When Pope John Paul II died 10 years ago on April 2 — in 2005, the vigil of Divine Mercy Sunday; this year, it will be Holy Thursday — it was frequently commented that an epic papacy had just concluded, that John Paul was the kind of pope the Church has been sent only a few times in her long history.
That judgment, confirmed by the spontaneous World Youth Day that filled the streets of Rome in the Holy Father’s final days and for his funeral, was in no small part responsible for the election of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who, independent of his personal qualities, was the clearest candidate of continuity with the man he served for so long as a faithful lieutenant. Indeed, it is possible to look at 1978-2013 as one long, 35-year pontificate set in two acts, the first being that of John Paul, the second that of Benedict XVI.
With the abdication of Benedict and the election of Pope Francis, the Church enters a genuinely new time. The question 10 years after John Paul’s death, and one year after his canonization — demanded by the voice of the faithful on the day of his funeral — is how the riches of that pontificate bear fruit in the life of the Church today. For if St. John Paul the Great’s pontificate was truly one for the ages, it cannot be consigned to history alone.
The first to understand this was Pope Benedict XVI, who said at the outset of his pontificate that it would not be necessary to produce many new documents, but, rather, to deepen the reception in the Church of the vast magisterium of John Paul, who, over 26 years, treated every aspect of the Christian life in the Church and in the world. Consequently, Benedict devoted his prodigious theological energies to a profound biblical theology, leading the Church over eight years on a sort of preached retreat on the Person of Christ.
His three-volume Jesus of Nazareth was the capstone of a distinguished theological life and reminded the Church that friendship with Christ — the heart of Benedict’s papal magisterium — is the purpose of Christian discipleship. His trilogy of encyclicals on faith (published under Francis), hope and love, likewise, did not deal so much with disputed questions as they did with Christian fundamentals.
Under Pope Francis, whose rhetorical style is exhortative, St. John Paul’s more expansive teaching can provide the deeper foundation for five of Francis’ priorities.
Mission: Fundamental to the Holy Father’s vision of the Church is that she is a communion of missionary disciples. That the Church is a missionary movement, rather than an institution that has a mission, was taught most profoundly by John Paul in Redemptoris Missio, published on the 25th anniversary of Vatican II’s decree on the Church’s missionary mandate, Ad Gentes, in 1990. The theological profile of the Church in permanent mission is provided there, which corrects the tendency to see that mission as something we do for God, rather than God’s own interior dynamism extended into creation and in history.
Mercy: St. John Paul is the great pope of mercy; in his funeral homily, Cardinal Ratzinger identified Divine Mercy as the “key” to John Paul’s whole pontificate. The recently announced Jubilee of Mercy — a centerpiece of which will be World Youth Day in John Paul’s Krakow on the theme “Blessed Are the Merciful” — has been prepared, as it were, by the 1980 encyclical on the Father’s love, Rich in Mercy, the institution of Divine Mercy Sunday and the canonization of St. Faustina, who received the apparitions of Divine Mercy.
If mercy is to retain its true meaning as the deepest expression of God’s nature, and not be corrupted into a cheap moral indifferentism, then John Paul’s teaching of the long tradition is essential.
Family: During his canonization homily for John Paul, Pope Francis called the new saint “The Pope of the Family.” The enormous energy John Paul devoted as a young priest and bishop to the family bore fruit in his papal teaching. He devoted his first synod to the family and provided afterward what he called the “magna carta” of the Christian family, Familiaris Consortio, in 1980, the themes of which were taken up again in his extensive “Letter to Families” in 1994. At the same time, John Paul developed, over several years, his theology of the body.
The renewed focus on the family, marriage and sexuality — in anticipation of the synod later this year — makes John Paul’s teaching more relevant. The stakes are high. If the synod should reject his clear teaching, the consequences for the Church could be catastrophic.
Life: Pope Francis initially alarmed pro-life Catholics when he warned against being obsessed with abortion. It’s tautologically true that we should not be obsessed with anything. Obsession is always disproportionate, even in matters of urgent concern. Nevertheless, while the Holy Father does not consider himself to be obsessed with abortion, his constant deprecations of a “throwaway culture” are a less dramatic way of phrasing what John Paul called the “culture of death.” In this 20th anniversary year of Evangelium Vitae, the great summons to build a “culture of life” is growing more urgent, not less.
Economics: One of the most attractive aspects of Pope Francis is his transparent and sincere heart for the poor. He invites us to think about the economy in light of what the Church’s Tradition calls the “preferential option for the poor.” There is always a danger, though, when pastors talk about the economy, of falling into slogans or platitudes with limited concrete application. John Paul’s three social encyclicals, especially his third, Centesimus Annus, in 1991, provide a comprehensive account of the social order and the role of liberty, creativity and solidarity in building a free and virtuous society.
Ten years after his birth into heaven, St. John Paul the Great remains the sure guide for the Church in our time.
Father Raymond J. de Souza is editor in chief of Convivium magazine.
He was the Register’s Rome correspondent
from 1998 to 2003.