He was many things: Pope, father, friend, philosopher, writer, poet, actor, athlete, traveler, theologian — and man of God.
But it was his role as a teacher that made a very special impression on me.
His love for truth and his spacious learning were truly exceptional. Yet his love for the student was even greater, and this is the key to his extraordinary success as a teacher.
Father Adam Boniecki, a Marianist priest and editor of the Polish edition of L’Osservatore Romano, told us of an incident in Karol Wojtyla’s teaching career that captures the essence of his pedagogical prowess.
The year was 1955. The 37-year-old Father Wojtyla was teaching a seminary course on social ethics. A 21-year-old student by the name of Romuald Waldera was voicing his opposition to the Church’s social teaching. In fact, his attack was so vehement that even some of his colleagues were kicking him on the ankle, beseeching him to stop. Waldera had just arrived from the law faculty at the Jagiellonian University in Krakow, where his teacher there had successfully propagandized him in Marxist ideology.
While Waldera was pontificating, Father Wojtyla kept pacing back and forth on the platform at the front of the lecture hall, hands behind his back and head down. Waldera completed his tirade and slumped back into his chair as perspiration trickled down his forehead.
The hall was filled with a heavy silence. Father Wojtyla stopped pacing and stated, to the astonishment of everyone present: “Gentlemen, if you please, your attention. What your colleague has just said here is evidence that he is beginning to think theologically.”
He then proceeded to answer each of his passionate student’s points, never once raising his voice. A quarter of a century later, Romuald Waldera, now a priest, remembered his mentor’s patience and kindness, especially when he encountered revolutionary zealots of his own generation.
As Pope, John Paul II never tired of pointing out that the Church does not “impose” its teaching (as if she could) on anyone. Rather, the Church “proposes” and hopes its listeners will give her a fair hearing. Like the suitor who proposes marriage (and would not think of trying to impose it), the Church only proposes — gently, clearly, and hopefully. Would that the secular world could be as “non-impositional” as is the Church!
People in general are often less open-minded than they fancy themselves to be. When presented with ideas that they are not prepared to accept, they frequently charge their interlocutor with trying to “impose” his ideas or values on them. Of course, ideas have no capacity of their own to impose themselves on anyone.
Ideas and values lay passively in wait for our response. We may accept or reject them, but we are never accosted by them. Ideas are not like infectious viruses. They are entirely at our service. In his apostolic letter, Tertio Millennio Adveniente, John Paul cites Vatican II’s Declaration of Religious Liberty: “The truth cannot impose itself except by virtue of its own truth, as it wins over the mind with both gentleness and power.”
As a teacher, John Paul understood that the human mind is made for truth and when it recognizes truth as such, will eagerly embrace it. He also understood how easy it is for students to be infected by the incomplete, though fashionable, ideas that float on the wind.
The zeitgeist is the enemy of teaching, not the student. Citizens of the secular world want to be culturally up-to-date. G.K. Chesterton once remarked, however, that “The Catholic Church is the only thing which saves a man from the degrading slavery of being a child of his age.”
John Paul was and continues to be a teacher for all ages, explaining to hungry students that what is not eternal is eternally out-of-date.
In the summer of 1996, I was giving a series of talks in Australia to a group of priests. One member of the cloth was voicing his frustrations about parishioners who met his attempts at presenting Church teaching with the charge that he was trying to “impose” his values on them.
In response to his frustrations, which others in the room shared, and in the spirit of John Paul II, I wrote the following poem that I presented to my distinguished ecclesiastics the next day:
Imparting is such sweet sorrow
Let me try ’til it be morrow
To say to you the things I want to say;
Let my humble intervention
Not be seen as a pretension
But a diamond that I want to give away;
To propose a common vision
Is not an imposition
Or a check that keeps your liberty at bay;
To stay in isolation
Is to welcome devastation
But imparting is the share the Light of Day.
As a teacher par excellence, John Paul always tried to “impart” or “propose,” never to impose or intrude. We do not “impose” food on the hungry or shelter on the homeless. Why should accusations persist that Catholic teaching “imposes” truth on the mind?
Teaching, like the corporal works of mercy, is a ministry, not an intrusion.
Teaching is listening with love, thinking with patience, speaking with kindness, and remembering with hope.
John Paul was the embodiment of this form of virtuous teaching, and his example will continue to inspire teachers to follow in his stride. The crowning glory of his teaching was his ability to teach students to become teachers.
Donald DeMarco is professor emeritus
at Ontario’s St. Jerome University
and adjunct professor at Holy Apostles
College & Seminary in Cromwell, Connecticut.