In German-occupied Poland, soldiers entered an apartment building and rounded up all the residents. They were taken to Auschwitz and executed by firing squad just outside the room where St. Maximillian Kolbe was martyred. Every person in that building was taken there and killed.
There was a small room under the basement steps that the Germans overlooked in their haste. If they had noticed, they would have found and executed a young seminarian named Karol Wojtyla. But because they missed him, the world was forever changed by this man who would later be known as Pope John Paul II.
And today is his 100th birthday.
I have a personal love for this pope. For most of my life, he was the only pope I had ever known. And to some extent, I think I have been spoiled as a Catholic by being formed in the papacy of JP2.
He was such a monumental and holy figure that it would be easy to forget that the history of the papacy is filled with pontiffs who are nowhere near as virtuous or wise. It was easy to forget that the greatness of John Paul II is the exception and not the rule. But it is a testament to him that he has become the archetype for the modern papacy.
I do not think I am overselling to say that he changed how popes are to perform their ministry. The most visible change is the evangelical shift in the papacy. Before John Paul II, it was very rare that a pope would travel outside the confines of the Vatican. There were many practical reasons for this. But the reality was that the pope was a shepherd who lived on his mountain and would guide the sheep through his authoritative voice. John Paul II remained a shepherd, but he understood that he was also to follow St. Peter and be a "fisher of men."
John Paul travelled the world over and over, reaching out to every corner of this universal Church. How many people were brought to Christ and discovered vocations to the priesthood and religious life because of his participation in World Youth Days? He went out to the ends of the Earth like St. Paul to spread the good news.
I had the privilege of seeing him in Toronto in 2002. I was only a few yards away from him at one point when he passed. I try to explain to people what it was like to be in his presence, and the best way I can describe it is that it was like being in the presence of Aslan. Either you understand this our you don't.
He was fearless in is defense of truth. He understood so keenly that the modern moral fight of the 20th century was a battle between two cultures: the Culture of Life and the Culture of Death. This same battle rages on, but he helped give us the vocabulary to understand where the cultural battle lines are drawn. From him we have the beautiful Theology of the Body which has become even more relevant now as the basic truths about how we are as men and women are being denied because of fashionable philosophies. His teachings were clear and bold, allowing for the complexity of life while not falling into the trap of ambiguity.
But he was above all someone who lived a life in closeness to Christ. He was shot at point blank range but survived. He not only proclaimed Jesus teaching of forgiveness, but lived it. John Paul went to the prison and embraced his would-be assassin. He met with him privately. He spoke with him. He prayed with him. John Paul II took to heart and embodied the fact that if we are forgiven by Christ, we must forgive others.
And he lived a life sustained on prayer. When his body began to break down, he showed us that we don't have to be afraid of suffering if we are in friendship with God. He never stopped, he never gave up, he never gave in. He showed us that Jesus must continue reign as the modern world tries to push Him out.
There are those who criticize him for policy mistakes he made or faults in his practical judgment at times. I am not here to argue those now. Like all of us, his life was filled with complexities and he was not (as many people misunderstand) infallible in all things.
As for me, whenever I hear the word "pope," the first face I will always see is that of St. John Paul the Great.