George Weigel in Toronto on the legacy of St John Paul II

Toronto, Canada (Monday, 03-23-2015, Gaudium Press) Recently Cardus Foundation (a think tank dedicated to the renewal of North American social architecture; using Catholic social thought through the mediums of public debate, research, publications and events) hosted a conversation between Fr. Raymond J de Souza, Editor-in-chief of Convivium Magazine, writer for National Post and The Catholic Register, and George Weigel, author of the New York Times best-selling biography of St. John Paul II, ‘Witness to Hope’ and recipient of the papal cross Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice.

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The conversation covered topics ranging from St. John Paul II visit to Canada for World Youth Day (WYD2002), his death in 2005, his role in reshaping history behind the iron curtain and his vision for how Catholics and Evangelicals can work together offering a bold witness in a secular age.

Both participants stated that the location of this event at the Morrow Park Chapel was significant because on the 27th July 2002, St. John Paul II stayed at this mother house of the Sisters of St. Joseph during the 17th WYD, the last one of his during his pontificate. According to Weigel the pope’s purpose of the 2002 WYD was to indicate to the western nations that Christianity is relevant and vibrant in a secularized world. The high point was the Way of the Cross in the heart for downtown Toronto on University Avenue, from Nathan Philip Square (City Hall) to the Royal Ontario Museum. It was as if the Pope was inviting the whole city to join in the mystery of the cross and the resurrection which was not an event which took place 2000 years ago, but is relevant and alive even today.

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February 2005 till his death in April 2005, were the greatest teaching moments in the life of St. John Paul II. As per Weigel this was the Popes’ living encyclical on the nobility of suffering when united to the cross of Christ. Through his suffering with Parkinson’s disease, the pope showed that every human life has an inherent value. A week after his death, there were approximately 6 million people in Rome. From the Via della Conciliazione right up to Castel Gandolfo in every archway there were priests with purple stoles administering the sacrament of reconciliation. Shortly after the requiem mass, the people started chanting Santo Subito (saint now in Italian) and Magnus (great). Such as this had not happened for a pope since the 7th century for Pope St Gregory I the Great.

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St. John Paul II started his day with an hour and a half of prayer before his private mass. The polish nuns who looked after the pope would place the prayer request of the people in his kneeler. The pope also used to invite people to his private mass, and also invited people to meals to talk about politics, theology and their everyday lives. He was thus able to be in contact with the flock that he shepherded directly(microcosm), as well as through the detailed briefs he received about the state of the church globally from his advisors and staff (macrocosm). This interplay between the microcosm and macrocosm was also visible at WYD masses where there were millions of people. Often during the mass there were moments where the pope would withdraw into himself and spiritually recharge before reaching out to the millions. Weigel related that many people whom he had spoken after the WYD masses stated that they felt that the pope was personally speaking to them.

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St. John Paul II legacy was his words lived out ‘Be not Afraid’. Indicated first at the underground Rhapsodic Theatre when he was just 21 and he carried on the Polish play even when there were vehicles on the road above announcing another German victory on the Russian front. St. John Paul II believed firmly that the Truth when spoken with clarity and charity will cut through the static of the lies of the world and would convert a secularized culture. He did not believe in bending to the tyranny of the everyday, he would not believe that something’s are just the way they are and are never going to change. It was this spirit that led to the ripping open of the iron curtain and the fall of the Berlin wall. The only thing to be afraid of was thoughtlessness (not looking at what God wanted a person to do for the day) and pusillanimity. Spiritually, his legacy was the Divine Mercy, he believed that the world wars and communism had destroyed the fabric of life in Europe and globally and the remedy was admitting to Christ that we are all guilty of sin and then receiving and accepting His mercy. This message was also repeated at the requiem mass by Pope Benedict XVI and current Pope Francis who has announced 2016 as the Year of Mercy.

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After the event, we were able to interview Weigel semi privately. When asked about the fruits of WYD 2002, 13 years later, he said that the fruits can be seen in the individual lives of Catholics who speak and live the Truth cheerfully . When asked about the current situation where Russia is reverting to cold war times; Weigel emphatically stated that Putin is a very bad person and the West needs to develop a spine to resist his attack to reverse the verdict of 1989 and 1991, the truth is being spoken very clearly by a lot of brave people in Ukraine and the West better start paying attention.

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