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A Fitting and Fit Patron:
Pope St. John Paul II

Posted: July 23, 2020

The forthcoming athletic center on the California campus of Thomas Aquinas College will be named for St. John Paul II, a beloved pope, a saint of our times, and a champion of sport and physical fitness in the lives of the faithful.

As a boy Karol Wojtyla played soccer and, as a young man, earned a reputation as an indefatigable hiker, kayaker, and skier — eschewing lifts so he could climb the slopes on his hickory skis. When he served as a young priest in Communist-ruled Poland, he often took students from Lublin University on hiking and camping trips that served as covert retreats, discussing passages from C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters while kayaking, and offering Mass on an overturned canoe.

As the Archbishop of Krakow, Cardinal Wojtyla — nicknamed the “Daredevil of the Tatras” — took an annual two-week trip to Poland’s largest ski resort. (“It’s unbecoming for a cardinal to ski badly,” he explained.) As Holy Father he was famous for jogging in the Vatican gardens and making surreptitious trips to nearby ski slopes whenever he could get away. When cardinals questioned the expense of installing a swimming pool at Castel Gandolfo, the papal summer residence, he quipped that it was “cheaper than another conclave.”

“The Church cannot but encourage everything that serves in harmoniously developing the human body,” he told Italian athletes in 1981. “It is rightly considered the masterpiece of the whole of creation, not only because of its proportion, strength, and beauty, but also and especially because God has made it His dwelling place and the instrument of an immortal soul, breathing into it that ‘breath of life’ by which man is made in His image and likeness.”

In the early 1990s, the effects of Parkinson’s disease, two attempted assassinations, and a series of surgeries began to take a heavy toll on the Holy Father’s physical health, yet he still maintained a rigorous schedule. When aides urged him to slow down, he reportedly replied, “Si crollo, crollo” (“If I collapse, I collapse”). Continuing with his public ministry while making no effort to conceal his infirmities, he offered the world an example of prayerful perseverance in the midst of great suffering.

Students at Thomas Aquinas College read John Paul’s Veritatis Splendor (“The Splendor of the Truth”) during their Senior Seminar. While lifting weights, mounting the climbing walls, or swimming laps in the athletic center named in his honor, they will have a fitting opportunity to contemplate one of that encyclical’s many insights into the corporeal dimension of human morality: “Body and soul are inseparable: in the person, in the willing agent, and in the deliberate act,” wrote Pope St. John Paul II. “They stand or fall together.”