Sto lat is the traditional Polish wish that is given to express good wishes, good health and long life to a person. It is also a common birthday greeting. It means, "May you live 100 years!" May 18 was the hundredth birthday of St. John Paul II on which Pope Francis celebrated Mass at the tomb of the Saint in St. Peter's Basilica. This was the last live streamed Mass which he celebrated for the faithful as the public celebration of Mass resumed in Rome and at St. Peter's Basilica. This truly made the celebration of St. John Paul II hundredth birthday a momentous occasion in keeping with the extraordinary milestones of his life in the Church and the modern world. In his homily Pope Francis spoke of St. John Paul II as a man of prayer, of closeness to the people and of justice and mercy
Pope Francis frequently expresses his admiration, love, and gratitude to St. John Paul II whom he personally canonized a relatively short time after beginning his pontificate. In a recently published Italian book, St. John Paul the Great, Pope Francis is questioned about himself and his predecessor. The Pope expressed, "I learned from him," explaining how he especially learned the importance of joy and mercy from the Saint. In a letter to the Polish Bishops on the occasion of the hundredth birthday of St. John Paul II, another one of his successors, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, echoed the words and sentiments of Pope Francis. He recounted how fitting it was that St. John Paul II died on the Vigil of Divine Mercy Sunday, the Feast he instituted, as he proclaimed the mercy of God which was central to his life and teaching.
St. John Paul II was an authentic person. He was a man in whose presence everyone felt at ease. He embraced his humanity and enabled those who encountered him to embrace their own. This natural ability is at the heart of being a saint. One of the men who served him as a Swiss guard at the Vatican recounted this ability. He explained that when he first came to service at the Vatican, St. John Paul II stopped as he passed him because he did not recognize him and thought he must be new at his post. The guard recounted, "He said to me: 'You must be a new one.' … He let me finish my sentence, shook by hand ... then he grabbed my hand with both of his hands and said: 'Thank you Mario, for serving who serves.' Then he left." The guard went on to reflect, “He was a genius, a man of prayer … but he could make anybody feel comfortable. Doesn’t matter if he was talking to a Nobel Prize [winner] or a homeless person, from the president of state to a kindergarten schoolteacher.”
Through his priesthood and pontificate, St. John Paul II lived each moment of his ministry to the fullness. He did not hesitate to use the talents and abilities which God had given to him. He integrated his own thoughts, talents, physical stamina, personal interests, and abilities, as well as his sufferings and limitations, into a most creative and effective ministry. Even in his infirmities and failing health, right up to his final days, St. John Paul II did not hesitate to embrace humanity and identify with the sick and suffering of the world. He showed the world the dignity of the suffering and the elderly and how pain and advanced age do not detract from our value which comes from being made in the image and likeness of God.
There is no question that St. John Paul II was a mystic. His full acceptance of his humanity was part of his full acceptance of God and His will. He lived with his focus on Christ and everything he did centered on the Gospel. This gave him peace and strength beyond the ordinary. As Pope Francis observed, prayer was at the heart of the life of St. John Paul II. He knew that God loved him and an intimate relationship with the Lord flowed into everything he did. This close communion with God evoked in others a realization of God's call to enter into a real relationship with Him. Even non-Catholics attested that he brought them closer to their own faith.
Pope John Paul was a man of tremendous courage. He truly was fearless. He was not afraid to be himself and he was not afraid to present himself, as he was, to the world. This is another reason why he paradoxically made everyone at ease in his presence. He was a man of love and mercy and knew that, "There is no fear in love, but perfect love drives out fear. ... We love because He first loved us” (1 John 4:18–19). The Saint’s courage was not an audacity or recklessness but derived from his almost perfect human integration. His initial greeting to the people of the world after being elected Pope, "Do not be afraid," is a hallmark of his person and papacy.
I am personally blessed to have been with St. John Paul II on several occasions, both in Rome and in other situations. I know what an awesome experience it was to be moved by the very heart of the man who made me feel immediately at ease. In my first meeting with him, he looked at me and with affection called me, "Youngster!" Time has taking care of that! Every occasion I had to concelebrate Mass with St. John Paul II was a great privilege and experience for me. I had often heard so many others recount the deep experience of being in his presence when he celebrated the Eucharist and I knew what they meant when I had this joy. It was obvious that for him the only person in the room at that time was Christ. The Pope’s Eucharistic concentration on Christ brought everyone into the presence of Christ. Again, his deep spirituality was sincere and came from the heart.
As we celebrate the hundredth birthday of St. John Paul II, we know that he now lives forever with the Lord and, "With the Lord one day is like a thousand years and a thousand years are like one day" (2 Pet 3:8). There is no longer any reason for us to wish St. John Paul II Sto lat but we pray to him, asking that as we continue our journey of days and years, we may accept the humanity and personhood which God has given to us with courage and faith and to live each moment prayerfully in God's presence realizing His love and mercy.
Most Reverend Gerald M. Barbarito
May 22, 2020