Pope John Paul II, in a black ski jacket and hat, prays with a group of skiers before heading down a slope in Italy in 1984. CNS photo/Arturo Mari, L’Osservatore Romano

An innovative pontiff

By  Cindy Wooden, Catholic News Service
  • April 25, 2014

VATICAN CITY - The first anniversary of Pope Francis’ election brought stories highlighting the unique style he has brought to the papacy. But maybe people have forgotten how much of what passes today for papal “tradition” was actually an innovation of Pope John Paul II.

Frequent parish visits? Check. Joking with and leading a big crowd in a chant? Check. Sneaking out of the Vatican? Wait, wasn’t that John Paul who’d head out to go skiing or hiking? Pope Francis categorically denied in February that he had ever snuck out of the Vatican.

As John Thavis, the former Rome bureau chief of Catholic News Service once wrote: “If there’s anything Pope John Paul II loved more than following traditions, it was inventing new ones.”

The Church calendar is filled with annual events established by Pope John Paul.

The day of his canonization, the Sunday after Easter, is Divine Mercy Sunday — an observance John Paul II put on the Church’s universal calendar in 2002. He also instituted the annual Feb. 2 World Day of Consecrated Life, the Feb. 11 World Day of the Sick and a World Meeting of Families every three years.

But welcoming hundreds of thousands of young people to the Vatican for a special Palm Sunday celebration in 1984, Pope John Paul launched what has become the biggest international gathering on the Church’s calendar: World Youth Day.

Explaining to the Roman Curia the importance of World Youth Day and youth ministry in general, Pope John Paul said: “All young people must sense that the Church is accompanying them, therefore the whole Church in union with the successor of Peter increasingly must be committed, on a worldwide level, to the good of youth, their worries and concerns and their openness and hopes.”

Of course, John Paul II left a mark on more than the Church’s calendar. Surprisingly for many people, St. Peter’s Square didn’t have a Christmas tree or Nativity scene until 1982. After becoming pope, he continued to keep Polish Christmas traditions; for years, he would invite fellow Poles to the Vatican on Christmas Eve to break oplatek (a Christmas wafer) with him and to sing Polish carols. He had been pope for four years when he asked the Vatican governor’s office to put some Christmas decorations in the square under his window, thus a new tradition was born.

Some of Pope John Paul’s innovations had a lot to do with the fact that he was a very outdoorsy, fit 58-year-old when elected to the See of Peter in 1978. He liked to ski and walk in the mountains and, apparently, didn’t think that should change. As he grew older and weaker from Parkinson’s, the physical activity diminished, but he and a few aides never stopped slipping out of the Vatican on the occasional Tuesday for a drive to the mountains and a sack lunch al fresco.

But he didn’t just head for the hills. He made the nine international trips taken by Pope Paul VI seem like a trifle. Pope John Paul took his message on the road, visiting 129 countries on 104 trips and logging more than one million kilometres in a papacy that lasted more than 27 years.

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