John Paul II tribute: Beloved pope changed individual lives and history

By: By Tom Dermody

The late Pope John Paul II influenced both personal lives and the history of nations, said those taking part in a tribute to the beloved shepherd who guided the Catholic Church for 26 years until his death three years ago.

“I think the church is going to be wrestling with the proposals of this pope for several hundred years,” said George Weigel, who shared insights gained through dozens of encounters with Pope John Paul II while researching and writing his biography, “Witness to Hope,” published in 1999.

The tribute evening took place Friday night during the Diocesan Summer Institute hosted by St. Vincent de Paul Parish, Peoria.

Also speaking was former Episcopal bishop Dr. Jeffrey Steenson of Rio Grande, N.M., who credited Pope John Paul II with “illuminating the way for me” to embrace the Catholic faith. His story of conversion is just one example of the late pope’s influence “far beyond the visible sheepfold of the Catholic Church,” said Steenson, who is now pursuing Catholic priesthood in the Archdiocese of Santa Fe.

In addition, Father Dan Maurer, CJD, a missionary to the church in eastern Russia, outlined Pope John Paul II’s role in the end of communism in his native Poland as well as the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.

“His life is a lesson in how influential one person really can be,” said Father Maurer.

But few Americans were as close to Pope John Paul II as Weigel, who was granted 50 to 60 private encounters with the pope over the course of 15 years. Many of those conversations were over dinner at the pope’s residence at the Vatican.

He told the crowd of more than 200 Friday night that those conversations revealed Pope John Paul II as an “utterly normal human being” with “a great sense of humor” and an awareness of his own fallibility. Weigel also characterized the late pope as “a man of relentless curiosity” who “always wanted to know what was happening” as he guided the church into a new millennium.

But Pope John Paul II also was “a man who knew where he came from,” and his life was greatly influenced by living through the trauma of World War II in his native Poland. While the stresses of war led some to insanity and others to embrace communism, the young Karol Wojtyla dealt with it another way.

“He decided to give his life away in defense of human dignity,” said Weigel.

In doing so, he would eventually become the pope with “the greatest impact on history since the 16th century.”

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