The Catholic University of America

Homily, Memorial Mass for Pope John Paul II
by Very Rev. David M. O'Connell, C.M.
University President
The Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception
April 5, 2005

Every once in awhile, as we read the Gospels, a character emerges who captures our attention. Today, in John's Gospel, that person is Nicodemus. We read about him only in the Gospel of John. He is clearly a prominent Jew, a "leader," apparently a man of means who was influential among the other Jewish leaders of Jesus' day. He appears learned and intelligent, "a teacher," but, at the same time, he seems a bit timid. Later in John's Gospel, he defends Jesus before the Sanhedrin. Later in John's Gospel, with Joseph of Arimathea, he buries Jesus.

In today's Gospel selection (John 3:7b-15), Nicodemus hears Jesus' mysterious, cryptic words, "you must be born from above." To encounter Jesus the Christ, to encounter God in faith, it is no longer a question of being born in the flesh, in the line of Abraham. Rather, one must be "re-born" in the Holy Spirit. When that happens, there is no limit, no earthly limit imposed upon us by the flesh but only limitless possibility offered to us in the spirit of God. "The wind blows wherever it pleases, you hear its sound but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. This is how it is with those who are born of the Spirit."

What does it mean, to be "reborn?" This is what faith does for us. This is how grace works within us. This is the way that Easter affects us here and now, long before we face eternity: Easter fills us with limitless possibility; death has no more power over us. We are born in the flesh but also and, more importantly, we are born in and of the Spirit of God.

Every once in awhile, in the unfolding of time, a character emerges who captures the world's attention. In these days, that person is clearly Pope John Paul II. We read about him everywhere. We see his face on every television station, now frozen in death. We recognize his voice as it is played on every broadcast. The most prominent Catholic of our time. Like Nicodemus, a leader learned and intelligent but, unlike Nicodemus, driven by the courage of the conviction of faith. His first words to us, in youthful vigor and filled with faith: "be not afraid." His final witness to us, in pain and shallow, gasping breaths, still filled with faith: "be not afraid."

Without fear, we as Christians can live our faith in limitless possibility. Without fear, we can encounter in faith every difficulty that life sends us. Without fear, in our faith death is only the means to eternal life.

In the first reading today from the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 4:32-37), we heard about an idyllic community, presided over by Peter, a "community of believers, of one heart and mind" in which "no one claimed any possessions" but "held everything in common" as they "bore witness to the power of Christ's resurrection."

We are the successors of that community, until so recently presided over by the successor of Peter. A "community of believers," yes truly. Of "one heart and mind," "holding everything in common," wouldn't that be great? Unfortunately, it is for us at times, separated in time from the Acts of the Apostles by 2000 years, a struggle to "bear witness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus."

The tomb was empty. The cross was shattered. Jesus Christ is risen the dead. But we let too much get in the way, we do not let the wind, the Spirit, blow where it pleases. Too much pride. Too much complexity. Too many options. Too many exceptions. Too many compromises. Too many excuses. Too many grudges. Too many unforgiving hearts. Too much incivility. Too much self. Can we let just "let go?"

"Be not afraid."

Although we have the Easter mystery before us always, at Mass and in our faith, it takes something powerful to open our ears to that call. That something powerful came to us last Saturday in the death of our beloved "John Paul the Great."

His was the vision of a "community of believers" of "one heart and mind" bearing witness to the "resurrection of the Lord Jesus." His was the hope of a world filled with the spirit of God. His was the prayer of the cross, "Father, forgive," and the proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus, "take courage, I have overcome the world."

In his homily to young people at World Youth Day in Toronto a few years ago, Pope John Paul II reminded us that "we are not the sum of our weaknesses and failures; we are the sum of God's love for us and our real capacity to become the image of his Son." "Moved not by fear or violence but by the urgency of love, we must learn to build brick by brick, the city of God … you must be those builders." The city of God begins here in the heart and it continues in the family and among our friends and in our communities and, ultimately, our world. At Toronto, the Pope said, "with your faith hope and love, with your intelligence and courage and perseverance, you have to humanize the world we live in."

When he was here on our campus in 1979, pope John Paul said to our students: "I leave you with this prayer … that the Lord Jesus will show you that he alone can fill your hearts."

My dear sisters and brothers in Christ, my dear students and community of CUA, the truest legacy of our Holy Father Pope John Paul II, as profound as it is, can be summed up most simply in the words he chose to begin his work, "Be not afraid." Hear them. Live them. Love them. Make them your own so that your last word on this earth can be as it was for Pope John Paul II last Saturday evening, "Amen."

Very Reverend David M. O'Connell, C.M.