President Emeritus Sheeran

Pope John Paul II Memorial Mass


Monsignor Sheeran's homily is excerpted from Seton Hall's Memorial Mass in honor of Pope John Paul II on April 11, 2005.

Last week, I was in San Francisco visiting some of Seton Hall's 1,500 alumni in California. On Thursday I walked to St. Mary's Cathedral.  There I joined many others in writing into a memorial book for Pope John Paul II.

Each page of this large, handsomely bound volume had a different quote from the Holy Father. "Do not be afraid to walk into the unknown."

Indeed, yes, that catches this moment for the Church and this pontificate who John Paul was and what he did in feeding, in shepherding the flock entrusted to him by Jesus.

The death of the Holy Father — nine days ago —has left all the Church and the whole world — and Seton Hall University— without that familiar and ever-encouraging voice. The voice of a father and a teacher; of a priest and of a poet; the voice of a friend.

And here at Seton Hall we know that he was a friend of universities and university students. As Karol Wojtyla, he was a professor and writer and friend to students both in and out of the classroom during his many years at the Catholic University of Lublin.

(I have been told that he continued, even as Archbishop of Krakow, to direct dissertations of doctoral students.  Then, after being elected Pope, there were still several students whose dissertations were unfinished. They continued to visit the Vatican and there he would oversee their progress in working toward their doctorate. (Fortunate graduate students!)

"Do not be afraid."

I  first heard those words from Pope John Paul II as I was standing in St. Peter's Square on that Sunday morning in October 1979, the very first day of his installation as the Church's universal pastor.

"Do not be afraid" — or, as the quote in St. Mary's Cathedral had it — "do not be afraid to walk into the unknown."

No fear. Why? Because we know, as John Paul knew, who we are following, and that immense Love that beckons him, and us, forward.  In the New Testament Letter to the Hebrews, we read of our father Abraham, the patriarch of all those who believe: "[Abraham] obeyed. When he was called, he went out, not knowing where he was to go."

Christian discipleship, for each of us, as for Pope John Paul, is a call to migrate, to go out, following the voice of the shepherd.

This was true of St. Peter called forth from the Sea of Galilee and St. Paul called forth from the Damascus wood. It was true of all the saints.

And how those words were at the very heart of the great story of this Pope, Karol Wojtyla.

"Do not be afraid to walk into the unknown."

Yes, Karol, even when you experienced the death of your mother, and then of your father, and then of your brother. And when you were left alone.

"Do not be afraid to walk into the unknown."

Yes, Karol, even when the Nazis invaded your homeland and closed your university and forced you to work in the factory.

"Do not be afraid to walk into the unknown."

To enter that clandestine seminary during World War II, at great personal risk.

"Do not be afraid to walk into the unknown."

Yes, Father Wojtyla, as a professor teaching at the only Catholic university behind the iron curtain in Lublin.

"Do not be afraid to walk into the unknown."

Yes, Bishop Wojtyla, in 1959 when you were called to become a bishop for the very persecuted Catholic flock in Poland.

"Do not be afraid to walk into the unknown."

Yes, Cardinal Wojtyla, when you accepted the call to be Bishop of Rome in 1978, a call from God, mediated by the College of Cardinals.

Yes: no need to be fearful! The Lord, risen, is near. His same Word is ever-alive in the Church. His same Spirit is ever-guiding our steps into the unknown of our tomorrows.

"Why fear," Jesus asks: not even death can thwart God's love and plan.

That is the Easter message — Jesus lives and His Holy Spirit communicates this is new life and is new power to every corner of the earth to those who believe in His name.

What a pontificate this has been, staggering in its numbers, staggering in its effect on all humanity.

All of those 104 foreign trips, and those 140 countries visited.

This Pope was seen in person by more people than saw all of his predecessors combined. And seen by more people than any person ever in human history.

John Paul loved his flock, and all peoples. And so — he went out into the unknown — unafraid.

He went to Korea, to Kenya, to Columbia and to California.

And he spoke — in parliaments in Europe; in barrios in South America; in fields in Africa; and teeming cities in Asia; in stadiums and shrines and streets, seemingly everywhere.

He was there for us — and for the Lord who called him, and sustained him.

And how he learned our languages — some dozen of them. And at least phrases in scores of other languages, always to be able to reach people where they were at, and in their own languages.

(Cardinal Bernadin once said that the Holy Father had told him the most exhausting part of his schedule was switching constantly from one language to the other!)

He was always teaching — because he was always praying. He has left some 100,000 pages of homilies and talks — even apart from his official encyclicals and letters.

There is a recurring theme in his work — the human person is sacred. Human life is made in the image of God, worthy of dignity. Each person must be respected and each person must respect themselves.

Each of us, everyone, regardless of our condition, is precious before God; irrepeatable in creation; each with a destiny that transcends this troubled, short pilgrimage on earth.

In his philosophy, like his life, was of one piece, all so consistent throughout.

What a gift Karol Wojtyla was to us all, a man of such uncommon intellect, courage and faith.

And what a surprise his election was! This was the work of the Holy Spirit, something like a Bible story. It now seems miraculous.

We are confident that this same Holy Spirit will raise up the right man for these days ahead of us.

"Do not be afraid to walk into the unknown."

For the Church in every era and in every generation lives, as Dickens would say, "in the best of times and in the worst of times." Our challenges before the Church are immense, but our hope is ever-confident and unafraid because of the spirit.

May the Lord raise up a successor of so rich a legacy.

We pray for John Paul II;

Holy Father, do not be afraid to walk now Into the unknown.Your Father is calling, and Jesus, your Redeemer, Welcomes you, saying "Well done,good and faithful servant."

May Pope John Paul's memory and living intercession be a blessing for us all as, unafraid, we walk into the unknown, following the call of Jesus.


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