by Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann
The National Football League playoffs dominate fans’ attention this time of year.
Sometime in the last 25 years, the almost universal practice developed that, after scoring a touchdown, each player must have his own specially choreographed celebration ritual. In recent years, this practice has expanded so that now when a defensive player sacks the quarterback or makes an exceptional defensive play, they also feel compelled to have this little moment of self-indulgent celebration.
I have always found these celebrations a bit distasteful. They seem to be, frankly, very self-congratulatory! Now, I can understand a player’s elation at having made a big play and a need to express his exhilaration, but so many of these “rituals” communicate: “Look at me! Look at what I have done! I am the greatest!”
Some years ago, the NFL, in an effort to exercise some control over what were becoming more and more excessive displays, banned group celebrations. In one of the final regular season games, the Chiefs got penalized because several players, rather than just one, jumped up into the stands celebrating a touchdown. This seems odd to me. The league has banned celebrations that at least acknowledge whatever success has been realized was the fruit of a team effort, not just one individual.
My thoughts about these “end zone antics” contrast with my reaction to the recent announcement that Pope Benedict XVI has approved the May 1 beatification of Pope John Paul II. Recently, I had the opportunity to view the DVD, entitled “Nine Days That Changed the World” — a documentary on how Pope John Paul II’s first visit to Poland altered the course of 20th-century history, setting in motion the events that would lead to the collapse of communism — not only in Poland, but in all of Eastern Europe, and eventually in Russia itself. I also read this past month George Wei- gel’s “The End and the Beginning,” the second volume of his definitive biogra- phy of Pope John Paul II.
Our late Holy Father in his teaching often spoke about what he termed “The Law of the Gift.” John Paul believed, because we are made in the image of God, it is in our nature to want to give our life for the good of others. John Paul II was convinced that authentic happiness was only to be found in living out this principle of spending our life in the service of others. This was not just theory for Pope John Paul II. This was the “law” that guided his own life.
In reading Weigel’s biography of our late Holy Father, I was struck again by how the future pope survived almost miraculously the Nazi occupation of Poland. Perhaps, even more incredible, the young Karol Wojtyla, after having witnessed the deaths and suffering of so many innocent people, did not become embittered and cynical, but rather discerned in this context a vocation to the priesthood.
In Poland, the church had been forced into an unhappy arrangement. In order for the Communists to allow new bishops appointed by the Holy Father to be able to exercise their pastoral ministry, the government insisted on the ability to veto what they deemed unacceptable appointments.
After the previous archbishop of Krakow had died, the Holy See had proposed the appointment of seven candidates to succeed him. All seven of them were vetoed by the Communists. Karol Wojtyla was one of the auxiliary bishops for Krakow at the time and he had been elected to serve as archdiocesan administrator until a new arch- bishop was appointed.
Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski, the primate of Poland, did not propose Karol Wojtyla to become the new archbishop of Krakow until seven other candidates had been rejected. We will never know exactly why he did not propose him sooner. Some speculate because Karol Wojtyla was so young. Others opine the primate may have thought he was not strong enough to bear up under the pressure of the job. Some speculate Cardinal Wyszynski knew that his first proposed candidates would almost certainly be vetoed by the government. What is even more fascinating was that key Communist officials wanted Karol Wojtyla because they considered him an intellectual whom they thought they could manipulate and control. It would seem the Holy Spirit can even use Communist government officials to achieve his purposes!
Archbishop Wojtyla became a remarkable shepherd for the Archdiocese of Krakow, fearlessly insisting on the right to build new churches in order
to provide for the spiritual and pastoral needs of his people. When Karol Wojtyla was elected pope to the world’s surprise, he became communism’s worst nightmare.
To not allow the pope to return to Poland, the Communist officials feared would provoke a revolution. John Paul II, in his nine-day visit to Poland, gave back to the Polish people their cultural identity. The Communists, through the government-controlled media, attempted to minimize the impact of the pope’s visit. However, since nearly the entire country turned out to see the Holy Father, they recognized the Communist lies, revealing the fear of the government of the Polish pope. The Polish people realized how many shared the common conviction that the government in Poland must change.
At one point in subsequently discovered documents, the Communist leadership in Poland and Russia identified Pope John Paul II as their most dangerous ideological opponent. There remains speculation that the Communist leadership actually orchestrated the unsuccessful assassination attempt on Pope John Paul II.
John Paul II did something much more difficult and extraordinary than scoring a touchdown or sacking a quarterback. He lived “The Law of the Gift,” placing his many gifts and talents at the disposal of God for the good of his people. The life of this good and holy priest literally changed the history of the world.
Yet, Pope John Paul was never about seeking attention or recognition for himself. He was more like the baseball player who after hitting a home run, points to the heavens acknowledging whatever successes he enjoys are a result of the great gifts God has entrusted to him.
Next time you see a football player do his personal celebration ritual, think about Pope John Paul II and “The Law of the Gift.” Think about a real hero who changed our world for the better.