“After 20 years of service in the Chair of Peter, I cannot fail to ask myself a few questions today,” said Pope John Paul II at the October 1998 Mass to celebrate his anniversary. He had just concluded the most energetic teaching decade in the history of the papacy: 1988-1998. Teaching — and the authentic teaching of Vatican II — was on the Pope’s mind.
“Are you a diligent and watchful teacher of faith in the Church?” he asked himself. “Have you sought to bring the great work of the Second Vatican Council closer to the people of today? Have you tried to satisfy the expectations of believers within the Church, and that hunger for truth which is felt in the world outside the Church?”
He did not answer the questions. He did not have to. A diligent teacher he had been. For 10 years from 1988-1998, John Paul had turned the papal apartment into a veritable publishing house. The landmark documents flowed without interruption.
It was something of a surprise at the time. History usually summarizes the achievements of a papacy in a few lines. Leo the Great turning back Attila the Hun; Pius V and the Roman Missal. By the end of the 1980s, it seemed that John Paul’s story line was written — the peaceful defeat of communism and the dismantling of the Soviet empire. It seemed that his work was done.
Then came the second act.
If from 1978-1988 the Church challenged the world, then from 1988-1998 the Church turned toward her internal affairs as it were, attending to unfinished business from Vatican II. John Paul had long argued that the Church had yet to fully receive the authentic teaching of Vatican II.
In 1981, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger arrived in Rome and the two began a systematic re-presentation of the entire Church’s teaching in light of the Council. In 1988, it began to bear fruit in an astonishingly vast magisterium.
Most papal encyclicals fade in importance as time passes. John Paul published five in one decade that will endure in the decades ahead as foundational documents.
• Centesimus Annus (The Hundredth Year, 1991) defended the proper use of freedom as the indispensable foundation for a just social order.
• Redemptoris Mission (The Permanent Validity of the Church’s Missionary Mandate, 1991) insisted on the Church’s missionary mandate and addressed what interreligious dialogue should be — a pressing question at the dawn of the 21st century.
• Veritatis Splendor (The Splendor of Truth, 1993) was the first encyclical to address the foundations of moral theology, arguing against the relativism that plagues modernity.
• Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life, 1995) is the great charter for the pro-life movement and perhaps John Paul’s signature document.
• Ut Unum Sint (Commitment to Ecumenism, 1995) committed the Church to ecumenism, with an emphasis on Gospel truth and a groundbreaking invitation to think anew about the ministry of unity entrusted to Peter.
John Paul celebrated his 20th anniversary with another encyclical on a subject close to his heart, Fides et Ratio, on the relationship between faith and reason.
In another anniversary touch, he included the canonization of St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein) in his anniversary-week festivities. Five years later, he would do the same with Mother Teresa of Calcutta for his 25th anniversary.
In addition, there were specific exhortations addressing the various vocations in the Church: Christifideles Laici (The Vocation and the Mission of the Lay Faithful in the Church and in the World, 1988), Ex Corde Ecclesiae (Catholic Universities, 1990), Pastores Dabo Vobis (The Formation of Priests in the Circumstances of the Present Day, 1992) and Vita Consecrata (The Consecrated Life and Its Mission in the Church and in the World, 1996).
For more popular consumption, John Paul wrote profound letters to various groups, applying the doctrine of the council to their particular situations: to families (1992), to children (1994), to women (1995), to the elderly (1999) and to artists (1999). He continued his annual practice of writing to all the priests of the world every Holy Thursday.
Looking for still more ways to teach, he published two books. The first, an extended interview, Crossing the Threshold of Hope (1994), became an international mega-seller. Many people encountered papal thought for themselves for the first time. A second, slim memoir recalled the story of his priestly vocation: Gift and Mystery (1996), published to mark his 50th priestly anniversary.
Yet all of this, taken together, remains secondary to the magnum opus of the pontificate, the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1992). Already, the Catechism has completely reshaped catechetic and religious education worldwide. More than anything else, it secured the orthodox teaching of Vatican II.
Produced under the editorial chairmanship of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, it stands a fair chance of remaining the most significant achievement of the Wojtyla-Ratzinger partnership and the landmark document of the Vatican II era.
The teaching of 1988-1998 remains a more remarkable achievement given that the twin post-conciliar problems of dissent and confusion led many to believe that magisterial teaching was no longer possible.
More than a few critics said that the Catechism could never be completed, so difficult would it be to achieve doctrinal consensus.
In the face of that, the 10 years of teaching that concluded in 1998 were as remarkable an achievement as the world-changing first decade of John Paul’s pontificate.
Indeed, so productive was this period that Pope Benedict indicated that he did not see his role as adding significantly to that body of documents.
“My personal mission is not to issue many new documents, but to ensure that John Paul’s documents are assimilated, because they are a rich treasure; they are the authentic interpretation of Vatican II,” Pope Benedict said in an interview with Polish television. And Benedict has followed that path, producing fewer documents and writing two encyclicals on more spiritual topics — love and hope — rather than taking on doctrinal questions.
John Paul himself in 1998 seemed to shift toward a more devotional and spiritual tone after the magisterial heavy lifting was done.
Pope John Paul II met with 300,000 members of lay ecclesial movements in St. Peter’s Square, groups like Communion Liberation, Regnum Christi and Focolare. “You represent one of the most significant fruits of this springtime of the Church foretold by the Second Vatican Council,” he said. He noted the movements’ maturity, asked bishops to be more open to them — and for the movements to be more open to bishops.
Two documents in 1998 pointed to the decade ahead as a return to the foundations of Catholic life: Sunday Mass, pilgrimage, the Rosary.
First was Dies Domini (Keeping the Lord’s Day Holy), and the second, Incarnationis Mysterium, (Indiction of the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000) — the high point of the next decade and the final years of the conciliar age.
Father Raymond J. de Souza
was the Register’s
from 1999 to 2003.