100th Birthday of St. John Paul II. Wherein Fr. Z muses and reminisces.

Today is the 100th Birthday of the late Pope St. John Paul II.

Recently Pope Benedict XVI wrote a letter to the Church of Poland in honor of this anniversary. In the letter he seemed to have argued in favor of formally giving John Paul the title “the Great”. A lot of people would agree.

Benedict brought up the examples of John Paul’s (of their) papal predecessors, Leo the Great (+461) and Gregory the Great (+604).   With military might, Leo and Gregory somehow fended off, respectively, the Huns and the Lombards.  They were Popes in turbulent and dangerous times.   John Paul was indubitably a key player in bringing down the Soviet bloc.  All three contributed significant writings.

Benedict himself has played a key role in the defense of the Church, all society really, from the dictatorship of relativism.  How successful he was in that endeavor as Pope remains to be seen.

John Paul, reduced terribly by the ravages of illness, did not resign.  His last days were themselves a testament to the value of human life.  At the same time, his weakened condition permitted some less than virtuous players more power in the Church, the effects of which we are still dealing with today.

At one point, back in 2016, I said that John Paul should be declared Doctor of the Church, with the nickname, Doctor Misericordiae.  His teaching contributions to the Church are numerous.  Also the movement to have him declared such would surely slow the obvious systematic erosion of his body of teaching as Pope.  For the last few years, what John Paul upheld and clarified about, for example, objective truth and morals, has been under attack at the highest levels.  I cannot shake the idea that Benedict wrote what he wrote to the Polish bishops in part because of the manifest attack on John Paul’s magisterial writings.  There has also been a methodical purge of the last Woytlians and Ratzingerians in the Curia and Roman school.  It seems to me that Divine Mercy Sunday would be a good day for such a declaration.   Perhaps it’s time to jump start that project.  I resonate also with the position that it takes some time to absorb the impact of a saint’s writings.  Still, given the offensive against his magisterium, sooner could be better than later.

When you read Papa Ratzinger’s aforementioned letter, don’t skip over his description of resistance to plastering over the ancient Sunday “in albis” with the modern innovation of “Divine Mercy” Sunday.  I share that resistance.  I have nothing against the modern devotion, but I don’t think it’s promotion should be at the expense of something so ancient and deeply rooted.  But I digress.

I met the late Pope, John Paul, many times during my Roman years.  I served Mass for him and was deacon for Masses on numerous occasions.  He always recognized me.  He ordained me.  I have some amusing anecdotes which perhaps someday I’ll share here.  He was a pleasure to be with, but when you were with him, his presence was palpable.

That’s three Popes I’ve known a bit or well.  I also had many opportunities to speak, even at length, with Joseph Ratzinger.  When Card. Bergoglio would come to Rome, he stayed in the same residence where I lived for years.  We shared a lunch or supper table many times.

Francis today celebrated Mass at the tomb of John Paul which is in the main Basilica of St. Peter. At one point the late Pope had been buried in the basilica’s crypt. His body was moved at his canonization.

Notice anything peculiar about these shots?

Why, I ask, is his zucchetto on the altar?!?

In a way, it’s emblematic.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
This entry was posted in Benedict XVI, Francis, Saints: Stories & Symbols, The Drill, Turn Towards The Lord and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.


  1. lawoski says:

    Father Z-
    Please forgive my ignorance for asking this, but when a bishop says Holy Mass alone, what is he to do with his zucchetto? Where is he supposed to put it when nobody else is around for him to hand it to?

    [Francis is not alone.]

  2. ReadingLad says:

    And at least the Holy Father is oriented traditionally!

  3. Father G says:

    Hello Father Z,
    I hope you can clarify the status of Pope Nicholas I in regards to being referred to as “the Great”.
    I was under the impression that he also was given that title, so I wondered why he was not mentioned by Pope Benedict XVI in his letter. That got me curious, so I checked the Roman Martryolgy for November 13, his feast day, and saw that that title is not mentioned in comparison to the other two.
    Is this because the Church never actually granted the title of “the Great” to Pope Nicholas I?

  4. Hidden One says:

    Was Pope Francis not accompanied at this Mass by at least one of his Masters of Ceremonies? I would expect them to attend to the zuchetto.

    Also, it looks like those may be oil lamps rather than candles on the altar. I zoomed in, but I cannot be completely certain one way or the other.

  5. Johann says:

    The Priest who confirmed me into the Church, Fr Makhomba Khanyile OFM, also met Pope John Paul II. He showed me a photograph that was taken with them together when he was received in audience, around 1988. Few priests have the honor of meeting a Pope in person.

    While growing up, long before I even considered conversion, St John Paul WAS the face of Catholicism, and his opinion carried weight way beyond his flock.

  6. samwise says:

    “I resonate also with the position that it takes some time to absorb the impact of a saint’s writings. ”

    Rather prophetically, the sainted Pope predicted resistance to Mulieris Dignitatem#24 in terms of the laity:
    “establish itself in hearts, consciences, behaviour and customs. This is a call which from that time onwards, does not cease to challenge succeeding generations; it is a call which people have to accept ever anew”

  7. Clinton R. says:

    I saw this in my inbox today. I realize it is from a sedevancatist site, but what it shows is unsettling to say the least. How do we square Pope John Paul II’s actions and writings with his canonization and the call to name him “The Great”?


  8. I had the impression from exhibits in your Basilica in DC that anything a Pope has touched is thereafter considered a holy relic.

  9. surritter says:

    “Anything peculiar about these shots?” As a layman, I don’t know the protocol about the zucchetto.
    So my first answer would have been that he is facing ad orientem. For a pope who is so bent on modern things, that seems peculiar.

  10. NB says:

    A couple years ago I was listening to a YouTube video of JPII saying Mass in St. Peter’s in 1985. It was almost chilling to hear his strong voice as he spoke the words of the Consecration, and then chanted the Pater Noster. If there was anyone’s voice who could scare away satan…. I think it was his. I remember when Fr. Z proposed that he should be named Doctor of Mercy. I’m still on board.

    Mark Steyn was a sub for Rush Limbaugh today and mentioned that today was this saintly pope’s 100th birthday, and that he (Mark) wasn’t even Catholic. Thought that very poignant. I certainly found it comforting.

    I would respond to Clinton R. and anyone else by referring them to Benedict XVI’s most poignant letter, which Father Z posted about recently, and Veritatis Splendor. I can only guess, but I imagine that John Paul’s intention with that and other events was that he wanted to express the love of Christ towards all mankind. If you look at the vast entirety of his writings (such as Veritatis Splendor), the Catechism he promulgated, John Paul establishes time and again that it is Christ who we must follow, who we must open our hearts to. He wanted to express that love (the love of Truth, who is a Person) and mercy to the whole world, and at times in an unbounded way. How fascinating to hear Pope Benedict admit, if you will, that he had to somewhat and gently ‘rein him in’ on that, as part of his job at CDF, which was to clarify and be more exacting.

    Or am I off track here?

  11. ex seaxe says:

    Clinton R. I would be very cautious about following, or even looking at the writings of, someone so sure of his knowledge of what the Holy Spirit is not allowed to do. Job had the good sense to apologize just for asking God why he was doing something Job thought unreasonable.

  12. kurtmasur says:

    I’m not sure if what I find peculiar is the same thing you have in mind, Fr. Z, but I noticed that there are 8 candles in total on the altar (basically an extra set on the extreme ends of the altar). Also, Francis looks quite reverent while holding the host up high, seemingly with a fixed gaze at the crucifix…..something which should be taken for granted for each priest, but you know, just saying. Also, no concelebration? With regards to the zucchetto, I don’t know either what the protocols are for them, but when I first noticed it on the altar, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the papal tiara or one of them golden mitres commonly seen on altars during pontifical masses.

  13. dplentini says:

    I agree that Bl. St. Pope JP II did so many wonderful things. But I also find a mixed bag of other, perhaps not so wonderful things, like His Holiness kissing a Koran, the strange “ecumenical” ceremony at Assisi, the handing of Cardinal’s Law’s terrible scandal, and the promotion of many unworthy bishops and cardinals even having been warned.

    Even Malachi Martin, whom I believe was a friend and supporter of JPII, seemed to express reservations in the novel Windswept House, when the “Polish Pope” presses his confessor for a frank appraisal of his Pontificate, and the confessor says that the Pope had been neglectful. Indeed, I still wonder what JPII was thinking when, having been approached by a number of Barvarians asking for a return to the TLM, held out a rosary saying this is all you have.

    I don’t want to think poorly of a Pope who did many great things. But how do we square the no-so-great moments?

  14. Semper Gumby says:

    “I cannot shake the idea that Benedict wrote what he wrote to the Polish bishops in part because of the manifest attack on John Paul’s magisterial writings. There has also been a methodical purge of the last Woytlians and Ratzingerians in the Curia and Roman school.”

    Solid point Fr. Z.

    dplentini: Solid concerns. Commenter “DeGaulle” provides some perspective on two of your concerns in the 15 May post “Benedict XVI’s Letter to the Polish Church.”

    God bless St. John Paul II.

  15. iamlucky13 says:

    “Notice anything peculiar about these shots?”

    I noticed two things, but neither were the same as yours:

    1) His body is interred at an altar dedicated to Saint Sebastian. I thought this is an interesting location since Saint John Paul was not a martyr, but like Saint Sebastian, he survived being shot.

    2) Those green tinted fluorescent lights illuminating the front of the altar where his name is carved look ghastly and unnatural enough to be seriously distracting.

  16. Clinton R. says:

    dplentini said: “I agree that Bl. St. Pope JP II did so many wonderful things. But I also find a mixed bag of other, perhaps not so wonderful things, like His Holiness kissing a Koran, the strange “ecumenical” ceremony at Assisi, the handing of Cardinal’s Law’s terrible scandal, and the promotion of many unworthy bishops and cardinals even having been warned.”

    This is what I was getting at in my comments. The last pontiff prior to John Paul II and John XXIII to be canonized was Pope Pius X. If we compare them and use it as a standard by which popes should be saints, there is a striking difference in their writings and actions. I could not have pictured Pius X allowing himself to be “blessed” by pagans or allow false worship as seen at the Assisi meeting in 1986. It would have been inconceivable to think Pius X would have kissed a Koran. Pius X upheld the tradition and teaching of the Church taught from the beginning. John Paul II appeared more concern with advancing the agenda of the 2nd Vatican Council, especially as it related to ecumenism. Does this mean I don’t believe him to be a saint? Not necessarily. Perhaps the sufferings he experienced at the end of his life were his penance. I am not certain of the eagerness to declare John Paul II a Doctor of the Church or be proclaimed “the Great”. In the end of course, Our Lord has the Final Say.

  17. surritter says:

    To dplentini and Clinton R… Recall that canonization is simply a testament of the person’s own personal piety, and being free from sin at death (thus, entrance to heaven).
    Canonization is not an endorsement of everything the person said or did.

  18. TerryS says:

    Ad Orientem???

  19. Rob83 says:

    The zuchetto I didn’t notice, what was probably more distracting was the placement of a microphone with its trailing cord on the altar.

  20. Geoffrey says:

    Well said, NB. Well said.

  21. JustaSinner says:

    I never got the honor of meeting At John Paul II, but have a feeling he wouldn’t be too hung up on the Great, or Doctor of the Church monikers. Now, after fighting Communism and defeating the chains of the Soviet Union, he would be VERY upset with the current occupant of the Bishop of Rome and HIS communist antics!

  22. Fr_Sotelo says:


    St. John Paul could not be too upset at Pope Francis. It was the saint who consecrated Francis a bishop, made him archbishop of Buenos Aires, and created him cardinal! I’m not seeing a huge conflict since without JPII, Francis would be just another Jesuit priest.

  23. Semper Gumby says:

    JustaSinner: Solid point. Let’s not forget surrendering the Church to the ChiComs.

  24. Semper Gumby says:

    Furthermore, a focus on who promoted who: 1) bolsters the credibility of those who properly point out the weak spots in JP II’s pontificate (and yes, there are more than one), 2) produces a distinct odor of clericalism.

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