Mr. Speaker, I am pleased and humbled to have an opportunity to rise and support Bill C-266.
I was proud to support the creation of a day honouring Pope John Paul II when it was first brought forward in the last Parliament by my colleague Andrew Kania, then the member of Parliament for Brampton West, and I am certainly thankful that the bill was reintroduced in this Parliament by the hon. member for Mississauga East—Cooksville.
Even in this day and age, it is impossible to deny the significance and impact of the pope, not just in religious life but also in international affairs. Just look at the amount of coverage that resulted from the retirement of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI and the election of Pope Francis. Roman Catholic or not, the world was captivated both by the process and by the pending impact of whomever was elected.
Coming of age in a traditional Italian-Canadian family in Guelph meant that the pope and the leadership of the Roman Catholic Church played a significant role in our day-to-day lives, yet few popes played so large a role as the man who was born Karol Józef Wojtyla in Wadowice, Poland, in 1920.
More than just a religious leader, he was a political figurehead and a light to the many millions oppressed by communism across Europe in the midst of the Cold War, one so significant that Russia's KGB considered his championship against Communism a major threat.
As a young man studying for the priesthood in secret, outside the watch of the German forces occupying Poland during the Second World War, he developed a keen sensitivity to the oppressive impact of totalitarianism and within that saw first-hand the need for humble service and compassion in the face of terror and brutality. Very early, he allied himself first and foremost with the people he served.
Very early in my life, my parents instilled in me an understanding of the value of servant leadership, a powerful notion that genuine fulfillment in life is found first and foremost by being of service to others.
It was this great yet humble young priest who understood this and, in fact, put it best, when he said that a person “can fully discover his true self only in a sincere giving of himself”. This same priest made his apostolic motto when he was elected to the papacy “Totus Tuus”, which translates into English from Latin as “totally yours”.
I was always reminded, in attempting to understand this model, the example set by St. Francis of Assisi, who, in his namesake prayer, asked to be made an instrument of peace, to understand before being understood, that the emptiness of hatred might be filled by love and injury forgiven. Doubt is replaced by faith, despair by hope, darkness by light, and sadness by joy. Quite frankly, and regardless of faith or creed, this should be a touchstone to which we all aspire when we run for public office. We must aspire to be agents of positive change in the lives of others and in the lives of our children and grandchildren and all of the people around us whom we both lead and serve.
As a priest, later bishop, then cardinal and finally pope, John Paul II was just such an instrument of peace and a beacon for those under terrible oppression. His role in bringing about the end of communism, particularly in Poland, in conjunction with the Solidarity movement, cannot be underestimated.
In fact, noted historian Timothy Garton Ash pointed out that “Without the Pope, no Solidarity. Without Solidarity, no Gorbachev. Without Gorbachev, no fall of Communism”.
Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev himself said that the Iron Curtain's collapse would not have been possible without John Paul II's intervention. What an almost incalculable contribution Pope John Paul made to world peace and the pursuit of human dignity that accompanies human rights.
Recognizing his role as a builder of bridges between groups and communities across the world, he once said, “I wish to make an earnest call to everyone, Christians and the followers of other religions, that we all work together to build a world without violence, a world that loves life, and grows justice and solidarity”.
Bearing witness to this commitment, it was under his papacy that a pontiff first made an official visit to a synagogue when he visited the Great Synagogue of Rome in spring 1986. He again made history 14 years later when he visited the Western Wall in Jerusalem, where he quietly deposited a prayer for forgiveness for the terrible actions against Jews that had caused them so much suffering. Similarly, John Paul II made great efforts to bridge divides between Catholicism and Islam as the first pontiff to enter and pray inside a mosque.
Much of his work as pope was done in the hope of fostering religious tolerance and greater understanding between sects and denominations across the world. He was as much an ambassador of the good will he wished to promote as the leader of billions of Roman Catholics across the world.
Even in his later years, there was no question that people young and old were drawn to him. On one of his many trips to Canada, he travelled to Toronto for World Youth Day in 2002, drawing a crowd of 800,000 people to Downsview Park. In an age when engagement, particularly youth engagement, is in decline and people are identifying less and less with any religion, it was a powerful and telling testament to his position as a peacemaker and his influence as a leader.
While it was my faith and my Catholic education that informed many of my opinions of him while growing up, it was a clear and inarguable understanding of his accomplishments that can lead even a non-Catholic observer to the conclusion that he is among the greatest humanitarians of the 20th century. Father Frank Freitas, pastor of St. Mary of the Visitation Church in Cambridge, shared the following observation with me:
Blessed John Paul II emerged on the world scene not as a political force but a force for good. Over and over he seemed to echo the words, “be not afraid; do not give in to discouragement”. This message was not purely a religious one, but a totally realistic one. It was not solely for those who were finding it hard to believe, to trust or to walk in faith, but it was for all who were seeking, even on the world stage of leadership, to do what was right and good. His international interventions contributed to freedom for many who were oppressed. He sought by the power of his convictions to lead, not unaware of the struggle but unwavered by it. To lead without fear can be difficult when parts of the world, even today, seem to operate with a lack of the basic moral standard of human dignity, when innocence is removed by war, famine, hardship and suffering. Yet Pope John Paul's life message, as relevant today as it was when first proclaimed in 1978, crosses religious lines to enter as a straight line to the heart of all of us, especially those in leadership—do what is true; stand up for what is right, proclaim what is just, be a standard bearer for what is good, testify to what is fair, and do not be afraid.
Pope John Paul II was a man of courage and humility and deep internal strength, all spawned and nurtured by an even deeper faith. His model was one that men and women of all backgrounds, when seeking to lead, should aspire to follow. He was as strong a communicator in his actions as in his words, by giving proof of the better path we should all follow to build a better world in which to live.
I think it is only fitting, and I am sure that everyone in this esteemed House agrees, that we offer his as a model for future generations and memorialize our recognition of his work by commemorating him on April 2 every year, the anniversary of his passing.