The life of St. John Paul II was characterized by an intense love for both God and the human person, reflected a former member of the Swiss Guard who helped to protect the pontiff.
“The best way to say it is that he was the most fully human person I've ever met,” Andreas Widmer told CNA, adding that despite being the Pope, John Paul II was “a normal guy.”
“You would have a blast with him,” said Widmer of the former Pope, and this normalcy reflects John Paul II’s emphasis that all people are called to holiness.
“He would always say that we all know saints,” Widmer recounted during the April 16 interview. “God made us to be saints and wants us to be saints, so we should really give that a try.”
“In my book, John Paul has already been a saint for a long time,” he said, adding that he was “joyous” at the news of the pope's official canonization, which he believes “really cements and solidifies his ministry.”
St. John Paul II, who served as Pope from 1978 to his death in 2005, was canonized alongside Pope John XXIII on Divine Mercy Sunday, April 27, 2014.
Widmer was a member of the Pontifical Swiss Guard from 1986-1988. He now serves as director of Entrepreneurship Programs at The Catholic University of America's School of Business and Economics.
When he started out as a “foot soldier,” in the Swiss Guard, Widmer said that he didn't have any particular interest in his boss besides the fact that he was the “guy we're protecting.”
“I wasn't in any religious awe of him,” he explained. “I approached him as I approached anybody else. I didn't have any pre-judgments for him or against him.”
Over time, however, Widmer grew in his faith and came to better understanding of the Pope’s ministry, seeing firsthand the mark that John Paul II was leaving on the world.
Though he never traveled with the Pope himself, Widmer saw the effects of Pope John Paul II's extensive travels to 129 countries during this long pontificate – a trademark of his papacy that harkened back to the early popes' travels “in the then-known world.”
Those travels were an example of “evangelizing in the true sense of the word: we're bringing Christ to the world,” Widmer said. They were also a pragmatic decision: “it's easier to bring him there” than to bring millions of pilgrims to the Vatican, he suggested.
Through his travels, the Pope “made himself accessible” and “redefined the papacy” in terms of accessibility, Widmer continued. A century ago, he explained, most people around the world would not have been able to recognize the Pope in photographs. “Now you can,” he stated. “That's in no small part due to his travels.”
Pope John Paul II's travels also helped him teach important lessons, Widmer said. “He knew how to infuse moral power into his travels.”
“Often, governments wanted to use him as a stamp of approval, but he would go and it would backfire on them,” the former guard explained. “He made sure that he would choose places he wanted to highlight,” and made a point of “saying really tough stuff,” making moral statements based on Church teaching rather than cooperating with a country's political wishes.
Most notably, Pope John Paul II visited numerous countries in what was then the Soviet Bloc, including his native Poland. In choosing locations to visit and interacting with Soviet leaders, the Pope “was shrewd” but was also “sincerely pleasant,” Widmer said.
It is “very hard to fight” someone who is truly kind, he reflected, saying that the Pope's love and support “for the human person” – including for the communist leaders themselves – made it difficult for officials in the Soviet states not to work alongside the pontiff.
“He didn't fight them because he hated them, he didn't fight them because he didn't like them. He didn't fight communism – he fought for something not against something. He fought for truth and for the dignity of the human person.”
In addition, while the Pope did work with Western leaders in helping to bring about change in Eastern European countries, they had “divergent reasons for what they did,” and they worked for different goals, Widmer stated.
While Western leaders such as U.S. President Ronald Reagan and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher worked to end communism itself, Pope John Paul II had a broader goal, he explained.
“It's too simplistic to say he fought communism, because he didn't fight communism: he fought atheism and consumerism,” Widmer said of the Pope's aims.
This is why the Pope did not stop when communist rule ended in Eastern Europe, Widmer said. Rather, he continued to fight atheism and materialism as they were manifest throughout the world in other ideologies, particularly consumerism.
Both ideologies of communism and consumerism, Widmer explained, “say 'there is no truth; the truth is that you are what you have,'” and to Pope John Paul II the two ideologies are “two sides of the same materialistic coin.”
It is therefore mistaken, he explained, to “look at this as communism versus capitalism.” Instead, for St. John Paul II, “it was love of humanity versus hatred of humanity.”
“That fight is just as well fought right now in our society as it was in Soviet Russia.”
Pope John Paul II approached his papacy with a strong sense of mission, Widmer continued, in part because of the assassination attempt on him in 1981. Surviving an attempt from a well-trained sharp shooter “was nothing short of a miracle,” he said, and the Pope “realized that and knew that he had a mission to fulfill.”
“He knew that he was going to lead the Church across to the new millennium.”
In retrospect, Pope John Paul II was “an unlikely man to change the world,” Widmer reflected, observing that a “shy poet” and orphan “coming from the backwaters” of Poland “turned out to be one of the greatest leaders of the 20th century.”
In this way, he said, St. John Paul II’s life and legacy contuse to teach us a powerful lesson: “if we allow ourselves to pursue the excellence that God has in store for us then the sky's the limit.”