‘The Strongest Argument …’ What Pope John Paul II Teaches Us This Holy Week

COMMENTARY: May this Holy Week be one whose reenactment, even in these days of shuttered churches, be a time of renewed gratitude for the gift of Christ.

Pope John Paul II during Holy Week in 1983.
Pope John Paul II during Holy Week in 1983. (photo: NCRegister)

There are two things that can safely be said about the pontificate of Pope St. John Paul II. One, that here was a man steeped in the love of God and love for the Church, which he governed for 27 years with wisdom and courage. Two, that his many years spent as Vicar of Christ were similarly steeped in a great deal of paper.

The result, of course, has been a body of writings as profound and beautiful (and voluminous) as anything we’ve seen since maybe the time of Pope St. Gregory the Great. As some wit once said, if Christ gave us the Sermon on the Mount, it was St. John Paul II who gave us the mount of sermons.

And they are all worth reading. But here’s something to which I find myself returning again and again, particularly as we draw close to the actual events of Holy Week. It is a brief passage, only 50 or so words — but words that are absolutely riveting, carrying us straight to the heart of faith. They appear in a most unusual book called Crossing the Threshold of Hope, which was published in 1994, a little more than 10 years before John Paul II’s death.

It is a unique work, perhaps unprecedented in the annals of papal literature, in which a pope answers questions put to him by a journalist, Italian writer Vittorio Messori who, as it happens, conducted an earlier interview with Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, which became the famous Ratzinger Report. (I was a student in Rome at the time and vividly remember when this work hit the bookstores.)

In Crossing the Threshold of Hope, in a chapter entitled “Why Does God Tolerate Suffering?” Messori asks the pope to respond. Here is his answer:

God is always on the side of the suffering. …The fact that he stayed on the Cross until the end, the fact that on the Cross he could say, as do all who suffer: ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ (Mark 15:34), has remained in human history the strongest argument. If the agony on the Cross had not happened, the truth that God is love would have been unfounded” (emphasis in original).

What an astounding admission that is! That if God had not gone all the way to the cross, had not freely entered into the desolation of the godforsaken who exile themselves to hell, then the truth that he is finally and eternally Love could not have been sustained. It was not enough, in other words, for God to say it. He had to show it. Not enough to declare it in propositional form — he had to dramatize it, and to do so amid all the horrifying details of Roman crucifixion, followed, by death, deposition and descent into the shame and the silence of Sheol. There is the theater of the Christian life, the place where grace, which is never free or cheap, becomes visible, assuming the disfigured shape of the God-Man who chooses to suffer, entering into a state of seeming abandonment by God. It is Golgotha, the Place of the Skull.

If you ask what it is about the Christian religion that distinguishes it from every other competing creed on the planet, here it is. It is shown on this hill of Calvary, where Jesus Christ wills to hang in mortal agony for the world’s salvation.

Isn’t this what Judaism secretly hoped for in the mystery of its divine election, in the Suffering Servant who takes on the pain of Israel, even as the Scribes and the Pharisees perversely refuse to believe it?

And isn’t this what Islam rejected in its recoil from the human flesh and the burden of its history, which God himself assumed in that daring and reckless descent we call the Incarnation? As one of the very few religious leaders who had the courage to point out, Pope St. John Paul II reminded the world that while “[s]ome of the most beautiful names in the human language are given to the God of the Koran,” their God, the God of Islam, remains “ultimately a God outside of the world, a God who is only Majesty, never Emmanuel, God-with-us. Islam is not a religion of redemption. There is no room for the Cross and the Resurrection” (emphasis in original).

But it’s not just other world religions that miss the point. In the same book, John Paul II also has some hard sayings for the secular Western world and its hard drift away from the faith:

“In fact, people of our time have become insensitive to the Last Things [heaven, hell, death and judgment],” he tells Messori. “On the one hand, secularization and secularism promote this insensitivity, and lead to a consumer mentality oriented toward the enjoyment of earthly goods. On the other hand, the ‘hells on earth’ created in [the 20th] century…have also contributed to this insensitivity” (emphasis in original).

“After the experience of concentration camps, gulags, bombings, not to mention natural catastrophes,” the pope continues, “can man possibly expect anything worse from this world, an even greater amount of humiliation and contempt? In a word, hell?”

It doesn’t get more riveting than that.

May this Holy Week be one whose reenactment, even in these days of shuttered churches, be a time of renewed gratitude for the gift of Christ and the cross he mounted in order, out of an incomprehensible depth of love, to redeem the world.

Regis Martin, STD, is a professor of theology and a faculty associate

with the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at Franciscan University of Steubenville.