As he lay dying in the spring of 2005, the world stopped collectively to recognize the incredible contribution St. John Paul II had made to our world. TV cameras broadcast his lit bedroom window for days waiting for news of his recovery or of his passing. Pilgrims gathered by the tens of thousands in St. Peter’s square to pray for him. When his funeral was celebrated on April 8, 2005, it was attended by world and religious leaders including four kings, five queens, more than seventy presidents and prime ministers, and fourteen leaders of religions other than Catholicism. It is estimated that more than four million mourners gathered to remember this life and two billion watched it on TV.
With someone who lived as fully as St. John Paul II did, it’s easy to see why he mattered so much to so many. Long before he became pope, Karol Wojtyla had lived a life of heroic virtue: orphaned in his early twenties, a survivor of both the Nazi & Communist regimes in Poland, and already an important teacher in the Church (notably his book Love and Responsibility). While I was too young to be aware of it, I’m told that the way John Paul II carried himself – leaning on his training as an actor – caught the world by storm. In the age before the internet, John Paul II drew tremendous crowds wherever he went and left a lasting impact on both the religious and secular world. The final leader of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, credited John Paul II with having played a key role in the fall of communism. If John Paul II had never lived – or, if he’d been caught or killed at any point by his countries’ occupiers, our world would be a very different place. This single, solitary life had an impact that our world is still feeling.
Sadly, there is a serious lack of understanding this value of each individual life in today’s world. We can look at a life like that of John Paul II and say he mattered – but many others don’t see their lives in a similar light. In any group of teens I present to, I know there are some who feel that even their parents don’t love them, others who’ve been betrayed by friends and family, and still others who feel like their own bad decisions have made them unworthy of being loved in the first place. There are people who’ve been taken advantage of and then thrown away with no more care than you might show a used piece of gum. And finally, there are those who feel like they don’t fit into the “mold” than an ordinary, well-adjusted human being ought to fit into. And this feeling is not just reserved to the young – there is no small number of adults who feel the same way.
To put it simply: there are far too many people who don’t feel loved, valued, and needed. They don’t feel like their life is worth much. Like George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life, there are many who believe the world might be better off without them. If you’ve never seen this Christmas classic, George comes to a point where he wishes he’d never been born. Through the help of an angel, Clarence, his wish comes true: Bailey gets a chance to see what the world would have been like if he hadn’t been born. And he is floored by how many lives have been impacted by their interactions with him – and how different it would be if he’d never been there. He’s able to return to his everyday life with a much deeper appreciation of what his individual life means to others.
The lesson here is simple: the impact of an individual life is not reserved to those who are famous, like St. John Paul II. Sure, we can look at his life and identify quite clearly the contributions he made to the world, as they’re a matter of public record. But the truth is that for the rest of us, our impact is no less important. We will likely never have the chance to examine the world if we’ve never been here – but the fact is that if you pull any individual person out of our story, the story changes dramatically.
It’s incredibly beautiful how God has woven human existence so that none of us can properly live in total isolation from one another. Much like a spider’s web, each strand plays a key part in the whole – and if we were to sever one strand (and lose a “George Bailey”) the impact reaches far beyond what we can imagine. A team is short a player who makes a great play on the field. A character is missing from a dramatic performance. A friend is absent at the moment another needed a shoulder to cry on. Some beautiful piece of art is never created. A joke never told. A project is never started or never completed. Two people are never introduced by a mutual friend… who go on to fall in love and raise a family of their own.
If you’re the person who feels today – for whatever reason – that your life does not matter, please believe me when I tell you that you’re wrong. You are wanted and needed in this story – because what you have to bring to our world is unique and valuable. It may be that those who are closest to you are unable to recognize this value, or that you feel so overwhelmed by the drama of your life that you have a hard time believing this, so I’ll say it again: your life matters. And somewhere in your life is someone like me – perhaps a teacher, counselor, neighbor, parent, aunt or uncle, boss, or friend who will walk with you to show you this truth. We are not the same without you – not today, and not years from now when the full impact of your life can be understood. You truly have no idea how much you mean not only to us, but also to God. And I pray that you might come to know this not only in your head, but deeply, in your heart.
“God loves each one of us as if there was only one of us.” -St. Augustine
“We are not some casual and meaningless product of evolution. Each of us is the result of a thought of God. Each of us is willed, each of us is loved, each of us is necessary.” -Pope Benedict XVI