Newly-Discovered Writings of John Paul II Come as a Gift to Our Unbelieving World
A conversation with the editor of a new book of John Paul II’s writings, ‘Teachings for an Unbelieving World: Newly Discovered Reflections on Paul’s Sermon at the Areopagus’
It’s not every day that we come across new writings from a canonized saint. I recently interviewed editor Jaymie Wolfe about Teachings for an Unbelieving World (Ave Maria Press, 2020), which features recently discovered writings of Pope St. John Paul II. This book is captivating, and greatly needed for the modern era. It would make a remarkable gift for anyone on any stage of his faith journey. Following is my transcript of the interview:
How did Ave Maria Press come to be the publisher for Teachings for an Unbelieving World?
I attended the L.A. Religious Education Congress in 2019 as I often do, to scout for potential authors and renew professional relationships with other publishers. A representative from the Vatican Publishing House (Libreria Editrice Vaticana) is usually there, and I always make an appointment to learn about what they have been publishing or will publish in the near future. I don’t generally expect that there will be anything we’d want to license in English for our North American audience, but you never know.
That morning, Fra Giulio guided me through his catalog as we talked, and then said something to the effect of, “Oh and there’s this newly discovered work written by Karol Wojtyła. It was found in a drawer.” It was 13 teachings that formed an extended reflection. I could hardly believe what I was hearing, and especially that English language rights were still available. I also knew that I wouldn’t be the only editor who would want to publish this book in English. So, the adrenaline kicked in, and I initiated a flurry of emails between California, South Bend and Rome, to expedite the acquisitions process, which can take quite some time.
The Polish and Italian versions arrived in my email box in the middle of the night. When I opened the document and saw a photographic image of a handwritten page of the manuscript, the tears welled up. It was a very personal encounter — one that felt as if the Holy Father was in that Anaheim hotel room with me.
What role did you have in the publication of the book?
I was blessed to be at the right place at the right time. As an editor, I shepherd manuscripts through the publishing process. That begins with finding a great author with a great message and making a case to acquire it, but it also involves putting together all the moving parts. For Teachings for an Unbelieving World, that included hiring a translator, arranging for a foreword by George Weigel and an introduction by Scott Hahn, securing the rights for the image of a handwritten page of the manuscript, and the fascinating information about the document itself in the Curator’s Notes by Marta Burghardt. Of course, books need titles and covers and interior designs, too. It’s a tremendously collaborative process that involves many more people than just an author and an editor. We each have a part to play.
We have not seen new writing from St. John Paul II published in English in quite a while. What place does Teachings for an Unbelieving World hold in John Paul II’s vast corpus of writings?
There are things we know about this work, and things we don’t. First, it was probably written very late in 1965 or 1966, just after the close of the Second Vatican Council and near the 1966 anniversary of 1,000 years of Christianity in Poland. At this time, Karol Wojtyła had been archbishop of Krakow for only two years, and it would be 12 years before he stood on the balcony over St. Peter’s Square as the newly-elected Pope John Paul II.
These “catecheses,” as Wojtyła calls them, seem to have been written for a particular occasion or audience, but we do not know when or if they were ever presented, nor to whom. What we do know is that St. John Paul II returned to the theme of Acts 17—Paul’s sermon to the Athenian cultural and intellectual elite at the Areopagus—repeatedly and throughout his ministry.
As such, the content of this book can be seen from a variety of perspectives. As a preamble to his pontificate, it gives us insight into the early articulation of themes that later became familiar hallmarks of his papacy: the dignity of the human person, the spousal and redemptive nature of love, the relationship between humanity and truth, between humanity and freedom, and the evangelical mission to live and proclaim the faith to a world of unbelief. But because this work was unknown until 50 years after it was written, and 15 years after John Paul II’s death, it can also be read as a kind of last will and testament — a word to us and to the world as it is today, that is, largely a world that no longer believes, perhaps even one that deliberately chooses not to believe.
In addition, this work has a lot to teach us about St. John Paul II and Vatican II. In it, he quotes from the conciliar documents often, and with enthusiasm. It is evident that he saw the council as an evangelical moment in the history of the Church, and dedicated significant energy to implementing the council in Poland and then from the Chair of Peter. He is, after all, the last of the Vatican II Fathers to serve as pope.
We live in a time in which confusion seems to rule the day, and in which the truth of Jesus Christ can seem obscured by moral relativism and other cultural dilemmas. Do you have a message to the Catholic faithful—and everyone of good will—about why they should read Teachings for an Unbelieving World, especially at this challenging junction in human history?
The current coronavirus crisis has shone a light on the very basic human desires for community, for transcendence, as well as for hope. So many hunger for meaning in a season of suffering for which we have few answers and even less control. This book brings us the wisdom of both the Apostle Paul and St. John Paul II, two of the greatest evangelists in history, about how to reach out to a world of unbelievers. There is plenty to consider here about how we might become aware of points of intersection — seeds of the Word in our own post-Christian culture — that can become starting points for evangelization. There are many “altars” inscribed to “unknown gods” in our world. We just have to find them.
One of the most brilliant observations made in this book is that the reason the Athenians of Paul’s time were largely unable to receive the Gospel had more to do with anthropology than with theology. That’s just as true for our world today. What we believe about the human person is challenging to our culture of self-centeredness and radical independence. And the truth about the human person can be revealed only by Jesus Christ.
And if you remember Pope John Paul II, have a devotion to him, or are just curious about this larger-than-life figure of faith, this book can provide a very personal and deeply inspiring encounter with him.
- John Paul ii