As Rome gears up for the canonisation of Popes John XXIII and John Paul II, the books are beginning to arrive too. And your EWTN correspondent has made her contribution – and it has a special link to EWTN.
With fellow Catholic writer Clare Anderson, I’ve produced a book “John Paul II: Man of Prayer” (Gracewing Books). Together, we also made a pilgrimage to Poland to visit the places where he lived and worked and prayed: you can join us on that pilgrimage on EWTN over the weekend of the canonisation.
Our aim – both with the EWTN programme and the book – has been to look at this great man’s spiritual life. Of course we all know that he was a man from Poland – a nation rich in Catholic traditions. But it is a mistake just to think of him as some one essentially influenced by a Catholic culture: rather, essentially he was a man of prayer, who while still young, in a country occupied by the Nazis, and having recently lost his father, read St John of the Cross and St Louis Grignion de Montfort.
One of the primary influences on the young Karol Woytila – and it was during those tragic years of the Nazi occupation – was Jan Tyranowski, a layman. He recruited young people for the “Living Rosary”, and in addition to meeting in church some would gather at his flat, and he would teach them the paths of the mystical life, of deepening in prayer. He explained that deepening a relationship with God involved a systematic approach: time given each day to prayer, spiritual reading, and meditation on God’s word. He urged that each day’s timetable be written out, so that work and rest and prayer be seen in due form. This echoed the disciplined approach that Karol Woytila had learned from his soldier father. He would later recall how as a boy he would sometimes wake in the night and see his father kneeling in prayer.
John Paul II had a characteristic way of kneeling in prayer, one hand clenched against his forehead. He had a special love of the Rosary, and a deep devotion to Mary: the drama of his pontificate was bound up with the mystery of the apparitions at Fatima. It was on May 13th, the anniversary of the Fatima apparitions, that he was shot and almost fatally wounded. He attributed his recovery to the intervention of Our Lady. The place where he fell, in St Peter’s Square, is now marked by a marble stone and as you look up, you see an image of Mary on the Vatican wall high above, with the words that John Paul II made his own: “Totus Tuus”. He was totally dedicated to Mary and through her to Christ.
It was John Paul who released the famous “Third Secret” of Fatima, and it was John Paul who gave the world a renewed devotion to the Rosary, adding five more Mysteries – the Luminous Mysteries, linking the Rosary more deeply to the Eucharist.
John Paul was a man of courage, of goodwill, of energy, of wisdom, and of initiative. But he was above all a man of prayer. Working on this book, Clare and I felt personally challenged and inspired, as Christians. The task of the successor of St Peter is to lead people to be closer to Christ, and John Paul is still doing that.