lives. John Paul’s courageous example, witness and teachings have inspired millions in a renewal of chastity, marital fidelity and the renewal of the family across the world.
I’ll never forget the first time I heard the teachings of John Paul II in his Theology of the Body. I was a freshmen in college and I was dating the love of my life. I had just committed to abstinence in my life but something was missing in my relationship with my girlfriend and my practice of chastity. I was simply saying “no” to sex, but I did not understand how to truly love my girlfriend in a way that was proper for our relationship. It wasn’t until we both attended a seminar on the Theology of the Body that chastity made sense to me. The Theology of the Body opened my eyes to understand how to love my girlfriend and what my mission was as we journeyed toward marriage. I have a deep gratitude for John Paul II—for how he inspired me and for how he taught me how to love.
St. John Paul II, pray for us.
Everett Fritz works in Catholic Youth Ministry and enjoys speaking on the topics of chastity, discipleship, and youth evangelization. He currently works for YDisciple and holds degrees in theology from the Augustine Institute and Franciscan University of Steubenville. Everett resides in Denver with his wife Katrina and their three amazing children. Follow Everett on Facebook – https://www.facebook.com/catholiceverettfritz or Twitter – @Efritzfritz1