Homily preached by the Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, at a Requiem Mass celebrated at Westminster Cathedral on the anniversary of the death of Pope John Paul II (3 April 2006)
Dear Brothers and Sisters in Jesus Christ,
We are here today to commemorate the death and to celebrate the life of a man whom God made great, and to ask for his intercession from the heart of heaven. The millions who gathered in Rome this time last year knew where he was destined, and they cried: ‘Santo Subito!’ The process for his canonisation is moving ahead swiftly, and for that we can be thankful; but the human, church process of raising him to the universal altars does not prevent us, in the meantime, from imagining where he now is, welcomed into the bosom of the Father as a good and faithful servant who is receiving his reward. That is why we can turn to him confidently now, in prayer, and ask him to bless us. For we hear his words still: Trwajcie mocni w wierze – ‘stay strong in the faith’.
I want to welcome especially any people of Poland present here. You have come to our city in increasing numbers, to work and to make new lives; and in growing numbers you are present in our congregations. We are grateful to you, because you carry in your hearts, along with the rest of the Polish people, something of the heart of Pope John Paul II. When Karol Wojtyla was elected as Pope in 1978, he said he had come from a far country; but he made that country near to us all. He knew that the experience of his homeland, and the remarkable witness of the Catholic Church there, had much to teach the world, and to teach the Church.
Along with the Polish nation, John Paul witnessed the worst of evils of which human beings are capable: totalitarian oppression, massacres, the desecration of nation and soul. An orphan by the age of 20, the young Wojtyla had also known, in his own family, the most searing experience of bereavement and loss; and he saw his Jewish friends being taken from him to the Holocaust. Deprived, therefore, of what most of us take for granted – security, family, hope and meaning – John Paul II was thrown back, at an early age, on the only resources a human being can ever truly rely on: the irrefutable knowledge that we are divinely created; the unalterable fact that we were created in dignity and for dignity; and the reassurance that God is the Good Shepherd, who walks with us and guides us and heals us, calling us constantly to him. States and powers come and go, and inflict what seem for a time horrendous evils; but in time they pass away, while human culture, and our capacity to love and to serve and to build, live on, like a candle that cannot be extinguished even by the most ferocious winds. That was his experience, and that was his faith. For 26 years, his papacy tenaciously witnessed to the power of that faith: he saw Communism collapse, and western leaders come and go, and when he came to leave this earth, in a long struggle with his failing body, the world gathered round him in a mixture of awe and affection, because they knew that here was a greatness that could only have one source.
You will all be awash with memories, as am I, of those days last year. This Cathedral was the site of a remarkable vigil, which the television companies linked with other vigils in other cathedrals around the world. How extraordinary and precious were those days. How vividly we still see their fruits. Britain is not as confidently secular as it once seemed. Ideologies have collapsed. People have returned to the faith of their childhood, or have approached priests to make tentative enquiries, or sought out the Sacrament of Reconciliation to receive the forgiveness and healing which Our Lord constantly offers us. Pope John Paul II invited us, after his election as Pope, to open wide the doors to Christ, to open our hearts and minds. And it is for this that he shall be remembered: for breaking down walls, for crossing borders, for opening new spaces in us where Christ could enter and speak to us.
Karol Wojtyla wrote an early book called The Acting Person. He was theatrical in the best sense: he understood, as Bishop of Krakow and later as Bishop of Rome, the power of symbols; and he knew that actions speak louder than words. As the world began to close behind defensive walls of fear and religious bigotry, he called the world’s religious leaders together to pray for peace; he prayed at the wailing wall in Jerusalem and inside the mosque at Damascus; he asked for forgiveness for the sins of the Church’s history. Wherever there was fear and mistrust, he sought to bring strength and reassurance and the message of God’s love. He invited people to the mountain, to the feast of rich food and well-aged wines of which the prophet Isaiah speaks; and wherever there was a shroud over humanity he sought to lift it. Whether it was the grinding poverty of economic injustice or the death penalty or war or the denigration of life at the beginning and the end of our existence, he was never afraid to speak out and to challenge received orthodoxies; and nor should we.
Dear friends, our Church is a fragile community which draws people to it when it depends on the graces of prayer, not when it becomes preoccupied with internal questions. Pope John Paul II left the Church stronger because he focussed it on what matters: he wanted to free our energies for building God’s kingdom and for drawing humanity into relationship with Christ. But he was never afraid of argument; and his service of the Gospel through the power of reason is one of his great legacies. Never before has a Pope produced so much food for the Church’s journey, and we shall be digesting his teaching for generations to come.
Jesus tells Peter, the first head of the Church, that a belt will be put round him and that he will be led where he did not want to go. From the very beginning, John Paul II welcomed that belt. As Pope Benedict said yesterday in Rome, his life can be summarised in the two words “fidelity” and “commitment”. He did not hesitate when he was made a young Bishop of Krakow, and he did not waver when the College of Cardinals elected him in 1978. What God asked of him, he accepted, and he placed his gifts at the disposal of each new mission. As a powerfully athletic younger man, he worked tirelessly in the service of others; as an enfeebled elderly Pope, barely able to speak, he allowed his suffering to comfort others who were suffering, and to speak on their behalf. “Suffering is present in the world in order to release love,” he wrote in his apostolic letter Salvifici Doloris, “in order to give birth to works of love towards neighbour, in order to transfor