Last May, I was blessed to be able to go on pilgrimage to Poland, where I visited a number of important sites from Karol Wojtyla’s life. As an artist, I’ve been moved to paint Pope John Paul II a couple of times. For those of you who know me, you probably also know of my unfinished painting of him. For these reasons, I was asked to write a reflection on what St. John Paul II means to me.
It was an honor to be asked, but the request also left me a bit uneasy. I was worried that I only appeared to have a relationship with him. I had to sit with the question, “What does John Paul II mean to me?” Thanks be to God, the invitation to write about his influence on my life turned out to be a gift of discovering just how much of it he has touched.
Looking back on my life, I’m now able to see the faithful saint’s hands at work, an instrument of grace that had been drawing me closer to God for some time. In the Catholic faith, we have the beautiful phrase, “To Jesus through Mary”. In a sense, as with a number of saints, I can say, “To Jesus through Mary through John Paul II”. Just as we’re able to see Mary’s involvement in our salvation, I’m able to see her devoted son’s involvement, direct and indirect, in a number of ways. His ‘yeses’ to God during his life have found their way into mine, and I dare say the whole world.
Image of Holiness
My first memory of John Paul II is from childhood. I didn’t grow up Catholic, but I clearly remember often seeing pictures of him and Mother Teresa in the news. I knew they were special, and even if I didn’t know the word for it at the time, they struck me as saints.
Model of Courage
Ten years ago, during my journey into the Church, I was drawn to The Diary of St. Faustina. It became my favorite book and acted as a source of peace and encouragement. I could easily lose myself in it for hours. Everything struck my heart and made me desire holiness. The chaplet of Divine Mercy also became a trusted prayer for me.
Years later, in college, while in the BFA program for painting at IU, we were each asked to create a substantial painting to hang in the gallery at the end of the semester. Among a class of artists who didn’t exactly share the same desire to paint religious works, my decision was easy. I went immediately to a powerful photo I’d seen of JPII in his later years, holding onto his staff, appearing to use all of his strength not to be knocked down by the wind. It struck me as a symbol of real strength, a strength not appreciated by the world. Painting a replica of the photo and needing something additional to make it my own, I was moved to have courage and share a bold message before an audience who would have probably thought it laughable. I decided to paint two additional panels; one of JPII’s papal coat of arms, the other of Jesus’ words from The Diary which I felt spoke of JPII: “I bear a special love for Poland, and if she will be obedient to My will, I will exalt her in might and holiness. From her will come forth the spark to prepare the world for My final coming.” Considering His words to imply the Polish Mercy Pope, I named the triptych “The Spark”. The initial vulnerability I felt was drowned by a sense of joy and peace from God.
When the day came to hang our work in the gallery, I was caught off guard when we were asked to price our work in case anyone asked to buy it. Certain it would be the last painting someone at IU would purchase except for a Catholic parish, I priced it at $3,000. God affirmed my willingness to share His message when I learned that it was one of only two paintings that sold. Looking back, perhaps St. John Paul II was praying for me to “Be not afraid!”
Fisher of Men
The man who has made the biggest impact on my life in recent years has also been greatly influenced by JPII. So influenced, that I see his ministry as a continuation of JPII’s. Fr. Rick Nagel, many would agree, is perhaps the closest we’ll come to encountering someone so charismatic. His personable nature, relationship with Mary, love for the young Church, appreciation for the outdoors, and spirit of mercy and invitation all exude the spirit of JPII. If not for JPII’s ‘yes’ to the priesthood, would Fr. Rick have given his?
Visionary for Youth
Getting to know Fr. Rick through Confession, I was invited to live in the Catholic Men’s House in its first year, 2010. That fall, we were given the joyful task of naming the house. Again, JPII stepped in. Though JPII was a candidate to become our patron, we decided to name the house after Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati, whom JPII gave to the Church as its patron of youth.
“I would like to mention Bl. Pier Giorgio Frassati… Get to know him! The life of this “normal” young man shows that we can be holy by living our friendships, studies, sports and service to the poor in a constant relationship with God. I entrust your missionary efforts to him.”
“I, too, in my youth, felt the beneficial influence of his example and, as a student, I was impressed by the force of his Christian testimony.”
Devoted Son of Mary
This past winter, I took part in a 33 day preparation for Marian Consecration. In the book, “33 Days to Morning Glory”, Fr. Michael Gaitley points to four devoted children of Mary who encouraged consecration. JPII was one of the saints who highlighted the essence of Marian Consecration. The Gospel summed it up for him. “And from that hour the disciple took her to his own home” (John 19:27). Interesting that a consecrated son of Mary also gave us the Luminous Mysteries!
Apostle of Divine Mercy
As I mentioned before, The Diary has had quite an effect on my life. We have Karol Wojtyla to thank for his efforts to have the Divine Mercy message approved by The Church!
- 1965- Archbishop Wojtyla investigates authenticity of St. Faustina’s diary
- 1978- Ban of Divine Mercy message lifted by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith
- 1981- Shrine of Divine Mercy in Italy “Right from the beginning of my ministry in St. Peter’s See in Rome, I considered this message of Divine Mercy my special task. Providence has assigned it to me in the present situation of man, The Church, and the world. It could be said that precisely this situation of the modern world and its suffering assigned that message to me as my task before God.”
- 2000- Canonization of St. Faustina & Institution of the Second Sunday of Easter as Feast of Divine Mercy
“By this act of canonization, I intend to pass this message of Divine Mercy on to the 3rd millennium.”
“Today is the happiest day of my life.” (Spoken to those at the reception afterwards.)
Thank you, St. John Paul II, for being an image of holiness before I knew what that meant, for being such a courageous and inspiring subject for my art, for helping God call my friend and confessor to the priesthood, for valuing youth and giving us Blessed Pier Giorgio, for your example of love for Mary and encouragement to consecrate ourselves to her Immaculate Heart, and finally, for helping Jesus and St. Faustina complete the mission of brining us the message of Divine Mercy, a message that has shaped my spirituality and provides daily comfort!
(Check out an amazing talk by Fr. Michael Gaitley, MIC regarding JPII, Mary, and Divine Mercy) http://www.lighthousecatholicmedia.org/store/title/the-second-greatest-story-ever-told
Mike McCarthy is a parishioner at St. John the Evangelist. He currently works for Catholic Charities Indianapolis – Refugee and Immigrant Services as their Outreach Coordinator. When time permits, he can be found in Katie Sahm’s basement with a paintbrush in his hand.