Pope St. John Paul II passed on to his eternal reward on Divine Mercy Sunday in 2005. Many of us have memories of keeping vigil, praying for the pope in his final hours. The significance of his death, on a feast he inaugurated, wasn’t lost on anyone. He was so devoted to the message of Divine Mercy!
But the timing of his death had another significance, too. One especially germane for us right now in the United States. St. John Paul II died during the Year of the Eucharist.
A daily devotion to the Eucharist
The pope was deeply devoted to the Eucharist. He famously celebrated Mass every morning in the Redemptoris Mater Chapel in the papal apartments. Guests often joined him for those Masses, including many priests who concelebrated with the pope. Those Masses were very dear to the pope. He once told a gathering of young people, “The Eucharist is the secret of my day. It gives strength and meaning to all my activities of service to the Church and to the whole world.” The lively, athletic pope celebrated that morning Mass as long as he could, until his disease at last made it impossible for him.
He loved to pray before the Blessed Sacrament. In 1995, during a visit to the United States, he insisted on making an unplanned stop at the seminary chapel at St. Mary’s Seminary in Roland Park. (The place where he knelt is today marked with a small plaque.)
He wrote in an encyclical letter on the Eucharist, “It is pleasant to spend time with him, to lie close to his breast like the Beloved Disciple and to feel the infinite love present in his heart.” This was not merely an idea for John Paul II; it was the very fabric of his life.
As a newly ordained priest, I was able to visit Wawel Cathedral, in Krakow, where John Paul II offered his first Mass. He was ordained on All Saints’ Day. The next day being All Souls’ Day, he was able to offer three first Masses! (He offered them for his deceased family: his mother, his brother and his father, respectively.)
All the pope’s work began in the Eucharist. At the dawn of the new millennium he said, “Our witness, however, would be hopelessly inadequate if we ourselves had not first contemplated his face.” He loved to spend time with Christ in the Eucharist, during Mass, Adoration or in front of the tabernacle.
Finding our purpose
In a world yearning for meaning and purpose, the Eucharist offers us the profound answer. It is an encounter with the living Christ, a communion of love that renews our spirits and empowers us to be witnesses of his presence in the world. The pope taught, “The communion with Christ that we enjoy now while we are pilgrims and wayfarers on the paths of history anticipates that supreme encounter on the day when ‘we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is’ (1 Jn 3:2).”
As part of the celebrations of the great jubilee, John Paul II went on pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 2000. During that pilgrimage, he celebrated Mass in the Upper Room. There he preached about the presence of Christ in the Eucharist, declaring, “This presence is the Church’s greatest wealth.”
In his final letter to priests for Holy Thursday (written from Gemelli Hospital!), the pope taught, “The Eucharist does not simply commemorate a fact; it commemorates Him!” The life of a priest, the pope taught — but it can and should be applied to every Christian — must be shaped by the Eucharist. Not by means of a mere consecration, but as a “formula of life.”
Like the life of St. John Paul II before us, may our lives be shaped by our love for the Eucharist!