Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Book Review: Saint John Paul the Great: His Five Loves

You can probably remember it as well as I: the scenes on the TV screen (or, perhaps on your computer screen—most of us were not using our phones for live video back then), the thousands upon thousands of pilgrims in Rome keeping vigil at the close of the Easter Octave of 2005. We couldn't keep a bedside vigil, but all of us stayed as close as we could, silent, praying as the great Pope John Paul, a man we knew was a saint—a man many of us felt we knew personally—rendered his noble soul to God. Days later, the banners started showing up: Santo Subito! Sainthood right away! It was a call for something the Church hadn't witnessed in centuries: canonization by popular acclaim.

John Paul's wise successor listened, and though he did not permit the spontaneous canonization, he dispensed with the usual five-year waiting period for opening the process (just as his predecessor had done for Mother Teresa). The rest would be up to God. Just nine years later, we see that God had been one of those holding a “Santo Subito!” banner.

In Saint John Paul the Great: His Five Loves (Totus Tuus Press, Lakewood CO, 2014) Jason Evert tells us who this great man was, both in terms of his life story and five of the great themes that marked his life and his pontificate. I found the biographical portion of the book (close to half of the content) both comprehensive and readable. If you were intimidated by George Wiegel's massive “Witness to Hope” (written at the invitation of, and with easy access to, Pope John Paul II himself), Evert's is much more approachable, and yet not at all dumbed down.

As interesting as the biographical section is, it is the second half of the book that really tells you who Pope John Paul II was and is for the Church. His “five great loves”—young people, human love, the Holy Eucharist, the Blessed Virgin Mary and the Cross—are his enduring testament. Of the five, I found Evert's treatment of Pope John Paul and human love (his wonderful “Theology of the Body,” of which Jason Evert is an internationally known presenter) and of the Cross to be the richest and possibly the most helpful to the everyday Catholic.

I recommend this book to anyone who ever wondered why the Catholic Church seems to have so much to say about marriage (when our culture is convinced that it is only about “two people who love each other”). Evert draws on Wojtyla's long experience in what we now call young adult ministry, in which he offered both teaching and counseling to couples through their engagement and marriage: not a single couple he guided ever suffered a divorce. Obviously, that celibate white male knew something that many couples today do not. Similarly, the presentation of the Cross as a mystery in which we are meant to participate was something very real for Saint John Paul. He learned early on that human suffering, whether slight or excrutiating, is something precious in the eyes of the Lord. He found his own life blessed by the offered-up sufferings of others, and when his turn came (the would-be assasin's bullet seems to have triggered an unending cascade of physical sufferings for the Pope), he willingly united his pain with “the sufferings of Christ for the sake of his body, the Church.”

Other books you might enjoy in the light of the historic canonization of two Popes this Divine Mercy Sunday:
Secret to Happiness: Wisdom from John XXIII(Pauline Books & Media, Boston, 2014): Excerpts from the writings of St. John XXIII (“There are three ways for a man to come to ruin: women, gambling and farming. My family chose the most boring way.”)
Be Not Afraid: Wisdom from John Paul II(Pauline Books & Media, Boston, 2014): a handbook of writings from Pope John Paul II
For children: ABoy Who Became Pope: The Story of Saint John Paul II (Pauline Books & Media, Boston, 2014), written and illustrated by Fabiola Garza. (Follow the link for instructions on a "Pope Party" to introduce kids to our new saints!)

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