Archives > Status Ecclesiae April 2005 - "Totus
Tuus: The Source of John Paul's Greatness"
Totus Tuus: The Source of John Paul's Greatness
- by John Mallon, Inside the Vatican
How beautiful and fitting, and so much in
the tradition set by Pope John Paul II of being with the people,
that when news of the Holy Father's entrance into Eternal
Life finally came, Cardinals Sodano, Szoka, Law and other
bishops were with the people in the Piazza leading them in
prayer for the Pope.
They were not hidden from view or closeted away but with
the people. The family of the Church shared the bittersweet
mixture of grief and joy of our earthy father's passage from
our temporal sight into the embrace of Jesus, his lifelong
friend, Master and Lord. And, of course His Blessed Mother.
Imagine that smile and embrace of welcome! He left us and
heard the words, "Well done, good and faithful servant!"
This moment came on the last day of the first week of Easter,
on the vigil of Mercy Sunday, a feast he established based
on the mystical experiences of a 20th century Polish nun whom
By popular acclamation he is already referred to as John
Paul the Great.
Somewhere around September, 1919, God created an extraordinary
soul who would be named Karol Wojtyla. By the time he was
20 he was alone in the world, his immediate family had all
died, and the Nazis had marched into his homeland, and set
up Auschwitz, the most notorious killing center the world
had ever known, 20 miles from his hometown.
God became his Father, the Mother of God his mother and the
Church—and ultimately the world—became his family.
He entered the seminary clandestinely at a time, when, after
the Jews, the largest single group of Nazi victims in Auschwitz
were Polish Catholic priests. Pope Paul VI is said to have
called him a "magnificent, brave man."
Even his detractors have been acknowledging his greatness.
But perhaps John Paul would be most pleased with a discussion
of the source of his greatness, of which little has been said,
but which he so often urged upon others.
Every moment of his life was directed toward the moment he
would meet Jesus. It is precisely from his directedness toward
Christ that his greatness derived. Blessedly, the world, as
if keeping vigil at his bedside, witnessed it. Church tradition
gives us a Prayer for a Holy Death, and as with so many other
Catholic traditions the Holy Father showed us how it was done.
The clue to his greatness lies in his motto: "Totus
Tuus." Totally yours. He had given himself completely
over to the Mother of God, which, as every Catholic knows,
also means he was totally given to Christ. He was completely
sold out to Christ. For him truly, as St. Paul said, "To
live is Christ." (Ph. 1:21)
It occurred to me recently that I had never seen John Paul
show any self-doubt, hesitation, vacillation or second-guessing
of himself. He always spoke with certitude and with authority,
as Jesus did, (see Lk 4:32).
This is not because he had an ego, but just the contrary.
It occurred to me that the Pope did not appear to have any
ego, that whatever ego he had was entirely subsumed in Christ.
He most certainly had an identity, and that identity was Christ.
His ego and identity were entirely surrendered in Christ,
and it was this that gave him his extraordinary humanity and
The root of the word virtue is from vir, Latin for
man. The more perfected in virtue we are the more fully human
we are, the more fully alive we are. John Paul was bursting
with life and love and love for life. Even as age and illness
ravaged him his intellect continued to sparkle. He continued
working, praying and blessing the crowds.
He was a man of passion and emotion, great love and even
great anger—anger born of love, and never on his own
behalf, but anger on behalf of the honor of God and human
Some traditions of the spiritual life describe the Beginner,
the Proficient and the Perfect. The first two speak for themselves,
but the Perfect describes the person who lives moment to moment
in the presence of God, open to the constant promptings of
the Holy Spirit. This does not mean the person is "perfect"
in the usual sense, or without sin, but it is hard to imagine
anyone fitting this description better than John Paul II.
He showed us what it means to be truly in Christ and in the
One only arrives at such a level through constant prayer.
Those who have witnessed him praying have described him as
being in a mystical state of apparent conversation with the
Lord, where he emits small groans. This is reminiscent of
St. Paul's description, "the Spirit too comes to the
aid of our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we
ought, but the Spirit itself intercedes with inexpressible
groanings." (Rom. 8:26)
When John Paul took the throne of Peter the Church was weary.
The despair which is dissent was claiming the Church had to
"change" unchangeable truths in order to be "acceptable"
to the modern world; as though the Church had to bend the
knee to the world instead of the world bending the knee to
Christ in the Church.
John Paul II changed all that, replacing "dissident
chic" by reinvigorating the romance of orthodoxy. The
young loved him because he respected and loved them enough
to call them to virtue via the narrow way of Christ, rather
than "easy" but destructive path of the world to
which dissent bowed (Matt. 7:13-14).
People would say about the Rosary, "You don't need that!
That's 'old church!'" Now, healthy Marian devotion is
at an all-time high, second only to the Mass in nourishing
the spiritual lives of Catholics.
John Paul II rejuvenated an entire Catholic culture in prayer,
intellectual life, music, arts and publishing (including this
Ever the teacher and champion of life, his passion and death
followed on the heels of a high profile but tragic death of
a Catholic American woman, Terri Schiavo, a victim of the
Culture of Death, linking the two events in the public mind.
Some commentators have mentioned the work the Pope left unfinished.
But just recall the amazing dynamism of the young Pope of
1979. Now imagine John Paul II completely unfettered by the
constraints of his body as a soul—an intercessor—in
He has only just begun.
John Mallon is Contributing Editor of Inside the Vatican.
He also has regular columns on the websites Catholic.Org
An archive of Mallon's work also appears here: http://www.petersvoice.com/mallon/index.html.
You can reach Mallon at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Inside The Vatican (ISSN 1068-8579) is a Catholic news magazine, published monthly except July
and September, with occasional special supplements.