Today we celebrate the 100th birthday of Pope St. John Paul II, and it’s a great time to pause and look back at the life and legacy of this modern-day saint. While there are many aspects of his papacy that had a profound impact on the Church and the world, something that has had something of a ripple effect is his impact on vocations.
Many priests and religious credit St. John Paul II with their decision to answer the call to their vocation. And they, in turn, continue his legacy by bringing the Gospel to all they meet. One such priest is Fr. Tom Wilson, and he stopped by The Inner Life® to discuss the impact that St. John Paul II had on his own life.
“What I can tell you is that his elevation to the papacy opened my eyes to faith in Christ,” he told The Inner Life host Chuck Neff. “I was Catholic all of my life, and then the events of 1978 and losing Pope John Paul I so quickly, and then just a month later having John Paul II be elevated to papacy. It opened my eyes to what it meant to be a Catholic Christian. To be united to Christ in that one visible head.”
St. John Paul II was sometimes called “the pilgrim pope” because he traveled extensively making papal visits during his pontificate. Fr. Wilson shared how seeing the courage of the pope and the dynamic way in which he preached the Gospel had a profound effect on him as a young person.
“I remember very, very clearly as a teenager following closely the visit that he had to Poland, just about a year or so after he was elected,” he recounted. “Seeing the throngs of Polish people, still in a place where Communism ruled the roost, and still people coming out in the millions to see him and to listen to him preach about the goodness of Christ, and the dignity of the human person, and the dignity of workers.”
“I really remember being absolutely engaged with the power of the Gospel, and the power of the Gospel being preached. And that was in some ways the beginning of what I would call my ‘adult faith.'”
Another aspect of St. John Paul II’s papal visits is that it allowed many people to see a man of great holiness, a future saint, in the flesh. Having an encounter with someone who continually answers the Lord’s call – no matter the risks – is particularly inspiring to young people, and gives them the courage to say yes to whatever vocation the Lord is calling them to.
Fr. Wilson shared how this was the case for him, saying, “The only two days of high school I missed in four years was to go down to Des Moines from the Twin Cities to see him when he visited Des Moines in October of 1979. That was a very, very powerful moment in my own growth in Christ and hearing the call to the priesthood as well.”
Though St. John Paul II inspired millions with his courage, his intelligence, his care for human dignity, his ability to preach the Gospel and keep the Good News of Christ front and center in his life continues to inspire priests to keep the Gospel front and center in their lives, their work, and their particular vocation.
Fr. Wilson said of St. John Paul II, “He had the ability to speak to whoever he was talking to. He could communicate the Gospel in a way that everybody can understand. Whether he was talking to a head of state over a bowl of soup in the Vatican or he was talking to hundreds of thousands of youth gathered for a youth gathering, he had the same ability to communicate the Gospel in a way that is authentic, that is true to the person of Jesus Christ, and attractive to the person receiving it.”