October 22 – Abercius of Hieropolis; Pope John Paul II

Abercius of Hieropolis (d. ca. 167) was bishop of that place, a spa town in the wilds of western Anatolia. At the time there were few Christians (it’s not like we’re afraid of water!), so Ab had his work cut out for him. But he preached the gospel with confidence, knowing it could cost him his life (destroying pagan temples and idols probably didn’t help). Once, when he was preaching, three demon-possessed youths cried out against him. A hush fell on the crowd, but Abercius rebuked them, and the demons came out of the lads and fled (our sources say not where (there were no pigs around, apparently)).

Abercius was also responsible for the spread of Christianity in Syria and Mesopotamia, and is for that reason called “Equal to the Apostles.” He died a martyr under Marcus Aurelius. Interestingly, he appears to have carved his own headstone; at least, there exists a stele with a portion of his life story, written in the first person and considered by many to be authentic. Upon it he describes his labors to spread the gospel, and refers to the Eucharist as “wine of great virtue … mingled with bread.” Proof of the single chalice, anyone?

Pope John Paul II (1920–2005) was born Karol Wojtyla in Poland, where “Wojtyla” is a lot easier to pronounce than it is here. His mother’s gynecologist believed he could not be born alive, and counseled her to have an abortion, but she refused (obviously), and proved him wrong. At one point (several years after the birth thing, one imagines), Karol was sweet on a little Jewish girl, but religious differences and all that. It is sobering to think how different the late 20th century might have been had she been Catholic!

During the war he entered a clandestine seminary run by the Bishop. After a near-fatal disagreement with a truck (both wanted to be in the same place at the same time), he felt his call confirmed. He worked to help Jewish refugees, once carrying to safety a concentration camp refugee who had collapsed on a train platform. He also helped one orphan find Jewish relatives in the United States so he could be raised in his own faith, rather than be (essentially forcibly) converted and raised as a Catholic. For these and other acts of heroism, he was posthumously declared Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem.

Karol was priested in Krakow in 1946, and defended his doctoral dissertation in Rome in 1948. On return to Krakow for his first pastoral assignment, he knelt and kissed the ground, which would become something of a trademark (albeit unregistered). He went on to teach ethics at the university, where he was popular with students as a hiking, skiing, cycling, camping, kayaking, etc. buddy. Since the Communists frowned on priests fraternizing with students (for values of “frowned on” equal to “sent to the gulag for”), he had his students call him “Wujek” (“Uncle”).

He was made Auxiliary Bishop of Krakow in 1958 (while he was kayaking, actually), Bishop in 1964, Cardinal in 1967, and Pope (as John Paul II) in 1978. The first non-Italian pope in 455 years, he was the longest-serving pope ever, as well as the globetrottingest, making more foreign visits than all previous popes combined (104 in all). He was also the first Pope of Rome since 1054 to visit an Eastern Orthodox country, and expressed on behalf of his church its “profound regret” for the sacking of Constantinople in 1204.

Time draws short, so we won’t go into all he did as Pope, his hotly-debated role in the fall of Communism, and so on. Indelible in your intrepid hagiographer’s mind, however, is his prison visit to confer his forgiveness on his would-be assassin in 1983. He was beatified just six years after his death by Pope Benedict XVI, and was canonized in April of 2014 by Pope Francis.