John Paul's Third Phase

Father Raymond J. de Souza is reporting from Rome for the Register once again — for two weeks. Our former Rome correspondent is in the Eternal City for the beatification of Mother Teresa and the 25th anniversary of the pontificate of Pope John Paul II. We asked him to share his thoughts with readers on the Holy Father's legacy.

Pope John Paul II marks the 25th year of a pontificate so long that its breadth touches far more than a typical pontificate might embrace. In fact, it could be said that the Holy Father is now in his “third pontificate” — the third distinct phase of his service.

The first 10 years (1978-88) were years of confident assertion. Most notably, John Paul took his message of the dignity of man redeemed in Christ to the heart of the Soviet Empire and left it reeling.

But the Holy Father challenged more than just communism. He developed his “theology of the body” in response to the challenges of the sexual revolution, he warned against a world increasingly divided into military and economic blocs, and he signaled that the era of overlooking public dissent in the Church was over.

The second 10 years (1988-1998) began with the defeat of communism and the end of the Cold War. While he did not retreat from the world stage (he challenged Bill Clinton and the United Nations at the world body's Cairo population conference in 1994), he shifted focus and produced a blizzard of teaching documents unparalleled in number and scope.

In the span of 10 years, he wrote the historic, groundbreaking encyclicals on mission (Redemptoris Missio, The Mission of Christ the Redeemer, in 1990), the principles of a free and virtuous society (Centesimus Annus in 1991), the principles of morality (Veritatis Splendor, The Splendor of Truth, in 1993), the defense of human life (Evangelium Vitae, The Gospel of Life, in 1995), the unity of Christians (Ut Unum Sint, The Call for Christian Unity, in 1995) and the relationship between faith and reason (Fides et Ratio in 1998).

Add to that the 1992 Catechism of the Catholic Church, which he promulgated, and it becomes clear that the middle phase of John Paul's pontificate will dominate Catholic magisterial life for decades to come.

The third phase began in 1999 and continues to this day. The high-profile international interventions and trips slowed, and the teaching documents became more devotional rather than magisterial.

It is the phase of symbolic witness, in which the Holy Father has offered a testimony of iconic images, many of them related to the Jubilee Year. There was the great biblical pilgrimage with John Paul at the holy sites; the dramatic request for forgiveness in the name of the Church; the poignant visit to Fatima and the revelation of the prophetic secret; and then, after the Holy Door was closed, the continued efforts to visit Orthodox countries and new efforts to engage Islamic ones after Sept. 11.

Above all, John Paul has become his own icon through his physical suffering and frailty. All that was done and taught in the first 20 years has been sealed with the witness of the last five. The way of the cross is being walked to the end, and on a cross a man says little and does even less.

How long the Pope's “third pontificate” will last is unknown. Pope Paul VI famously said that today's world needs witnesses more than it needs teachers.

At his 25th anniversary, John Paul is no longer able to do much of what he used to do. What is left is simply to be a witness.