A Lesson from John Paul II on Choosing the Better Part

St. John Paul as pope faced enormous challenges — yet he found time to retain old friendships, to spend evenings singing Polish songs, to walk in the mountains, to enjoy concerts, to be with the young.

Pope John Paul II in 1979
Pope John Paul II in 1979 (photo: L'Osservatore Romano/Vatican Media)

You are reading this online, and it’s a safe bet that somewhere in your mind – not  even consciously, but there all the same – is the idea that if you find it a bit uninteresting, you can with one click go on to something else. The internet is like that – unlike a book, where somehow there is a deep-rooted feeling that you should keep on patiently, with an understanding that the fruits of doing so may not be immediately apparent.

Today, the internet brings Catholics the latest news and gossip from Rome. It’s all there – information and interpretations of it, truth and echoes of truth, opinions and ideas and all. Probably useful: we may hope that, eventually, this transparency will ensure that the Church will be the better for it, and that scandals and cover-ups will belong to the past. And our prayers can help with that, too.

But meanwhile – and before you reach to click on to something new – there’s another issue here. It’s about speed and the immediacy of things. We do need to be informed. And we need, sometimes, to act on what we have heard, possibly fairly quickly. But not always. Some of what we read and hear concerns issues on which we should reflect more deeply, and to which the solutions are long-term.  

I’m not thinking here  so much about news from Rome, but about general matters. We hear about family breakdown, the normalizing of same-sex unions, the crude sex-education schemes funded out of money extracted from us in taxes… and we either switch off mentally, or we think crossly and savagely about the wrongness of it all. And we want some instant solutions: we lobby politicians, we write indignant things on the internet, we join groups, we chivvy our bishops. And in some cases, we spend so much time and energy on this that we haven’t got much left – given that there are only so many hours in the day and there is the normal crowded reality of obligations at home and at work and so on – for the activities that constitute civilization itself.

“Oh, come on – don’t make tiresome suggestions about leaving all the horrors aside and going off to live in peace with like-minded friends.” No, I am not suggesting that. I’m suggesting something different: just taking time to pause, and get priorities right while still recognizing the reality of duties to fulfill in the culture wars.

I look back to rushed campaigns and letters written in indignation and haste, and see how little they really achieved. But I have seen other, much slower, projects – the launch of two new schools, the steady rise of some Catholic movements, the publication of some good research, to name just three that I have witnessed at first hand – and recognize that they have been of real value.

Recently, after a busy morning, I had a free afternoon and took a walk from our house down towards the tiny stream that — two or three miles further on — joins the mighty Thames. It’s a faint reminder of what this area was like before the houses were built: the stream runs along through bushes and trees and then under a bridge and off between the backs of buildings. I found the old boundary-stone marking the boroughs that existed before the London Government Act came into being in the 1960s: the little river still marks the boundary between one London Borough and the next and the names, dating back to Saxon times, are still used locally.

The autumn sunshine made the leaves glow – it was around teatime and there was that comfortable feeling of getting back to put the kettle on. I had gathered some rose-hips along the walk and planned to turn them into syrup (now done: a nice row of jars on the shelf) and found myself pondering about another project in hand, the making of some kneelers for a group of young nuns who have just moved to a new convent. Then the thought occurred: isn’t all this a bit unimportant? What about all the issues we were discussing this morning – the planned conference, the big venture for schools?  Well, yes, these are important, and I think they will work well. The Catholic women’s group with which I had been busy has been active for several years campaigning on various issues. But one of the things we have learned is that such campaigning isn’t really what life as Catholics is essentially about. Rather, our solidarity and our friendship, the prayers – especially at times of difficulty or sorrow – the mutual sharing of useful ideas…perhaps even that morning’s breakfast after Mass, with fresh coffee and croissants and swapping of news and chat, all help to build up the Church. There may be a time to wax indignant,  a time to take action on something controversial, a time to chivvy others into action too. But building what St. John Paul called “a civilization of love” also involves a culture of life and family – yes, even to homemade goodies on the shelves, and a knowledge of local history, and craftwork to make a convent chapel beautiful.

I never used to like hearing about the virtue of patience. But the Church must be patient: nurturing children, celebrating the round of the seasons that remind us of the great events of our salvation. Mother Teresa started by helping one person in the poverty-stricken streets of Calcutta,  and then others… not with a great campaign but slowly and steadily, doing what could be done and giving it all to God, day by day.

Now you have read this far. don’t rush to click on to something more exciting. Just sharing the moments of an autumn afternoon and the fact of Catholic solidarity has been important. Perhaps we are meant to use the internet to do that, as well as demanding urgency of one another. Perhaps sharing gratitude for a sparkling stream, for rose-hips, for home and a kitchen, for pondering on local history, is part of building a civilization of love.

St. John Paul as pope faced the drama of Communism, the steady rise of secularism in the West, the anti-life culture promoted internationally, and more. He found time to retain old friendships, to spend evenings singing Polish songs and carols, to walk in the mountains, to enjoy concerts, to be with the young at informal gatherings. Communism collapsed, and a new generation of Catholics is now tackling new responsibilities – many of them openly saying how much they owe to JP2’s teaching and example. I think he gave us the key to the approach we should take in building up a civilization of love.