A century ago was born one of freedom’s great champions

This month we celebrate 100 years since the birth of one of the giants of the 20th century: Karol Józef Wojtyła, whom history will remember as Saint John Paul II, the Pope who ensured one of the longest and richest pontificates of the Catholic Church.

This first Pope of Slavic origin was an important symbol during his lifetime. Firstly, as a young worker and seminarian he became a figure of resistance to Nazi oppression. Later on in his life, as a priest and then as bishop of Krakow, he took on a similar role of resistance to the persecution of Christians under the Communist yoke in Poland. Karol Wojtyla had experience and deep awareness of the barbaric facades under which Evil can express itself.

In 2020, as we celebrate his centenary, we must remember the strength and visionary character of his mind. As early as in 1959, in his memorandum to the commission for the agenda of the Second Vatican Council, the Bishop of Krakow asked the Council to address the Church’s role in guiding the human person as a spiritual being, Christian or not, in an increasingly material world. With what power these words still resonate today!

Symbol of the Freedom of Europe

With his election as Pope, his youth and personal history gave rise to a hope and an impetus that would be decisive for the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Iron Curtain. History will remember the fundamental role of this fighter for freedom, for human rights and for the dignity of the human person, who accompanied the reunification of Europe, to finally give full meaning to his motto: “United in Diversity”.

We also celebrate, of course, the tireless traveller, nicknamed during his lifetime “the Pilgrim of Peace”, who during his 104 pastoral visits visited 127 countries, some of them on multiple occasions. In his first Encyclical “Redemptor hominis” in 1979, John Paul had already affirmed his desire for a Church in conversation with the world, which he would accomplish throughout his pontificate.

Tireless Peacemaker in Africa

This passion for travel, his incessant action for Peace, has deeply linked this Pope to the African Continent. From the strong image of May 2, 1980, when this man in a white cassock knelt on the Tarmac at Kinshasa airport to kiss African soil for the first time, to his trip to South Africa to meet President Nelson Mandela after the fall of Apartheid, to his last trip to Egypt in 2000, John Paul II is undoubtedly the Pope who has travelled the most across the African continent.

He saw in Africa a young faith, full of energy and hope, which he never ceased to aspire to grow during his pontificate. In the face of violence and persecution in Africa, it is the message of peace of Christ, of Brothers in Humanity that he never ceased to develop and to cultivate during his visits to the continent. As a missionary of Peace, John Paul II was a major architect of dialogue between Christians and Muslims.

Thus, in 1985, during his 28th apostolic journey, he was ovationed by 90,000 youth in Casablanca: ” Christians and Muslims, we have many things in common, as believers and as human beings… For us, Abraham is a very model of faith in God, of submission to his will and of confidence in his goodness. We believe in the same God, the one God, the living God, the God who created the world and brings his creatures to their perfection”.

Jean-Paul II’s vision and deep understanding of the stakes of Peace in Africa give an astonishing topicality to his declarations of that time. If we consider, for example, today’s violence in Nigeria – 1350 Christians lost their lives in Nigeria for their faith in 2019 alone – the words of John Paul II in 1998 in Abuja remain as relevant as ever: “Respect for every human person, for his dignity and rights, must ever be the inspiration behind your efforts to increase democracy and strengthen the social fabric of your country”.

The conflicts that cross Africa today, the violence against Christians in all the Sahelian and sub-Sahelian parts of the West, from Nigeria and Sudan to the Horn of Africa, are in greater need today than ever, of the message carried by this “Pilgrim of Peace”, who willingly appropriated this name: “Yes, I would like to be just that wherever I go, because Jesus, when he gave his own life for the world, gave us a deep peace, which never left his heart that was full of love, his heart as the Son of God and brother of all people”.

We hope, following the centenary of his birth, that John Paul II, symbol of the Freedom of Europe and artisan of Peace in Africa, continues to inspire their peoples and their political leaders.

Co-authored by; Carlo Fidanza MEP, Jacek Saryusz-Wolski MEP and Izabela-Helena Kloc MEP

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