Catholicism has always played a central role in my relationships and my understanding of the world. My family is very involved in the Catholic faith and its practice. In fact, I was named after Pope St. John Paul II. Pretty big shoes to fill, if you ask me. St. John Paul II (who was still pope when I was born and well into my childhood) has been a very big influence on my life. During the spring break of my sophomore year at Seton Hall University, I went on a study abroad trip to Rome, and we visited many churches and sites that are significant for the history and development of our faith.
When I visited, the most moving experience was inside St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican. Inside the massive structure, on the right side, about halfway up to the altar, there was a section with pews, in front of which seemed to be an altar. Without a statue of Jesus or Mary, I was curious to see what it was. As I got closer, I saw some people crying while they prayed, and my curiosity intensified.
I arrived and felt overwhelmed at what I saw – the tomb of the then beatified John Paul II. I cannot adequately describe the experience of seeing my namesake’s tomb. It was as if my whole life had led up to that moment, and I could not help but cry along with the others. All of the things I had heard of his papacy, of his ministry, his leadership, and his endless love for humanity flowed over me in a mad rush, sending shivers down my spine and causing my heart to pound in my chest. I remember praying, begging God for the grace to lead an exemplary life in Christ as St. John Paul II had. I felt a rush of peace and stillness in that moment, a grace that I will never forget. In the stillness, I felt the warmth of a smile, and I have turned to that memory for encouragement many, many times in the years since.
A couple of years later, when I was a senior, I had the daunting task of writing my Honors thesis. Naturally, I chose to examine the encyclicals of John Paul II, all fourteen of them, and determine their central theme. Ideally, this project was to have taken months of preparation – consistent meetings with a mentor/supervisor on the faculty, multiple drafts and iterations of arguments and organization, and a thorough exploration of the source material. Naturally, I procrastinated until the very last month, and essentially condensed the work of eight to fourteen months into about five weeks. Oddly enough, having spent so much condensed time with the source material, I found more connections and parallels between the different documents.
John Paul II’s encyclicals, ranging from social commentaries to theological studies, are filled with beautiful insights into the Scriptures and Church Tradition. Yet no matter the topic, his central theme and most persistent exhortation is that we are called to live a missionary life of love and sharing our hearts and lives with others. Deus Caritas Est, or “God is Love”, forms the central tenet of the message. Given that God is the ultimate good, the goal of all of our actions and lives, and that God is love itself, we must embrace love as the primary action in our lives. “This vocation to perfect love is not restricted to a small group of individuals. The invitation… [is] meant for everyone, because [it] bring[s] out the full meaning of the commandment of love for neighbor.” (Veritatis Splendor, Sec. 18) The depth of this mission is best exemplified by a quote from the Gospel of John:
“No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”
My own calling to mission has brought me here, to the Jesuit Spiritual Center. I am very excited to be a part of the IGNITE Internship team this year and living out the mission to love in such a concrete way. The opportunity to engage with the youth of the region and share with them the love of God in various retreats is exciting and promises various opportunities to lay my own life down for my fellow interns, for the staff, and for the retreatants. I hope to imitate the life of Christ and St. John Paul II in the months to come. With a little grace, and the loving support of the JSC community, I am confident I will grow in Christ and help all those in my care do the same.