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Fr Billy Swan

We all admire people with a Magna Anima. These are people who have a soul that is wide enough and deep enough to embrace everyone and who have a universal scope to their vision for a better, more united and humane world. The opposite to a Magna Anima is the Pusilla Anima - the puny soul that results from living within the confines of our own needs and desires and that prevents us from seeing much beyond that. In contrast, the Magna Anima is a soul that has been expanded and stretched by the love of God and the vision of the Gospel to make space for everyone. This is the soul that surrenders itself to God’s will and dares to dream bigger and higher about who God wants us to become. The one with a Magna Anima is like Mary whose soul magnifies the Lord and whose heart has room for ‘the lowly’.

On Saturday 22nd October, the Church celebrates the feast day of a magnanimous saint. St John Paul II (1920-2005) is a saint who challenged all believers and all humanity to develop a Magna Anima and to move out of the stuffy confines of a Pusilla Anima. He did this by calling people to a greatness of soul, stirring up the Spirit in his listeners in a way that expanded the soul to imagine its place in theo-drama of God’s kingdom. He also summoned whole nations to a Magna Anima that united all of her citizens in a collective call to nobility and co-responsibility. Here I offer two examples of how he masterfully did this, the first on the national level in his native Poland and the second with his direct words to the youth of the Church on World Youth Day.

When Pope John Paul II stood up to address the crowds in Victory Square in Warsaw, Poland, on 2nd June 1979, to say that he knew his audience is an understatement. He was a loyal son of Poland who knew intimately the history and struggle of his own people. On this first visit back to his native land as pope, tensions were high in anticipation of what he would say. Would he attack the Communist regime in a way that incited a revolution? Would there be unrest and mutiny among the thousands of people who had come to welcome him? These were the concerns of the governing communists at the time. For the Poles themselves, the people John Paul addressed that day were a people who had forgotten who they were, robbed of their identity for decades by the Soviets and previously by the Nazis.

When the pope stood up to speak, he recalled the Christian history of his native land on the ninth centenary of the martyrdom of St Stanislaus. He recalled the memory of the unknown soldier of Poland, saints such as St Maximilian Kolbe and the sacrifice of martyrdom by his people in concentration camps and in prisons. He recalled the “seed of hard daily toil, with the sweat of one’s brow, in the fields, the workshop, the mines, the foundries and factories”. He recalled the seed of “creative work in the universities, the higher institutes and places where the natural culture is built”. These were the seeds, he said of “all that of which Poland is made”. With these words, John Paul II reached into people’s memories and hearts and evoked the history and soul of his native land with the conviction that culture and not politics or economics holds the key to a nation’s greatness.

His most subversive words were about Christ and therefore about the truth of humanity. To a people denied religious liberty and oppressed by two atheistic regimes, John Paul II stated emphatically: “The exclusion of Christ from the history of humanity is an act against humanity. Without Christ, it is impossible to understand the history of Poland…The history of the nation is above all the history of people”.

These words amounted to a revolution of identity that said to the Poles: “You are not who they say you are…Let me remind you of who you really are”. On that fateful day, John Paul II was recasting the identity of his own people with the power of the Gospel, calling them away from a national ‘Pusilla Anima’ and summoning them a new ‘Magna Anima’ with the promise of hope and true freedom. With the resurrection of the national soul that had been suppressed for years, the crowds in Victory Square interrupted the homily by chanting ‘We want God! We want God!’. Fourteen months later, the Solidarity movement was born and nine years after that Poland became an independent and free nation again. Few historians argue that this homily of Pope John Paul II was instrumental in a new order that was animated by a revived national ‘Magna Anima’ that was born that day in Warsaw.

The second example of St John Paul’s summons to a ‘Magna Anima’ is his encounter with young people. In speaking to the youth, John Paul II followed a similar strategy to what we saw in Poland in 1979. Instead of attacking a perceived enemy directly, he deftly argued that the human soul is made for something much more than material things or the sensual fulfilment of our desires. He challenged the youth not to live for themselves but for God and his kingdom. He told them they were right to be disappointed with “hollow entertainment, passing fads and aiming at too little in life” (World Youth Day, Toronto 2002). He encouraged them to embrace “the law of the gift” where we receive back true freedom and happiness in the measure that we give ourselves away in service and love. To the hundreds of thousands of young people gathered in Rome for World Youth Day 2000, the Holy Father spoke about the love of God in Jesus Christ that created them for a special purpose:

“It is Jesus that you seek when you dream of happiness; He is waiting for you when nothing else you find satisfies you; He is the beauty to which you are so attracted…It is Jesus who stirs in you the desire to do something great with your lives, the will to follow an ideal, the refusal to allow yourselves to be ground down by mediocrity, the courage to commit yourselves humbly and patiently to improving yourselves and society, making the world more human and more fraternal”.

I remember looking around me that night at the thousands of young people gathered at Tor Vergata in Rome as John Paul II spoke those words. What struck me was the silence and how intently the young people were listening. The words of the Gospel came to mind: “Here was a teaching that was new with authority behind it” (Mark 1:27). It was as if the pope was speaking directly to the hearts and dreams of the youth as he called them to be the saints of the new millennium, possessing a ‘Magna Anima’ that embraces the world. Whether it was in Poland in 1979, or in Rome with the youth in 2000 and in every pilgrimage he made before and after, St John Paul II raised up nations and peoples to see the greatness to which God calls us and the constant need to expand the embrace of the human soul that is always in danger of shrinking and settling for less.

Here is the power of faith. It fires the human imagination to see beyond narrow visions and boundaries that we construct for ourselves. May St John Paul II inspire us to have magnanimous hearts and souls and to “set the world on fire” by becoming all that God created us to be (St John Paul II, World Youth Day, 2000, quoting St Catherine of Siena).


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