Honoring the life of Pope John Paul II
Sun News Service
With the passing of Pope John Paul II on Saturday, Father Stanley Poltorak lost more than just the head of the Roman Catholic Church. He also lost a compatriot and the man who, during the height of the Cold War, gave his people hope.
Poltorak, head of Truckee’s Assumption Catholic Church and Kings Beach’s Our Lady of the Lake Church, was born in Krakow, Poland, where Karol Wojtyla, who would become the first Polish pope in 1978, was the archbishop in the 1960s. The pope’s 1979 visit to Poland and his support for the Solidarity trade union movement is often credited with speeding the demise of the country’s communist regime.
“He gave Polish people an understanding that someone protected them and stood by them and spoke for them,” said Poltorak, “that he was not only a friend but a person who put them on the world stage.”
Catholic churches around the area held special services this week in honor of Pope John Paul II, who died Saturday at the age of 84 of heart failure and septic shock. The Catholic community was not alone in mourning the pope’s passing, as other denominations observed the life of a man many regarded as one of the most significant figures of the last 100 years.
Poltorak held a special mass at Assumption Church the day before the pope died, as well as on Tuesday night. At his other church in Kings Beach, the Hispanic community is gathering every night at 7 p.m. for nine days, in keeping with the Catholic period of mourning following a pope’s death, to say the Rosary.
In his service, Poltorak recalled his two encounters with the pope. In 2001 the priest spent a three-month sabbatical in Rome, where he was invited to the pope’s private chapel for mass and received the Rosary from John Paul.
On another occasion, Poltorak, because of his shared nationality with the pope, was asked to stand next to John Paul and hold his hand during a group photo with 40 other priests.
“It was amazing just to be next to him, it was an incredible experience,” said Poltorak, who said the pope greeted him with an old Polish word for ‘welcome.’ “He was very peaceful.”
According to Poltorak, the pope’s legacy is a respect for human life. He not only fought for political freedoms ” meeting with such world leaders as Lech Walesa and Mother Theresa ” but as his health deteriorated in the last years of his life, “the suffering he endured showed us that the sanctity of life is important,” Poltorak said.
The priest also admired John Paul for forgiving his would-be assassin three days after the 1981 attempt on his life, as well as visiting him in prison two years later. In doing so, said Poltorak, the pope personified “forgiveness and reconciliation and reaching out.”
Rev. Patrick O’Connor, pastor of the Corpus Christi Church in Tahoe City and Queen of the Snows Church in Squaw Valley, agreed with Poltorak.
“His death will be an invitation to reflect upon his life, particularly his teachings on the dignity of each human person,” O’Connor said. “He advocated respect for the life of each individual from conception to natural death.”
John Paul’s stance on this issue recently came to the forefront with the case of Terri Schiavo. Two weeks ago, the Vatican condemned a Florida judge’s decision to remove her feeding tube.
John Paul was one of the most traveled popes in history, visiting more than 120 countries in his 26 years in the papacy. In 1993 he established diplomatic relations with Israel and, five years later, apologized for the failure of many Catholics to help Jews during the Holocaust.
“He encouraged and facilitated the union between different religions, and he always made a point of expressing that we all had something in common and that it ought to be fostered,” O’Connor said.
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