In interviews during the mid-1990s with George Weigel for the definitive biography of Pope John Paul II, Witness to Hope, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger identified two distinguishing characteristics of John Paul’s intellectual work and pastoral approach: a "passion for man" and a capacity to "uncover the spiritual dimension of history."
On the occasion of his canonization, it remains for the Church not only to celebrate John Paul’s holiness, but to gather up the vast riches of his papacy for the ongoing mission of the Church.
Using a favorite technique of the late Holy Father himself, one might take note of two anniversaries to draw attention to his passion for man and the spiritual dimension of history.
This year marks the 30th anniversary of what might be called the "anthropological triptych" that marked the first six years of John Paul’s pontificate.
In November 1984, John Paul concluded a five-year series of audience addresses that came to be known as the "theology of the body." It was an extended meditation on what it means that God created us male and female and what that means for life, love, union with each other and communion with God. It revolutionized the Catholic approach to teaching about marriage, family, chastity and celibacy according to God’s original good plan for men and women.
Accompanying this return to man’s origin and destiny in light of the Book of Genesis were two other important teachings.
In 1981, there was Laborem Exercens (Human Work), a reflection on the personal meaning of work. And in 1984, there was Salvifici Doloris (The Christian Meaning of Human Suffering), an extended biblical reflection on the fundamental human reality of suffering. Sexuality and love, work and creativity, suffering and salvation — John Paul’s "passion for man" meant developing a new Christian humanism, a new Christian vision of the human person to present an alternative to the secular humanism on offer in the modern world.
This fresh Christian view of the human person — a Christian anthropology — was distinctively John Pauline; he was a gifted philosopher examining human experience in the light of divine Revelation. It was accompanied by theology proper, in a series of three encyclicals on the three Persons of the Holy Trinity, which were completed in 1986. These two triptychs — one about God and one about the human person — then set the stage for John Paul’s attempts to shape history, which he understood in its spiritual dimension.
In 1994, John Paul continued his attention to marriage and family with his February "Letter to Families," a major doctrinal and pastoral document on family life. He had already completed a trilogy of social encyclicals on work and economic life. But 1994 was marked above all by John Paul’s opposition to the campaign by the Clinton administration to enshrine abortion as a global human right at the U.N. Conference on Population and Development in Cairo. Devoting all his diplomatic energies to opposing the Clinton-backed initiative, John Paul also sought to awaken consciences.
It was the same reading of history he had brought to his vanquishing of totalitarianism in his native Poland and the rest of the Soviet empire. He understood history not as primarily driven by politics or economics, but by culture, which included at its heart religious and moral questions. Speaking the truth to power was not then just a slogan, whether that be to the communist East or the libertine West. Truth was power in the deeper currents of history.
The Clinton administration and its allies were defeated at Cairo due to the efforts of the Holy See and her allies. At the end of 1994, Time magazine chose John Paul as its "Man of the Year." It was in part a belated recognition of his role in the peaceful defeat of communism, but it also reflected a surprised acknowledgment that moral issues and religious voices could still shape global affairs. John Paul was not surprised, for he read history as primarily a spiritual drama.
In November 1994, the Holy Father published Tertio Millennio Adveniente, his blueprint for how the Church would prepare for the great Jubilee Year of 2000. He explained how to read history in its fullest depth. History was the story of God’s free act of creation, his care for that creation and man’s free response to God’s initiative. History was thus best understood as an encounter of two freedoms, God’s freedom and man’s freedom. This encounter could result in great holiness or great depravity — and everything in between.
For this reason, John Paul defended the freedom of the human person, not only against totalitarian politics or economics that reduced man to an impersonal cog in the system, but also against moral theories that thought him incapable of heroic virtue or the capacity to endure suffering.
History belongs to those who retain their freedom, even in the face of great persecution. For that reason, among others, John Paul insisted that the preparation for the great jubilee include an updated martyrology, to account for the vast numbers of Christian martyrs in the 20th century. The martyrs, in the face of violence, maintained their interior freedom, even as Christ remained free on the cross. This was the drama of all history, and John Paul taught that it was cruciform — for the cross is the fullest meeting of man’s freedom with God’s freedom.
Therefore, when John Paul decided in the great jubilee to canonize St. Faustina Kowalska and to institute Divine Mercy Sunday — the day that would eventually be chosen for both his beatification and canonization — he was expressing a Christian view of history. The most important thing going on in his native Krakow in the 1930s was not what the history books would record, namely the Nazi and Soviet invasion of Poland. The more important thing was the revelations of Divine Mercy being made to Sister Faustina in her convent. The surface history of the 20th century was a tale of unimaginable bloodshed. The deeper history of the century included Divine Mercy as a response to that bloodshed.
Sexual difference and complementarity ordered to love; daily work ordered to participation in divine creativity; suffering ordered to the gift of salvation — this "passion for man" gives an account of history that is far richer than the deterministic accounts that reduce man to a plaything of the fates or the nihilism in which history ceases to be a story about anything at all.
Only 14 years into the third millennium, John Paul remains the principal teacher of our time about man’s passage through history.
St. John Paul the Great, teach us about man, guide us through history and pray for us!
Father Raymond J. de Souza is
editor in chief of
He was the Register’s Rome
correspondent from 1998-2003.