Providential Design and Disruption at the JPII Institute

Pope St. John Paul II was right: In the designs of Providence there are no mere coincidences.

A stone slab marks the site of the 1981 Pope St. John Paul II assassination attempt.
A stone slab marks the site of the 1981 Pope St. John Paul II assassination attempt. (photo: ProhibitOnions/Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons)

May 13, 1981, is a day remembered in Church history and world history: Pope John Paul II was shot by a professional shooter and killer, Mehmet Ali Agca.

Agca had shot twice with his 9mm Browning, and he was convinced he had hit the target. After Pope John Paul II was released from the hospital he visited Agca in the Rebibbia prison in Rome, and to the surprise of all Agca asked: “So why aren’t you dead?” He never asked for forgiveness, and he never repented. His focus was the target and his surprise that his target was alive, writes Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz, John Paul II’s personal secretary and friend for 40 years.

That day was a Wednesday, and people were gathered for the Wednesday audience. John Paul II was making his usual rounds in St. Peter’s square to greet the crowd of pilgrims and people gathered from far and near to get a glimpse of the Holy Father. Cardinal Dziwisz describes Ali Agca as the perfect killer who was sent by someone who thought the Pope was dangerous and inconvenient to eliminate him physically. Apparently, the person who was paying Agca was terribly afraid of the Polish-tough John Paul II, who had known communism firsthand and had suffered its consequences.

On the same day, John Paul II was planning to make two announcements. He in fact never made them because of the attempt on his life. The script is published on the Vatican page of the audiences of John Paul II. The Holy Father’s important announcements scheduled for that day pertained to marriage and family:

  • the establishment of the Pontifical Council for the Family, and
  • the foundation of the International Institute of Marriage and Family Studies as part of the Pontifical Lateran University.

The new institute on marriage and family was planned to start its academic activity in October, when the academic semester starts in Italian universities. John Paul II approved the apostolic constitution Magnum Matrimonii Sacramentum (Great Sacrament of Marriage) of the new institute Oct. 7, 1982, the feast of Our Lady of the Rosary. All that John Paul II accomplished during his long pontificate, including the establishment of the Pontifical Institute for Marriage and Family, might not have been possible if the two bullets shoot by Agca had hit the target. Agca was almost certain he had killed the pontiff, which is why he asked: “So why aren’t you dead?”

Now, 37 years later, Catholics all over the world are in suspense, following what is happening to the John Paul II Institute since the publication of the motu proprio by Pope Francis on Sept. 8, 2017.

Article 1 of the motu proprio specifies that “With the present Motu Proprio I institute the Pontifical John Paul II Theological Institute for Matrimonial and Family Science which, linked to the Pontifical Lateran University, succeeds and substitutes the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family.” The title of the institutes are the same, but with one addition — theology is added to the title of the new John Paul II Institute, so, according to the title, the study of theology will continue to be of primary importance in the life of the institute.

I have worked in academia for more than two decades and have taken active part in designing new courses and new programs. When speaking of an institution, program or course, words added or subtracted mean a great deal, as any academic will tell. When an academic program succeeds another academic program, it means it is built on the old, continuing to offer the successful courses and curricula that the old program offered and instituting new courses and curricula. In the case of the “old” Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family, there are 35 years of best practices, theological thinking and teaching from which the “new” institute can profit a great deal.

Msgr. Pierangelo Sequeri, president of the John Paul II Institute, in an interview with Avvenire explained the continuity of the newly re-founded institute with the old in this way: “We are talking about writing the ‘Volume 2’ of the history of the Institute, rather than simply turning a page.” Writing the second volume does not mean ceasing and abandoning the first, no? Sequeri adds the key component of the curricula of the new institute will be “dialogue with all schools of thought in the Catholic Church,” which is what academia is supposed to do. Dialogue starts at home – with the “old” institute academic staff, students and alumni. This is synodality in action.

Academic institutions are incarnational. It is people—faculty—that make or break institutions. Students might forget about the details of a certain course, but they will never forget the professor who taught the course and impacted their life. I wonder how one can build a new program continuous with the old, when two senior-tenured faculty members are suspended? Professors Livio Melina and José Noriega are not included among the faculty of the new institute. How can we speak of writing a second volume when the first volume is erased? Secondly, how can two ordinary (tenured) professors be removed with no explanation? Is this clericalism? Tenure and seniority are important in academia, guaranteeing faculty’s academic freedom in teaching and research. This should be a cause of concern for every academic.

The word theology is part of the title of the new 2017 institute. But, what theology exactly is the new institute offering when two of the most renowned fundamental moral theologians of the institute are suspended and the reasons for such a drastic action are never explained to them? Concerned students wrote a letter to Msgr. Pierangelo Sequeri, president, on July 24, 2019, stating: “Why should one continue studying at the John Paul II Institute if it does not seem to propose anything new with respect to what can be found in the curricula of secular universities and what is oftentimes offered there in more attractive and efficient ways?”

What is happening so far with the new Pontifical John Paul II Theological Institute for Matrimonial and Family Science is a brutal secession, a break with a 35-year tradition which made a splendid name of the institute internationally. Ali Agca wanted to assassinate Pope John Paul II before the Holy Father would announce to the crowd the establishment of the institute.

The old, first volume of the Pontifical John Paul II Theology Institute ought not to be dead. St. John Paul II was providentially saved by a motherly hand that intervened and caused a professional shooter, who was certain of hitting his target, to miss.

St. John Paul II believed that “in the designs of Providence there are no mere coincidences,” as he said during his apostolic visit to Fatima on May 13, 1982. We will wait and see what is next.