National Catholic Register


20 Years Later, John Paul II Remains a Tireless Force

With Vaticaniias A Guide, He Leads Church and World Toward 3rd Millennium

BY Raymond De Souza

October 11-17, 1998 Issue | Posted 10/11/98 at 2:00 PM


ROME—This week, Pope John Paul II will enter St. Peter's Square for the Mass marking the anniversary of his election as pope on October 16, 1978. He will be walking slowly, stooped with age, leaning on his crosier for support. It will not be like his first Mass in St. Peter's Square, when he was installed as bishop of Rome six days after his election. Then, as described by the French writer André Frossard, he wielded his crosier like a sword. “This man does not come from Poland,” Frossard reported, “He comes from Galilee.”

In that moment, Frossard realized that, even as popes go, John Paul II was an extraordinary figure, and not merely because he was the first non- Italian elected in four and a half centuries. That first October morning in St. Peter's Square, the man from Krakow exhorted his flock with the same words that the man from Galilee spoke to his apostles on the rough sea: “Be not afraid.”

He is already the longest-serving pope of this century. At 78, his voice is weaker and his visage is heavy. The toll of compressing several lifetimes' worth of work into 20 years is evident, not to mention the trauma inflicted by an assassination attempt, a broken hip, surgeries for an intestinal tumor and for appendicitis, and whatever disorder (widely rumored to be Parkinson's) is causing his arm to tremble. And yet he continues to work, at a pace that would exhaust most men a third his age. For, despite having reenergized the Church and changed the world, his eyes are still fixed on the future.

“I see a pope who is continually projected toward the future, mentally and spiritually; I see it in his daily work,” said Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls. “Whether he will be able to complete all that he believes is his mission, only God knows.”

The Holy Father said on his 75th birthday that he will leave it to the Lord “to decide when and how to relieve me of this office.” He once recalled that Stefan Cardinal Wyszynski, primate of Poland when John Paul II was elected, told him that his mission was to lead the Church into the third millennium. The Holy Father then asked his countryman, “Beseech the Lord on your knees, that I might be able to complete this task.”

That task is among the few remaining in what has already been a historic pontificate. In 14 months, the Holy Father is to open the Holy Door for the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000, and the Church will cross the threshold of the third millennium, prepared by his pontificate for what he expects will be a “new springtime of evangelization.”

Culture is the broad arena where the Church meets the world, and it is for his achievements in the world that the history books will give John Paul II a prominent place.

The Holy Father has repeatedly stated that the program for his pontificate has been the application of the Second Vatican Council. When archbishop of Krakow he had been an active participant in Vatican II, and he understands the council as the Holy Spirit's gift to the Church in preparation for the new millennium. Indeed, he has written, in Tertio Millennio Adveniente, that the best preparation for the Jubilee will be a faithful application of the Council.

His lasting legacy likely will be the enormous body of teaching he has given the Church (see accompanying article). It will take generations for it to be fully assimilated. Its hallmark has been a clear proclamation of the ancient faith of the Church, preached to a modern mentality skeptical about whether faith is still relevant.

In terms of the Church's internal life, he ended the sense of confusion that marked the immediate postconcil-iar period. Early in his pontificate, John Paul II acted to stem the tide of priestly defections and disciplined a few high-profile dissenting theologians. But these actions were for the most part isolated, and not the Holy Father's preferred way. Taking a cue from Pope John XXIII, who desired that Vatican II present the faith without condemnations, John Paul II has worked to present the good news about the dignity of man redeemed in Christ.

The signal achievement of this approach was the publication of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Far more than a thousand anathemas, the Catechism serves as a powerful witness to the unity, sanctity, and catholicity of the apostolic Church. A worldwide best seller, the Catechism is one of the fruits of Vatican II.

Two distinctive aspects of the council have animated this pontificate — the ecumenical imperative and the emphasis on the universal vocation to holiness.

More than any other recent pope, John Paul II has sought unity with other Christians, devoting his attention first to the Orthodox. Until recently, hopes were high that the Church would, in the Holy Father's memorable phrase, “breathe with both lungs — East and West.” In Ut Unum Sint, he issued a breathtaking invitation to other Christians, to rethink with him the exercise of the papal office itself (while maintaining its divinely willed essence,) so that the Successor of Peter might be a better servant of the unity of the Church —servus servorum Dei, in the words of Pope St. Gregory the Great. Deeply disappointed at the recent difficulties in relations with Orthodoxy, the Holy Father plans to visit Romania next year to reinvigorate that dialogue, and still hopes to visit Russia when conditions permit.

Relations with Jews have also been a top priority for John Paul II, and his 1986 visit to the synagogue of Rome, the first ever by a pope, symbolized a new approach. It was there that he spoke of Jews as “our elder brothers in the faith.” Later, he opened diplomatic relations with Israel.

This pontificate has taken up the council's teaching that all Christians are called, by virtue of their baptism, to holiness and to the missionary activity of the Church. Leading by example, the Holy Father has traveled more than 700,000 miles, visiting 119 countries in 84 trips outside Italy. He has also paid more attention to Rome than many of his Italian predecessors, visiting most of the city's parishes, and opening a three-year-long city mission to prepare his own diocese for the Jubilee.

Confident that the examples of the saints can inspire contemporary holiness, he has canonized 280 people, and beatified 804 more. An increasing number of these are 20th-century figures and lay men and women drawn from all parts of the globe, demonstrating that holiness is possible for all Christians, even in our day, in every part of the world. The Sunday after his anniversary Mass, the Holy Father returns to St. Peter's to beatify American-born Mother Guerin.

For the former poet and playwright, the Council's call for the evangelization of culture has been a key priority. “At the heart of every culture is the attitude it takes to the mystery of God,” he wrote in Centesimus Annus. Some of his best writing has come on the subject of culture and faith, and he has sought out men of culture and scholarship to be his standard-bearers, such as Jean-Marie Cardinal Lustiger in Paris, Christoph Cardinal Schönborn in Vienna, Austria, and Francis Cardinal George in Chicago, to name only three of the men he has made cardinals.

Culture is the broad arena where the Church meets the world, and it is for his achievements in the world that the history books will give John Paul II a prominent place. Already a respected secular biographer, Jonathan Kwitny, has dubbed him “Man of the Century.”

That title was bestowed in recognition of the Holy Father's central role in the collapse of communism. Once asked about the importance of John Paul II's role in the peaceful overthrow of communism, former Polish President Lech Walesa said that he could not really think about it. “The pope is like the sun,” he said. “You do not think very much about the importance of the sun, but without it, nothing would be possible.”

The Holy Father's principal weapon in the fight against communism was the Council's insistence that human rights, especially the right to religious liberty, belonged to man by virtue of his creation in the image of God. Moreover, that same man, redeemed in Christ, has a lofty vocation to freely give of himself — a vocation that no earthly power may frustrate.

Sir Michael Howard, Oxford's Regius Professor of Modern History in the mid-1980s, has often been quoted on his observation that because of the Council and under John Paul II, “The Catholic Church has been transformed from a bastion of the ancien règime into perhaps the world's foremost defender of human rights.”

John Paul's development of the teaching about human rights brings together two of his favorite themes: freedom and truth. While facing the threat of totalitarian regimes and lesser dictators, the pope emphasized the freedom given to man by God. This freedom is part of the truth about the human person, endowing him with a great dignity that must be respected by the state.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Holy Father emphasized that freedom must be exercised with respect to the truth about man. The first of these truths is that human life itself is a gift from God that can never be taken away by any person, even the person himself. Hence the clarion call of Evangelium Vitae, a document of such importance that the Holy Father himself compared it to the landmark social encyclical of Pope Leo XIII, Rerum Novarum. The insistence that freedom is only authentic when it respects the moral law has brought the Holy Father into conflict with the United Nations and the abortion-driven foreign policy of the Clinton administration. The clashes surprised many in the Western world that religion was not, at the end of the 20th century, a spent force.

“In today's world, the pope has become the supreme moral authority for humanity,” said Jozef Cardinal Tomko, prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples and one of the pope's closest advisers.

“There is no doubt about that. Some may not agree with specific teachings, but if they look closely, they discover that these teachings are linked to the pope's deep vision of salvation, and are not just a rigid set of rules.”

John Paul II has not shied away from the role of being the world's moral teacher. Twice he has addressed the United Nations on the principles that must undergird a stable, free, and prosperous world order. In updating the social teaching of the Church to take account of the material and moral strengths of a free economy, the Holy Father has provided a compelling Christian analysis of how politics and economics ought to be organized in the age of democracy and global markets. He has raised his voice against the unjust distribution of the world's resources, even going so far as to call for the forgiveness of international debts owed by poor countries as a part of the Jubilee year.

“The poor South will judge the rich North,” he cried out during his 1984 visit to Edmonton, Alberta, his voice shaking with rage. Yet his social teachings, unlike his upholding of Christian moral norms regarding marriage and sexuality, have gone largely ignored, even in the Church.

As regards sex, the world still does not understand, and perhaps cannot understand, John Paul II. He has devoted a large part of his pastoral ministry, as priest, bishop, and pope, to the problems and possibilities of man as a sexual being, called to marriage or to celibacy for the sake of the Kingdom. He devoted the first years of his pontificate to a thorough exposition of sexuality according to the divine plan. He has grounded the constant teaching of the Church against fornication, adultery, homosexual relations, and contraception in an analysis of what it means to be a free person, called by God to love others through the gift of self. This teaching has yet to be fully received within the Church, but it bids fair to become his most enduring theological contribution.

Now, even as the Holy Father prepares to celebrate his anniversary in characteristic fashion — by issuing his 13th encyclical, Faith and Reason, devoted to the relationship between revelation and modern philosophy — he may be embarking on his most important witness. As his health declines and mortality beckons, John Paul II will teach the world how to cope with suffering and the specter of death.

“Certain physical limits are evident, and the pope doesn't try to hide them,” said Navarro-Valls about the pope's health. “They don't worry him and, thank God, up to this point they don't interfere with his work. I think that when people see his arm trembling, inner walls tend to fall. Maybe this trembling arm performs the same function as his powerful figure did 20 years ago.”

Raymond de Souza writes from Rome.