“Be not afraid.” No better eulogy can be written for Pope John Paul II than this exhortation from his inaugural Mass on Oct. 22, 1978. His simple statement resonated from the halls of the Kremlin to the streets of Eastern Europe, from the jungles of Central America to Communist China’s oppressed rice paddies. These words even touched hearts in secular America.
Those three words, “Be not afraid” — from Matthew, quoting Christ’s command to fearful men in peril on a dark and dangerous sea — defined who he was and what he did. At every opportunity, this man who would become the most loved, viewed and likely one of the most feared men on Earth urged fearlessness in the face of all life offers, right up to death itself.
Loved? Certainly. Viewed? No doubt. More than 100 million people in 129 countries can claim to have seen him — not on a screen, but in person. But feared? Yes, John Paul was indeed feared by despots and dictators, the cruel and those who would deny human life the sanctity he espoused in every sermon and in all his writings. His faith, strength of character and devotion to the dignity of every person informed everything he did. Those virtues are terrifying to tyrants and can change hearts in ways military force and economic might never can.
Best of all, his life will continue to inspire. Few know the given name of any of this pope’s predecessors. But almost everyone who has ever heard of John Paul II knows he once was a parish priest, Karol Wojtyla. And because of all that has been said and written of him, hundreds of millions of people know his courage and steadfastness were forged in the crucible of adversity — first under the boot of Nazi oppression and ultimately beneath the Soviet proxies who ruled Poland after World War II.
In the early 1950s, the communist regime constructed Nowa Huta, a “model city” on the outskirts of Krakow. When Archbishop Karol Wojtyla discovered this new “worker’s paradise” would have no church, he set out to change their minds. He lobbied the apparatchiks. They ignored him. He went to the Communist Party authorities. They threatened him. So he went to the people — and began badgering the bureaucracy for a permit to construct a place of worship.
Increasingly vexed, officials vowed to restrict the annual Corpus Christi procession through Krakow to a single walk around the cathedral. The threat prompted a wonderful example of the future pope’s courage and wit: “I am inclined to think that such actions do not favor the process of normalization between the church and the state.”
When the permit to build a church in Nowa Huta finally was granted in 1967, Archbishop Wojtyla swung a pickax to break ground.
Though his message was spiritual — not political — the demise of the Evil Empire can be traced to his tenure as archbishop of Krakow. Karol Wojtyla had braved threats of arrest to preach: “We are citizens of our country, the citizens of our city, but we are also a people of God, which has its own Christian sensibility. … We will continue to demand our rights. They are obvious, just as our presence here is obvious. We will demand.”
In 1979, as Pope John Paul II, he took that message back to his native Poland and inspired millions of his countrymen, who ignored government intimidation to hear and see him.
His message, “Be not afraid,” resonated in Gdansk, with the rise of “Solidarnosc” — Lech Walesa’s famous “Solidarity” labor union. On New Year’s Day 1982, less than a month after the communists in Poland declared martial law and arrested thousands of Solidarity activists, John Paul denounced the “false peace of totalitarian regimes.”
There was no moral equivocation. The message was clear, and the result certain: Truth was superior to falsehood; the light of hope would dispel the darkness of despair; and the freedom born in every human being could not be crushed by all the theories, laws and chains devised by man.
John Paul II didn’t just admonish others to “Be not afraid,” he lived that way himself. Though nearly killed by an assassin’s bullet in 1981, he insisted on traveling again as soon as he was able. Some were critical of that decision, but he was never rash or unresponsive to good advice.
In 1983, while the pope was en route to visit El Salvador, our government intercepted a communication between two FMLN terrorist cells, discussing where the Marxist guerrillas would ambush his motorcade. I was dispatched to the Papal Nuncio with the raw intercept to urge that he advise the pope to use an alternative route. He did so, and the ambush was averted.
As I left, the cardinal sought to reassure my concerns about sending a message to the papal aircraft by telling me: “Don’t be concerned, we sent it in code. No one has ever broken the Vatican code.”
By the time he left us, Pope John Paul II had faced hectoring Sandinista mobs in Managua, told Fidel Castro to free his people and delivered the same message to Mikhail Gorbachev. Through it all, his life was a witness to his faith. We are poorer for his departure, but eminently better for his life.
In a world that increasingly devalues human life and exalts “choice” at the altar of the self, the selfless service of Karol Wojtyla, Pope John Paul II, inspired billions and shook the foundations of the world. “Be not afraid,” indeed.
Oliver North is a nationally syndicated columnist.