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The deep tracks of Pope John Paul II

October 22 is the feast day of St. John Paul II, and marks the anniversary of his papal inauguration in 1978.

More than 16 years after his death, the much beloved pope is still well-known for many things - including his extensive travels, development of Theology of the Body and other theological works, his public battles against Communism, and the establishment of World Youth Day.

Pope John Paul II. Credit: David Bagnall / Alamy.

But in addition to the headline-grabbing moments, John Paul II’s nearly 30-year papacy contained so hidden gems as well. The Pillar brings you some papal deep tracks.

His first international trip...

John Paul II’s first international trip as pope was a visit to the Dominican Republic, Mexico, and the Bahamas in January 1979. During his first Mass of the papal visit, which took place in Santo Domingo’s Independence Square, he spoke about what the true pursuit of justice looks like. This concept would become one that he developed throughout his papacy as he spoke to people and nations in varying circumstances across the globe.

To construct this more just world means, among other things, making every effort in order that there will be no children without sufficient food, without education, without instruction; that there will be no young people without a suitable preparation; that, in order to live and to develop in a worthy way, there will be no peasants without land; that there will be no workers ill-treated or deprived of their rights; that there will be no systems that permit the exploitation of man by man or by the State; that there will be no corruption; that there will be no persons living in superabundance, while others through no fault of their own lack everything; that there will not be so many families badly formed, broken, disunited, receiving insufficient care; that there will be no injustice and inequality in the administration of justice; that there will be no one without the protection of the law, and that law will protect all alike; that force will not prevail over truth and law, but truth and law over force; and that economic or political matters will never prevail over human matters.

But do not be content with this more human world. Make a world that is explicitly more divine, more in accordance with God, ruled by faith, and in which this latter inspires the moral, religious, and social progress of man. Do not lose sight of the vertical dimension of evangelization. It has strength to liberate man, since it is the revelation of love. The love of the Father for men, for one and all; a love revealed in Jesus Christ.

...and his last

John Paul II’s final international voyage, following more than 100 that took place during his pontificate, was a 2004 visit to Lourdes, for the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. The trip took place less than a year before the pope’s death, while he was already suffering the devastating effects of Parkinson’s disease.

In his homily that day, the pope spoke of Mary’s Magnificat, as well as her witness of silence and the mysterious work of God:

The Magnificat is followed by silence: nothing is said to us about the three months that Mary stayed with her kinswoman Elizabeth. Yet perhaps we are told the most important thing: that goodness works quietly, the power of love is expressed in the unassuming quietness of daily service.

By her words and her silence the Virgin Mary stands before us as a model for our pilgrim way. It is not an easy way: as a result of the fall of our first parents, humanity is marked by the wounds of sin, whose consequences continue to be felt also among the redeemed. But evil and death will not have the last word! Mary confirms this by her whole life, for she is a living witness of the victory of Christ, our Passover.

A reflection on prayer

A meeting with President Ronald Reagan and a visit to Los Angeles drew attention during John Paul II’s 1987 trip to the United States. But the 10-day visit - one of seven visits to the United States for the pope - had plenty of quieter moments as well, including this reflection on the importance of prayer, both in the life of the Church and for our own spiritual growth:

The address he didn’t deliver

On May 13, 1981, John Paul II was shot four times as he was entering St. Peter’s Square for a routine Wednesday audience. The pope suffered major blood loss, but survived the assassination attempt.

However, the address which the pope had been planning to deliver that day was never given. The Vatican later released the text of the planned speech, which focused on the 90th anniversary of Pope Leo XIII encyclical, Rerum Novarum.

In that address, John Paul II had been planning to reaffirm the importance of the Church’s social teaching, and to discuss its ongoing relevance in the modern world.

Looking with a serene gaze on the historical and social events that followed in the world of work since that distant May of 1891, we must recognize with satisfaction that great strides have been made and major changes have occurred to make the lives of the working classes more consonant with their dignity.

Rerum Novarum was a leaven and ferment of these fruitful transformations. By means of it, the Roman Pontiff infused into the soul of the working man the feeling and awareness of his human, civil and Christian dignity; it encouraged the emergence of workers’ trade unions in the various countries; it admonished rulers and nations on their duties towards the weak and the poor, inviting States to create humane and intelligent social policy which formally recognizes and respects the right to work and work for all citizens.

The pope went on in the prepared remarks to say that Rerum Novarum is “still vital and valid today” and should continue to challenge the Church as it responds to ongoing social change.

Time has not worn but rather tested and proven it; so much so that Christians sense its fruitfulness and derive from it courage and action for new developments in the social order with which the world of work is concerned. Let us continue, therefore, to live its spirit with enthusiasm and generosity, deepening with active love the paths traced out by the existing social Magisterium and interpreting with creative genius the experiences of new times.

Papal deepfake

Finally, you may have seen already this video, purportedly footage of the little-known time the pope stopped at a batting cage in California during his 1987 trip.

The only problem?

It’s not real.

Here are a few clues as to the video’s dubious origins:

  • What are they wearing? The “clerics” accompanying the “pope” are wearing outfits that look kind of like a cross between graduation gowns and boxing robes, complete with towel-ish clerical collars around their necks. Plus, there is not one recognizable figure around the “pope” - neither any recognizable American Churchmen, nor Vatican aides. And again, what are they wearing? Our money is on Halloween costumes.

  • Switch-hitting pontiff? Take a look at pictures of John Paul II signing his name, or holding a pen in any number of situations, and you’ll notice the pope was right-handed. Yet in this video, the guy in white steps up to the plate and takes his cuts like a southpaw. Maybe the pope was a natural switch-hitter, but we doubt it.

  • Great contact. The “JPII” in this video makes contact with almost every ball that comes his way. The real John Paul II was a great athlete. But learning to swing a bat takes at least a little bit of time, so it’s pretty unlikely that a 67-year-old Polish pope would have started hitting every pitch, even in a slow-pitch softball batting cage.

  • Vatican softball league? The “clerics” accompanying the pope mention that “he’s got a good swing” because he plays on a softball league at the Vatican. This is…decidedly not true. But just for fun, here are some highlights from the Italian Baseball League.

  • White shoe pope? The actor playing the pope does bear some resemblance to John Paul II, though he is a bit thinner than the sainted pontiff. But he’s wearing something that John Paul II didn’t — white shoes.

    The pontiff usually wore these brown shoes:

    Shoes worn by Pope St. John Paul II. Credit: Tomas Bravo/Reuters/Alamy