Today for the first time in the liturgical calendar, the Church celebrates the feast of Pope St. John Paul II. For many of us as we were growing up, JPII – as we affectionately call him – was the only pope we had ever known, thanks to his long pontificate from 1978 until 2005. There is so much that one could reflect on about the man today, but I want to focus on just one aspect of his life, thanks to a work of art I stumbled upon yesterday.
The image of JPII reproduced below is part of a huge canvas about 40 feet long and 30 feet wide. It depicts the Coronation of the Virgin Mary following her arrival in Heaven, and was painted by contemporary Spanish artist Raúl Berzosa Fernández (born 1979). The work covers the ceiling of the Oratory of Santa Maria Reina (Mary, Queen of Heaven) of the Hermandad de las Penas (Brotherhood of the Sorrows) in the Andalusian city of Málaga. The painting took 6 years to complete, and was just finished and dedicated a month ago.
The Brotherhood is one of the religious associations which participate in the famous Holy Week processions in Spain. Each of these groups typically has their own church or chapel where they preserve the elaborate floats and statues used in these processions, and where members gather throughout the year for prayer, services, and to encourage the local community in their faith. This particular group cares for two historic images used during Holy Week: one a highly-detailed sculpture of Christ on the Cross, and the other of the sorrowful Virgin Mary, weeping over the pains being suffered by her Divine Son.
Not only is Sr. Berzosa Fernández’ work magnificent, it demonstrates that the study of classical art is not yet dead, thank goodness. Yet it also gives us an image of the late Pontiff in a wider theological context, not simply as a portrait. As one of the figures in a piece celebrating the Blessed Mother, in the chapel of a group dedicated to meditating on the suffering which she and Her Son endured, the presence of St. John Paul II in this painting is more than simply a pious inclusion. It exemplifies the Pope’s deep understanding as a result of his own, personal suffering of how Mary’s example of suffering along with Her Son can lead us to better follow Him.
St. John Paul II’s devotion to Our Lady, particularly at her shrine of Czestochowa in Poland, and at Fátima in Portugal following the attempt on his life, is well known, of course. His motto on his Papal coat of arms was the same which he had as Cardinal Archbishop of Krakow, “Totus Tuus” – “All Yours” – referring to the opening consecration to the Virgin Mary of St. Louis de Montfort. The coat of arms also featured an initial “M” beneath the cross, recalling the presence of the Blessed Virgin beneath the cross at the Crucifixion, witnessing the suffering of her Son and sharing in His sorrows. And sorrow was something JPII understood all too well, under the Nazis, later under the Communists, and still later in surviving an assassination attempt and suffering the ravages of Parkinson’s disease.
Yet for JPII, while sorrow and suffering was a reality not to be shied away from, he recognized that these things were ways to bring us closer to Christ, as indeed the Mother of Christ herself understood by remaining close to her Son. In his 1987 encyclical “Redemptoris Mater”, a complex theological document which has been studied and commented on by many far more educated than I, St. John Paul II reflected on the relationship of Mary to Christ and His Church. I won’t even attempt to unpack it in a blog post. Instead, I wanted to highlight one of my favorite passages in the text, which is relevant for our consideration here.
Toward the end of the encyclical, when the late pope points out Mary’s role as an example and as an intercessor in helping us to struggle against evil and do good, to carry on even though suffering, and to pick ourselves up and rise after we have fallen, he reflects on the times in which we live, when we can be so easily deluded into thinking everything is fine and dandy in the world:
Mankind has made wonderful discoveries and achieved extraordinary results in the fields of science and technology. It has made great advances along the path of progress and civilization, and in recent times one could say that it has succeeded in speeding up the pace of history. But the fundamental transformation, the one which can be called “original,” constantly accompanies man’s journey, and through all the events of history accompanies each and every individual. It is the transformation from “falling” to “rising,” from death to life. It is also a constant challenge to people’s consciences, a challenge to man’s whole historical awareness: the challenge to follow the path of “not falling” in ways that are ever old and ever new, and of “rising again” if a fall has occurred.
Just as the painting which brought about today’s post was something that took many years to complete, so too, our own lives are a constant work in progress, not something which is ever going to be perfected in this life. Christ taught us this, His Mother understood it, and St. John Paul II certainly tried to live it and pass that reminder along to us. As we remember him today, let us also remember that picking up our cross and soldiering on, however difficult it may be, is what all Christians are called to do.