The Most Reverend John R. Keating, Bishop of Arlington
Last August in Paris, as I watched Pope John Paul II interact so vibrantly with hundreds of thousands of young people at the World Youth Day events, the thought that kept flooding my mind was: what an indomitable spirit! Grit and determination keep driving this “gift of God” to extraordinary lengths to strengthen and inspire us in the faith!
Courage has been the hallmark and clarion call of his pontificate from the first day. “Be not afraid” were the very first words he uttered to the world upon his election as pope on October 22, 1978. Crossing the Threshold of Hope begins and ends on that very theme. His closing words are: “The pope who began his papacy with the words ‘Be not afraid!’ tries to be completely faithful to this exhortation and is always ready to be at the service of man, nations, and humanity in the spirit of this truth of the Gospel.”
I will never forget that glorious morning in Oriole Park, Camden Yards, Baltimore—October 8, 1995, when Pope John Paul II celebrated Mass with fifty thousand people alternating between rapt devotion and boisterous exhilaration. He was offering that Mass, he said, “for a strengthening of that vitality and Christian courage at every level of the Church in the United States: among the laity, among the priests and religious, among my brother bishops. . . . This is what the successor of Peter has come to Baltimore to urge upon each one of you: the courage to bear witness to the Gospel of our redemption.”
John Paul—Peter—you have indeed been the rock that strengthens the faith of your brothers and sisters. John Paul, we love you deeply and thank you dearly for what you have done for us, for what you have been for us.
The Most Reverend Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M. Cap., Archbishop of Denver
At the end of a dark century, God could have lit a candle; instead he lit a fusion reactor. Even with today’s accelerated tools of analysis, it will be decades before we fully understand the impact of Karol Wojtyla—and that is not hyperbole. He has done so much of such magnitude in so short a time that we simply can’t process it all. Previous popes might make a task like reforming the Code of Canon Law the work of their entire pontificate. John Paul II did it in his first five years; and, of course, that was merely part of Act One.
Whenever God calls him home, this pope will leave behind the achievements of a master carpenter. He has been a builder and rebuilder of the Church in every nation he has visited. He is a man of formidable public intellect in an age when religion is often derided as sentimental and irrelevant. Nobody has mistaken Karol Wojtyla, or the God and faith he serves, as irrelevant. History will record that Gorbachev came to him—not the other way around.
Of course, he’s done much more than reaffirm the intellectual strength of the Church and her influence in world affairs. He’s primarily a man of the heart. He makes us aware that Jesus Christ is alive in the hearts of his people. Karol Wojtyla is a man obviously in love with the Lord—and like Jesus, he’s constantly on the road to meet and greet and touch the lives of others.
John Paul II will be remembered for bringing unity and direction to the Church at a time when so much possible fragmentation loomed after the Second Vatican Council. He has uniquely combined our need to safeguard the traditions and content of our faith with a visionary response to a new and changing world. He reminds us that history does not determine humanity; rather, human beings, with the help of God, determine history. In an age when one ideology after another has failed to create the New Man, Karol Wojtyla has shown us instead what an authentic human person, with authentic freedom, looks like: a person who lives for others.
I have not spoken about issues of dissent or controversy for a reason. People who predict women priests, or the end of the papacy as we know it are misreading both the signs of the times and the nature of the Church. The issues of the ’60s will continue to play themselves out in the lives of the conciliar generation. But they are not the issues of the new millennium, and the Church that the next pope inherits will be profoundly, and irreversibly, shaped by Karol Wojtyla’s intelligence and faith.
The Most Reverend Fabian B. Bruskewitz, Bishop of Lincoln
History will record, as heaven undoubtedly already has, that the papacy of John Paul II has been a pontificate of superlatives. Not only has the pope traveled more than a million kilometers over the face of the earth, but his exertions have resulted in more beatifications and canonizations, more audiences to more people, and more pontifical documents of weight and depth than any pontificate in this century, and, perhaps, of all time.
The Holy Father has had a hand in the decline of communism and the unmasking of its shallow philosophy far beyond what is generally known. Just as his election as pope—being the first non-Italian in almost five hundred years to occupy the See of Peter—startled and shook the entire population of the planet, so his keen insights, prophetic words, and unending kindness, accompanied by ironclad principles, have made a proclamation whose echo will last through many centuries.
Nothing he says and does could even remotely be called frivolous or superficial. Standing in the line of the greatest of his predecessors, he preaches to the entire world with the eloquence of his example far more than he does even with his wise, well-chosen, and profuse vocabulary. Anyone who has observed him from close up can see that he draws what he gives to others from his own deep spiritual life and from his own intense communion with his Savior, whose Vicar on earth he is.
The phrase of St. Ambrose, “Where Peter is, there is the Church,” applies in our own time in a most special way. The Acts of the Apostles tells us that the very shadow of Peter was capable of curing and blessing. His shadow, through his Successor in the See of Rome, has been cast upon our world to cure and bless it. May we all find satisfaction in time and in eternity in that cure and blessing.
James V. Schall, S.J.
We live during the time of perhaps the greatest of popes. By this alone we are blessed. But we have first to choose good to recognize it, acknowledge it. John Paul II is, I think, God’s way of mocking our intellectual pride. We are given a pope more than equal to any intellectual of our time. In addition, this man has grace, charm, and courtesy. As a friend in me, after Paris, the French Left knows not what to do about this man who mysteriously goes over their heads to the youth of our time.
What John Paul II does is to tell the truth when no one else tells us the truth. He has moral courage. But what maddens his critics and enemies is his wisdom. They will be known as those who lived in his time but did not notice. He is not surprised by arguments against either faith or reason, as he has already considered them, answered them. He is gentle with sinners, firm with prideful men. His bequest is “fear not.” The faith is true. The philosophy it inspires responds to every dilemma and need. His legacy—know the truth. It alone will make you free.
Father Richard John Neuhaus
Relatively few Catholics, in this country or elsewhere, have dared to believe and embrace the boldness of John Paul II’s proposals for the future of the Church and the world. Even today many are distracted by the failed agitations of a faction inaptly called progressive to hijack the Second Vatican Council in order to make the Catholic Church something other than Catholic. Commentators on all sides, I believe, fail to appreciate how thoroughly this pope is a “man of the Council.” The prodigious teaching initiatives of this pontificate carry forward the Council’s call to renewal in a manner so daunting that it will likely take another generation—a generation that will routinely speak of John Paul the Great—to act upon the challenge.
I will offer only two specifics and then a general observation. Of all the directives of the Council, I am confident that none has higher priority for this pope than Christian unity. To conservatives suspicious of ecumenism and to liberals enamored of unity even at the price of truth, Ut Unum Sint declares that the quest for full communion in the truth is a constitutive and irrepressible component of Catholic orthodoxy.
The encyclical leaves no doubt that unity is more important than jurisdiction, and goes so far as to invite a restructuring of the papal office along the lines of its exercise in the first millennium. Rome’s dramatic initiative found the East unprepared, and the centrifugal nature of Orthodoxy has stymied an appropriate response to date. While John Paul may not live to see the desired reconciliation, he has laid a firm foundation for his stated hope that the third millennium will be the millennium of Christian unity.
As for Christians in the West, he has been indefatigable in his labors to heal the breach between Rome and the Reformation. Agreements on justification by faith, far from being an esoteric achievement of theological specialists, have removed the long-standing Protestant claim that separation from Rome is required for the sake of the Reformation understanding of the Gospel. It should be evident to East and West alike that the ecumenical movement has now found its secure home in the Catholic Church, just as the Council said it should.
At the Council the Archbishop of Krakow was most intensely involved with Gaudium et Spes. That constitution has flowered in numerous documents of this pontificate, and nowhere more brilliantly than in the 1991 encyclical on the free and just society, Centessimus Annus. The genuine social, political, and economic achievements of modernity, so often and tragically advanced against the Church, have now been replanted in the rich soil of Christian truth from which they emerged and in which they can flourish. Just as the Council said should happen.
The man who is Peter among us will leave his office stronger than it has been anytime in the last four hundred years.
Keith A. Fournier
As the dawn of the third millennium of Christianity approaches, we stand on a threshold of hope for humanity. No one knows this better than Pope John Paul II. He has encouraged us from the inception of his papacy with his words, “Be not afraid.” He shows us the way to engage our culture in order to rebuild a culture of belief. This pope understands that we are now in the “twilight of western civilization”—yet he unceasingly demonstrates hope.
He continually demonstrates courage as well. This is the pope whose words and actions brought down the Berlin Wall and which will likely bring about the end of atheistic tyranny in Cuba. He publicly reprimanded the Mafia when he visited Sicily. After being shot, he showed not only courage, but also a deep faith that Mary’s intercession saved him. He affirms that this millennial moment is a Marian moment, when the “Second Eve” provides both the model and the means to holiness.
John Paul II calls for authentic Christian unity and, in his encyclical Ut Unum Sint, gives us the practical guidelines to achieve it. A significant aspect of his legacy will be the reunification of East and West, fulfilling his desire to see the “two lungs” of the Church reunited.
This pope, through hope and courage, is compelled by a prophetic sense of destiny to lead us into a new “springtime.” He is John Paul the Great whose words and deeds are leading us into a third millennium of Christianity of which he is the herald. His leadership is ushering us into a Catholic renaissance, if we will respond. His legacy, therefore, depends on us.
They miss the point who say that this pope is hopelessly out of step with the realities of today’s most vexing issues—sexual ethics, women and the Church, the priesthood—and is preventing the Church from fulfilling the promise of the Second Vatican Council. He has updated the Church’s message and transformed its public philosophy, still grounded in the truths and traditions of the Magisterium, without adapting or accommodating to the demands of secular society.
At the heart of John Paul’s social teaching is the idea of human freedom. He has made the Church the world’s foremost defender of human rights, and religious freedom the cornerstone of the Church’s view of politics. At the same time he has developed a comprehensive critique of freedom as moral autonomy, untethered from moral truth and indistinguishable from license. This sort of freedom leads to the enslavement of man to his passions. To be truly liberating, freedom—whether expressed in democratic politics or market economics—must be informed by a vibrant, living moral culture rooted in Christ so that democracy and capitalism can serve genuine human ends. “Democracy cannot be sustained without a shared commitment to certain moral truths about the human person and human community,” John Paul II writes, for “freedom consists not in doing what we like, but having the right to do what we ought.” It is the truth, this pope reminds us, that will set us free.
When the Holy Father speaks of the coming millennium as the time for a great Christian reawakening—as he does in virtually every public address these days—I snap to attention. From a natural perspective, it needs to be said, the prospects for such a revival seem remote. Particularly in the West, the Church suffers from widespread apostasy, heresy, and—what is arguably worst—indifference.
Where is the evidence to justify the pope’s optimism? His perspective is more universal, less colored by the decadence of the Western world. He is more prayerful than most of us, and thus more in tune with God’s designs. And most importantly of all, as Peter’s successor he enjoys the special guidance of the Holy Spirit. These are reasons enough to suspend skepticism.
John Paul, remember, has already played an instrumental role in the accomplishment of the seemingly impossible. When he first took up residence there, the façade of St. Peter’s basilica was crumbling, and the Berlin Wall was impregnable. The pope’s church has been successfully restored. Today few deny that John Paul played a pivotal role in the destruction of communism. I have confidence in the Holy Father’s predictions, because I notice the first harbingers of the revival he envisions.
Near the outset of this pontificate, in Pope John Paul II and the Catholic Restoration, Paul Johnson painted a portrait of the Holy Father as a chess player, carefully arranging his pieces on the board, making everything ready before launching the fateful offensive. Johnson’s timing might have been off. In 1981, he suggested that the “Catholic restoration” was imminent. But with the Church things always move slowly, and in those intervening sixteen years John Paul has been steadily strengthening his position.
Jude P. Dougherty
Catholics the world over in many languages call him “Papa,” but he could just as well be called “magister,” “teacher,” or “professor.” The Acting Person and other professional works of Professor Wojtyla are by virtue of their technical nature inaccessible to the layman. Even some of his encyclicals challenge the average reader. But this cannot be said about one of his works, Crossing the Threshold of Hope, which is perhaps my favorite. The book was written in response to a set of questions raised by the aggressive and sometimes impertinent journalist, Vittorio Messori. Only someone with the intelligence, learning, and classroom experience of a Wojtyla could successfully meet the challenge of Messori’s provocative questioning. The result is a revealing glimpse of a great man.
Before he was elevated to the episcopacy, Karol Wojtyla was a professor of moral philosophy at The Catholic University of Lublin. In this book, one can find references to at least twenty-five philosophers, some who are part of the Western canon, some who have achieved their reputations since John Paul H’s election nearly twenty years ago. Hans-Georg Gadamer, whose name is identified with hermeneutics and phenomenology, relates that when John Paul II spotted him at a Vatican conference, he came toward him, arms outstretched, to embrace him, saying, “All my life I have wanted to meet Professor Gadamer.” Clearly the act of a man respectful of intellect, even when that intellect has not embraced the faith.
Technically proficient, John Paul II can draw upon a wealth of knowledge to teach with precision and clarity. Crossing the Threshold of Hope, while based on scholarship, is addressed to the layman, to the faithful, but not merely to those who call him “father”; it is addressed to all who wish to understand the nature of the Catholic Church and her mission as seen from her highest office.
David L Schindler
In his 1968 commentary, theologian Joseph Ratzinger said of Gaudium et Spes that “here for the first time in a document of the Magisterium a new type of completely Christocentric theology appears.” Pope John Paul II, referring to the same text, states that an organic union of theocentrism and anthropocentrism is “one of the basic principles, perhaps the most important one, of the teaching of the last Council.”
History will recognize the pontificate of John Paul II as the watershed moment in the interpretation of the Second Vatican Council. And history will recognize the heart of this interpretation to be a new sense of the Imago Dei resulting from the integration of Trinitarian christology and anthropology.
The pope sees the most urgent problem of our time to be the death of God, which takes a practical as well as a theoretical form. The “materialism, individualism, utilitarianism, and hedonism” that he sums up as the “culture of death” are all a function of “the eclipse of the sense of God.”
This new evangelization entails a new “liberation theology,” which John Paul II terms “an authentic theology of integral human liberation.” Our culture needs moral reform, but in the more basic context of liberation from slavery to sin. If the problem of our time is the death of God, hence the separation of earth from heaven, the required response from earth is a matter first not of “doing” but of “receiving.” The only way truly to bring heaven to earth is the way of Mary, in her reality as theotokos: “letting God be in us,” in order that we may magnify his presence. Herein lies the form of Vatican II’s universal call to holiness, and indeed of true creatureliness, which alone makes us into a “people for life.” It is important to notice the link between John Paul II’s articulation of the “genius of women,” his renewed emphasis on Mary, and his call for a “new feminism.” The pope’s new orientation is summed up in the priority that the Catechism accords the Marian dimension over the Petrine dimension in the Church, in the order of holiness.
With John Paul II’s renewed sense of the Imago Dei comes an integration of the natural law into the law of person or indeed of persons in communion with God and with each other. In the created order, communion occurs first in the family, understood as the “domestic Church.” The needed renewal of an ethics of natural law, therefore, is to take place through renewal of the communion formed in the family and especially in the Eucharist.
The reality of communion is best expressed in the language of beauty. Hence the phrase, Veritatis Splendor, as emblematic for the whole of John Paul II’s thought. Human freedom is realized in relation to the truth that is ultimately the personal God revealed in Jesus Christ.
These great achievements confirm the silliness of attempting to apply the conventional labels of “left” and “right” to the papacy of John Paul II, who indeed leaves the Church and the world much to ponder and appropriate as we approach the new millennium.
Father Robert Sirico
The primary accomplishment of the papacy of Pope John Paul II has been in the spiritual realm. He has developed the teaching of the Church to help us better understand the life of Christ, which calls us all to know him better and more personally, and to receive the sacraments with the greatest possible sense of contrition and love.
Long before anyone imagined the collapse of communism, and with it the regimes that sustained it, Karol Wojtyla subjected the socialist system to a withering moral critique and applied that critique to the specific regimes most everyone else thought would live forever. He stood up to dictators in Eastern Europe and Latin America while others recommended compromise, thus encouraging the oppressed, first, to resist their government in their hearts, and eventually through outright defiance.
In this, Pope John Paul II was following up on the scholastic view of governments: they are only legitimate insofar as they respect basic moral propositions. Communism did not respect human dignity, he said, so it must be dispensed with. This view was anathema to many, but the pope never wavered in his determination.
But even events as astounding as the collapse of communism need theorists and interpreters to draw out their universal lessons. This the pope did in Centesimus Annus, the most powerful of all the social encyclicals issued in their hundred year history. In this document, the pope confronted the socialist heresy directly. He explained the role of the free market in generating prosperity, the moral obligations of both workers and owners of capital, the place of technology in economic development, and the moral foundation for political, cultural, and economic freedom.
I was living in Italy in 1978, the Year of the Three Popes. I saw Paul VI’s body, badly embalmed and sweating in the hot Roman August, lying in state in St. Peter’s: a poor image of the Church, but I also remember quite vividly the amazement many Italians felt at the brief reign of John Paul I followed by the election of il polacco. No one suspected in that time of surprises the greatness into which the Church was entering.
The Christian, like everyone else, must try to read the signs of the times with whatever intelligence and wisdom he possesses. He must also believe, however, that woven into the very nature of things is God’s unforeseeable action in history. No one observing the first humble followers of Jesus in an obscure Roman province could have predicted that in three hundred years Christianity would be the official religion of the Empire. John Paul II was a surprise. The Church has others ahead.
There may be massive, open defections from the Church among people who put their faith in the way they think the world is going. There may be a great awakening among people in various nations who see the bankruptcy of modern materialism. There is simply no answer to whether the Church’s stand on controversial issues will prevail in the culture. But human nature, although prey to much foolishness, has not been repealed.
It may take time for the new evangelical momentum John Paul has fostered to be felt even within the fold. Catholic schools, colleges, and some seminaries at present are often every bit as hardhearted toward authentic Catholic teaching as the most rabid secularizers. In the coming century, we face two hurdles. The traditionally Christian nations must “re-evangelize” themselves, a hard task, though not wholly without precedent. Even more daunting, many today feel they have already heard what Christianity has to say and aren’t interested. John Paul surprised them on the world stage. The courage of his message can only grow in strength during the terrible struggles coming in the next few decades: “Be Not Afraid!”
William E. Simon
It is always difficult to forecast the future legacy of a contemporary leader. This is especially true of the pope, who guides an institution with nearly two thousand years of history behind it, and whose task is not to pass legislation or to fight wars, but instead to exercise an influence on the souls of men and women around the world. Nevertheless, I feel confident in predicting that in one hundred years, Pope John Paul II will be regarded as the most important pope of the twentieth century and as one of the most important since the Reformation.
The pope, to be sure, is not all that easy to categorize, which is one of the reasons he has been so influential. Mikhail Gorbachev, for example, has said that John Paul II is “the most left-wing leader” on the world scene today, while at the same time many regard him as a conservative because of his firm defense of traditional Catholic moral teachings.
The truth is that the pope has been faithful to the ancient traditions of the Church in a new, compelling, and original way. He has, at the same time, eagerly embraced modern means to spread and popularize those teachings. John Paul II is the greatest “public” pope of our age, traveling the globe to meet and inspire the faithful, writing best-selling books, and using television to spread his message of faith, hope, and charity. He has shown both his successors and other contemporary world leaders how it is possible to be principled, profound, and popular at the same time.
The very selection of a Polish pope in 1978 was sufficient to guarantee John Paul II a significant place in the history of our times. His early pilgrimage in 1979 to Poland, where he was enthusiastically received by the largest crowd in Polish history, demonstrated the continuing strength of the Church and, by contrast, the weakness of communism in the hearts of the Polish people. The pope’s visit, and his continuing efforts to rebuild the Church in that region, represented an early challenge to the communist regime, which in turn encouraged others to take the steps that would eventually lead to the downfall of communism around the world.
John Paul II was the first pope to act decisively to reconcile Catholic social teaching with the requirements of a free market economy. The pope’s encyclical Centesimus Annus is one of the great documents of Catholic social teaching, and is historically important for many reasons—for its well-argued and nuanced endorsement of democracy and a market economy, for its diagnosis of the collapse of socialism, for its critique of the welfare state, and for its emphasis on the dangers and limitations of state power. A central thread in the encyclical is the affirmation of the moral and economic superiority of a market economy to any of its modern alternatives.
Engineering the downfall of communism and promoting free political and economic institutions, defending the traditional teachings of the Church by taking on the mantle of a popular leader—these are significant achievements by any measure, and they justify placing Pope John Paul II alongside Winston Churchill as one of the two greatest leaders of the twentieth Century.
Brian C. Anderson
If I read one more ill-informed essay, or worse, one more throw-away line in a confused op-ed about John Paul II being socially progressive but morally reactionary, I think I shall be ill. Nothing could be more shallow than to accuse John Paul II of being “out of touch” on the great troubles of our times, or to assume that Catholic doctrine—on matters such as, say, the ordination of women—is subject to willful change, as if the Church were a democratic parliament simply revising a constitution or a piece of legislation.
I think one of this pope’s greatest achievements has been to resist the democratizing tendencies of the modern age when they threaten to sweep away anything that points beyond the autonomous will of the individual, or the assertion of the collective.
Far from being a “reactionary,” the pope will be seen in the next millennium as, in Richard John Neuhaus’ coinage, “the pope of freedom.” He has been a ceaseless defender of religious, political, and economic liberty, human dignity, and human rights across the globe.
Finally, the man himself, his presence, drives home the fact that greatness is still possible in the modern world. He has been a witness to the truth in a century cursed by the abandonment of the truth, a betrayal that has brought untold human suffering in its wake. His witness directs us toward a better millennium ahead of us, if only we listen.
William A. Donohue
Almost all of Pope John Paul II’s detractors find it impossible not to love him as a person, but they detest his views nonetheless. It would be so much easier if he weren’t so captivating, so genuine, so lovable. What his critics in the media have discovered is that their natural impulse to embrace him typically collides with their ideological impulse to reject him.
When Time made the pope 1994 Man of the Year it was a tribute to his personal greatness. But the media wouldn’t take it lying down. Out came the polls they always take each time the pope plans a trip to the U.S. For example, when the pope came to Denver in 1993, the media were armed with data showing that despite his tremendous personal appeal, many Catholics weren’t buying his line.
What scares the media is that the affection that Catholics feel for the pope might allow them to accept more readily some controversial Church teachings. To see that they don’t, we get stories like the one U.S. News & World Report did during the pope’s 1995 trip to New York. “Fearing for the future,” the subheading declared, “John Paul II tries to preach obedience to his unruly American flock.” But even this negative account confessed that the pope is loved by millions. “It is a Church in love with the singer but not with the song.”
The ladies and gentlemen of the media have been educated to reject the pope’s message, but like the rest of us, they can’t help but think he’s right. It would be so refreshing if they just let themselves go. But they can’t. There’s too much invested, and too much programming to deal with anyway. That’s why they’ll continue to hate loving John Paul II.
Candace de Russy
The truth is splendid, and we can see it, proclaims the Holy Father in Veritatis Splendor. Where in the next century will we be able to seek the light? Not in our current schools, colleges, and universities. They are dominated by the educational axiom of the day—constructivism—which aims to facilitate children in the creation of their own precarious truth. Higher education is constricted by vocational curricula rooted in materialism, and it is bloated with humanistic studies promoting relativistic, skeptical, militantly secular, and politicized beliefs.
What will help our people to find the light? The school choice movement—the demand for charter schools, vouchers, education tax credits, and exemptions—is escalating. Within higher education, a movement is sprouting to bypass the establishment and revive true liberal learning through a return to the ideals of general education and of the core curriculum.
From a welter of competition among educational institutions and the limitless availability of knowledge, the eternal truths evoked by the Holy Father will shine forth. Christian parents, as well as parents of other faiths, will at last have the means to oversee the religious education of their children as they see fit.
As the Holy Father affirmed in another encyclical, Familiaris Consortio, this is the natural right of all parents. They—and among them Catholic parents—will assert that right. With the wisdom of the Holy Father lending its support there will arise among us those who, in the words of St. Paul, “lay aside [their] former way of life . . . and put on that new man created in God’s image, whose justice and holiness are born of truth.”
In his travels and writings, but most of all in the charisma of his own person, John Paul II exemplifies the Second Vatican Council. Unlike Paul VI, who seemed confused and frustrated by its energy and loose ends, John Paul II appears entirely comfortable with its complexities and its unfinished business. From the beginning of his pontificate, John Paul II has issued a major encyclical about every eighteen months. Some of the encyclicals open up more new ground for thought than the documents of the Council itself. Even the new Catechism of the Catholic Church is being revised in light of this pope’s ongoing work.
When one hears about this pope’s policy of intellectual or institutional retrenchment, it is hard to believe that we are speaking of the same pope. He is in constant motion, and even with the Internet it is hard to keep up with him.
Plainly, the teachings and example of this papal magisterium are way ahead of reform on the ground. The Council applied the doctrine of subsidiarity to the Church herself, emphasizing the vocation of the laity and down-playing the juridical—certainly the bureaucratic—aspects of the Church. Yet, never was a major reform undertaken from “on high” with so little preparation at the grass-roots and without the help of religious orders and congregations to implement the Council. For many Catholics, the Council was received as a set of policy statements enforced by bureaucracies.
John Paul II has worked indefatigably to communicate the intellectual depth of the Council and its continuity with tradition; everywhere he goes he tries to put the Council in its best light, as something more than a merely bureaucratic fiat, and as something more profound than the propaganda spun out by warring factions within the Church. By virtue of being bigger and deeper (and in human terms, more interesting) than any of the factions, John Paul II will be regarded as one of the greatest men to have occupied the Chair of Peter.
But will it be said that this was a great papacy? Speaking only about the Church in the West, the Catholic institutions have a long way to go to catch up with the vision of renewal articulated by John Paul II. If that gap is not closed, we may be hesitant to say that this was a great papacy. On his watch, no major religious order has been reformed. Little platoons of renewal are emerging in the western countries, but it is far too early to evaluate them. One prays that the enormous good—spiritual and temporal—of this pontificate will be realized in the day to day institutions of the Church.
I have never formally met John Paul II, but I once spent almost twenty-four straight hours with him, often within just a few feet. The occasion was the pope’s first and much heralded visit to Washington, D.C. in October 1979, just one year after his election as the 264th successor to St. Peter. I became a temporary member of his entourage because I was editing a book about his historic trip for the Archdiocese of Washington.
What struck us most was the Holy Father’s palpable and unquenchable love for people of all ages, colors, faiths, and stations in life. It poured forth from him like an endless stream. I recall that once he made an unscheduled stop beside a small crowd of perhaps three hundred people, most of them in wheelchairs and on stretchers. One perilously thin girl reached up her arms and said, “Bless me, Pope John Paul.” And the pope, his eyes brimming with tears, replied, “First, you bless me.”
The pope has given the Church two enduring gifts, one spiritual, the other political: A Catechism for the ages and a Europe without an Iron Curtain. Without the Holy Father’s active support, certainly, the dissident Solidarity movement in Poland would not have been able to start the avalanche that, in Thomas J. Reese’s words, “swept communism from Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union.”
George Sim Johnston
When John Paul II told the College of Cardinals who had elected him pope that he was going to implement the agenda of the Second Vatican Council, there was a hint of self-congratulation in the media. The Catholic Church had put a liberal on the Chair of Peter! Of course, John Paul was referring to the actual documents of the Council and not the fogging agent known as the “spirit of Vatican II.”
Two sentences of the Council run like a leitmotif through this pontificate: “Jesus Christ is the revelation to man of what man is”; and its corollary, “Man cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of self.” What most preoccupies this pope is the good of the human person. John Paul’s personalist rephrasing of moral norms gives Catholics an enormous opportunity to rearticulate the teachings of the Church to a post-Christian world. While documents like Veritatis Splendor affirm the existence of norms that are not subject to our whim and manipulation, they also remind us that behind every “No” in the commandments there is an even greater “Yes.” In this respect John Paul has positioned the Magisterium neither on the “right,” which devoutly wishes a return to pre-Vatican II legalisms, nor on the “left,” which wants the Sixth and Ninth Commandments declared interpolations.
The extraordinary paper trail of this pontificate has yet to be absorbed by the Church’s middle management. But this is also the case with the documents of the Second Vatican Council. The pope’s message nonetheless is having an enormous impact at the Catholic grass-roots. This is where the new springtime of which John Paul speaks is being incubated. The lay movements, radio shows, home schooling and catechism, which are unfolding mostly outside official channels, are a sign of the times—and John Paul II is their guide and mentor.
If history cranks on for another ten thousand years, my own guess would be that the papacy of John Paul II will loom as large as any papacy in history. What he preaches to the millions who throng to hear him, and, a fortiori, what he writes in his apostolic exhortations, letters, and encyclicals is manna to the intellects and souls of all who wish to be faithful to the ancient Magisterium.
Again and again he has gone to the marrow of the matter. Think of Veritatis Splendor, Evangelium Vitae, Ut Unum Sint, and Tertio Millennio Adveniente, and the pope’s pronouncements on the question of the ordination of women to the presbyterate. Here there was gnashing of the teeth as well as very great rejoicing. At times it almost seemed as though the words of the Chief Shepherd about his own teaching—bringing not peace but a sword—were finding themselves springing to new and timely life in the teaching of his servant John Paul.
What will the next millennium say about this papacy? My musings lie in the region of hope, not prophecy. I hope he will be heard. I hope his teaching will revolutionize the worldwide Church. I hope all Christians will return to visible, obedient, organic unity with the Apostolic See. I hope that the dignity of womanhood will be rescued from the demeaning that it has suffered at the hands of late twentieth century public discourse. I hope abortion will cease. I hope Catholics will exult once more in the full richness of the faith. If so, we will have to pay an immense debt to John Paul II.
Colin B. Donovan
The name that a pope takes upon his election may signify much or little. While the logic of most such choices is lost to history, in the case of Pope John Paul II we know the reason for his selection. In his first encyclical, Redeemer of Man, he writes: “I chose the names that were chosen by my beloved predecessor John Paul I . . . I wish like him to express my love for the unique inheritance left to the Church by Popes John XXIII and Paul VI and my personal readiness to develop that inheritance with God’s help.”
Consider first the name John. The two great personages in Church history by that name are St. John the Baptist and St. John the Evangelist. Together they represent a wonderful confluence of the active and contemplative vocations, an evident feature of the pontificate of John Paul II. Like John the Baptist the pope has been a tireless herald of the Redeemer, proclaiming repentance and mercy to all.
Tradition calls St. John the Evangelist “the theologian,” for the sublimity of his Gospel. This would be an apt title, as well, for a pope whose theological output is nearly unmatched in papal history. If Mother Teresa was the Church’s “living saint,” then Pope John Paul II is her living “Doctor of the Church.”
The pope’s second name needs little comment. If St. Paul were ministering today he would do no less than John Paul has done by preaching in person to the entire world. Whether “in season or out of season,” whether “orally or by letter,” Pope John Paul II has had a uniquely Pauline ministry.
There is yet another name that silently upholds the rest, that of Peter. In Scripture, only God, Christ, and Simon Peter are called rock. As the 264th successor to Peter, Pope John Paul II has exemplified both meanings of this mysterious name. He has been the rock upholding Church teaching in a world ambivalent about the truth, as well as the “stumbling stone” that has tripped up those unwilling to accept it. “You are rock,” Christ said to Simon. To John Paul he will no doubt one day say, “Well done, good and faithful servant. Enter into my joy.”
John Paul II is defined by his loves: truth, love, freedom, Christ the Redeemer, and his Blessed Mother. His opponents who deny these loves deny the future of the Church. Other than the ever-old and always-modern sirens of decadence, there is no competitor on the “left” for the hearts and minds of the people. He captures the hearts of the young, and they will be his living legacy.
John Paul II is particularly suited to Americans, because freedom is as central to his development of the Church’s teaching as it is to our Founding Fathers’ vision of our nation. And the more this is recognized, the more John Paul II will inform America’s notion of itself in the twenty-first century. I predict that the emerging debate in the courts—the present weakness in our political system—will be shaped by that smoldering intellectual volcano, Veritatis Splendor.
The most gratifying aspect of John Paul II’s work for me has been the magnificent deepening of the Church’s social teaching on the nature, ideals, and implications of freedom—not only in the realm of man’s relationship to God but in relation to each other as well, in the family, in marriage, in the political order, but especially in economics and in the development of nations.
In matters of foreign policy John Paul II insists that all peoples have the following rights: the right to develop their economies and cultures as their gifts inspire them; that the earth belongs to all mankind, and is capable of sustaining mankind through economies built on principles of freedom, work, and family; that emigration is a right, and the acceptance of the industrious and law-abiding is a duty on all prosperous nations. Increasingly these principles will inform the foreign policy debate.
Because John Paul II has banished the siren of socialism by insisting on the central role of freedom in the economy, I predict that new policies of caring for the poor will emerge, founded on his insistence on freedom, work, and marriage. Likewise, in foreign policy, new ways of helping poor nations will emerge, replacing handouts with support for developing structures of freedom, work, and competitive trade.
This leads to my most concrete prediction—that the USCC will follow the pope’s example and become less involved in the advocacy of particular means and more involved in guiding the nation to see the principles and ideals that ought to inform our political strivings in both domestic and foreign policies.
To be asked to write about John Paul II is rather like being asked to climb an overwhelmingly high mountain. It isn’t just the scope of his stature that daunts us, but the fact that his thoughts and achievements are so dazzling that most of us cannot breathe at those heights. For the secular commentator in particular this alpine summit is shrouded in mist, and alongside him other world leaders seem like so many speed bumps on the road, impeding progress and providing annoyance.
Pope John Paul’s words are alive when others fill the crumpled pages of out-of-print books; his influence seems to stride the century when others lie down in retirements of oblivion. We are not the generation to be able to assess adequately the pontificate of John Paul II. We can only pray for him, try to absorb some of his teachings, obey him with a filial devotion—and try to grow closer to the One whose Vicar he is, the Redemptor hominis.
There is an epistemological principle; greater understanding of any matter is achieved not only in describing it, but in the process of distinguishing that matter from another. In fact, as phenomenologists have shown, description itself is impossible without distinctions. An outstanding legacy of John Paul II must surely be how he strengthened Catholics’ self-understanding by helping us distinguish ourselves from others.
One of the most prominent issues distinguishing Catholicism from other systems of belief—both religious and secular—is, of course, abortion. Rather ironically, pro-life activists—Catholics and others—have spent the last twenty-five years assuring everyone that the pro-life position is not an exclusively Catholic one, but rationally available to anyone with an open and reasonable mind. Along comes our Holy Father, however, and reminds us that in some ways Catholics are specially charged with the pro-life message. We are so charged because of our tradition of natural law reasoning, because of clear Old Testament teachings, and because of Jesus’ radical solidarity with the despised, but also because other leading institutions in the world have either abdicated or even denounced their pro-life identity.
It is not going too far to say that the Church’s recently strengthened pro-life identity—via John Paul II—has become part of the very essence of our otherness, our mysteriousness in the world. It prevents the world from the strong temptation to view us as a bunch of talented and dedicated social workers and no more. It forces them to come to grips with our counter-cultural, prophetic essence. True progress lies in becoming what we’re really meant to be as Catholics. Thanks to John Paul II, we will.
Ann Husted Burleigh
Pope John Paul II is the most forward-looking man of our century. He has launched an exciting renewal of Catholic life and faith that is nothing less than an attempt to revivify Christian culture. His bequest of a stream of masterful encyclicals, in which he has set forth the principles that must inform the renewal, is perhaps, along with the Catechism, the greatest treasure of his pontificate. My own favorite encyclical, the Gospel of Life, defends and promotes the sanctity of human life as the fundamental requirement for the restoration of the moral and civic order.
His effort to rebuild our moral conscience is most exciting when he directs his energies to young people and young families. His aim is unquestionably to make certain that we do not lose another generation of young people because of poor formation.
He never insults young people by asking too little of them. Instead, he invites them to be heroes. As he told the youth this year in Paris, they may have to pay a heroic price for “moral choices opposed to worldly behavior.”
The youth who are answering Pope John Paul’s invitation are effecting a Catholic renaissance. They are marrying and founding solid families, joining religious orders, even contemplative ones, moving into book publishing, law, politics, teaching. They are founding schools and, many of them, teaching in their homes.
These young people are a minority, but it is a mistake to gauge by their small numbers the depth of the renaissance. Rather, we judge the renewal by the soundness of the intellectual, moral, and spiritual formation of these young people. Without question many of these young leaders are receiving a surprisingly sound formation.
At the heart of this renewal stands John Paul II. If he is not the entire cause of the Catholic renaissance, he is the most important.
Mary Ellen Bork
During the nineteen-year reign of John Paul II, the Church has come to a new sense of its identity as a vital faith community in a militantly secular culture. This new consciousness is in no small part due to the leadership of John Paul II and marks the beginning of a new era in the life of the Church, the one envisioned by the Second Vatican Council. The next period must be marked by dynamic and spiritually formed laity who will exercise moral leadership in the public square and give witness to the holiness of human life. John Paul II’s papacy provides the intellectual foundation and inspiration for a new ecumenical and cultural outreach of the Church to the global community in the years to come.
One senses in the pope’s words an urgency about the states of the Church and the world. The imbalance between the astonishing technical know-how that shows us the surface of Mars and a diminished moral sense that sees abortion as a legal right has put mankind in the position of being threatened by the very things it has created. Virtue and truth are not quaint relics of another time but fundamental to the future of mankind. We are at a critical point where a secular materialistic culture could overwhelm not only the Church but our society and how we organize our lives. The pope predicts that without a renewal of faith there will be no future when he agrees with André Malraux at the end of Crossing the Threshold of Hope, “the twenty-first century would be a century of religion or it would not be at all.”
The symposium in First Things on “The End of Democracy” had set off some tremors in the political landscape and one of my colleagues was trying to find a diplomatic way of conveying to me his uneasiness with the project. He pointed to one of the essays, done by another colleague and friend who argued that the decisions of the Supreme Court on abortion had crossed a critical moral limit: Those decisions still had the trappings of legality, but they were incompatible with the deepest moral premises that had to underlie a regime of law. He noted that my other friend, in making this case, had relied heavily on the writings of John Paul II. Since when, he asked, had John Paul II become an important figure in democratic theory? I was tempted to point out to my colleague that, in the passages quoted from John Paul II, the pope was invoking the natural law, the law that is accessible to human beings as human beings. But that itself would have required a preliminary lecture to begin filling in the explanation, and it would take several more steps before my colleague could be led to see the deeper irony at work.
In the first passage cited, the pope had recalled that democracy is a means, not an end in itself; that the rightness of its rule must depend on a “conformity to the moral law to which it, like every other form of human behavior, must be subject.” This was hardly a sectarian point, and in fact the understanding restated here had been part of the explicit teaching of the American Founders. James Wilson had declared in his Lectures on Jurisprudence in 1790-91 that the law in America would begin by encompassing the possibility that there could be an immoral law; that a measure passed in a legal way could lack the substance of lawfulness. And John Paul II’s admonition could hardly be distinguishable from the maxim, offered by Jefferson, that the sovereign people, the ruling majority, were “inherently independent of all but moral law.” The willingness of a free people to be restrained by the moral law was one of the critical ways in which a free people, forming a polity, distinguished itself from a criminal band.
The deeper irony missed by my colleague was that it now required, in our own time, the words of John Paul II to supply the teaching that was once provided by American statesmen, but is no longer provided by any of the current political leaders in any of the modern democracies. Virtually alone among political men, John Paul II has addressed himself to the deepest corruption in modern democracies: the tendency to take, as the foundation of law, a notion of “autonomy” or “freedom” utterly detached from any moral framework that can define its ends and cabin its reach. The modern vice has been to turn claims of “conscience” into claims merely of the most subjective, personal belief, and in a spirit of moral relativism, claim a parity for all beliefs. No one speaking with the authority of office has been more precise than John Paul II in pointing out that claims of “conscience” acquire their coherence only as they are ordered to a set of norms, or to laws of morality, standing outside ourselves. No political man has opposed more sharply the fatuities that masquerade, in our age, for political philosophy. He has helped to bring down the Soviet empire, and he stands, in the fleeting hours of this century, as the largest-souled figure in a position of high office.
To me, John Paul II has been an enigmatic pope. As a collection of his writings was entitled A Sign of Contradiction, I think he might even relish that label. In the first place, his has been a highly politicized papacy. A stream of political statements and documents has issued from his pen. Moreover the great achievement of his papacy will undoubtedly be seen as a political one—his great, possibly decisive contribution to the demise of Communism.
The current state of the Catholic Church and the pope’s influence on her are much harder to discern. The four decades since the election of John XXIII have seen a consolidation of the world view that ushered in the Second Vatican Council. We should not forget that Vatican II was a dominant influence in the life of John Paul II. “Providence disposed that when the hour struck for the Council, I was just beginning my episcopacy,” he said in 1985.
Doctrinally, the pope has held the line against bitterly raging progressive forces within and outside the Church. Because some things within the Church could be changed, as the Council showed, progressives have believed that nothing could not be changed. The pope’s self-confidence and courage have allowed him to face the progressive fury without fear.
At the same time, practice must be distinguished from doctrine. The pope has upheld orthodoxy, but widespread irregularities of practice and liturgical experimentation have been indulged. One worries that he is misled by the crowds.
They cheer him as a familiar face and an amiable cultural icon, but they disregard the Church’s teachings. The pope has seemed to accept something resembling a philosophy of laissez faire in Church administration. The U.S. bishops he has appointed—mild men of good will and progressive disposition, unwilling to challenge the assumptions of the secular state—have not differed greatly from the appointments of Paul VI.
Rebellion or non-compliance in the pews has found its “pastoral solution,” in which heterodox clergy are undisturbed by bishops who find Cardinal Ratzinger a greater embarrassment than Rosemary Radford Reuther. Church attendance has declined along with seminary enrollments, confession is a vestigial sacrament, and we rarely hear of the Four Last Things from the pulpit. Feminist thought dominates the chanceries.
But we must not forget that the Church is a supernatural institution. The pope knows more than we do about what is going on within the Church. Let us pray, then, that his optimistic vision of the future is correct.
Even among the best men and women, there are important differences of character. Ss. Joan of Arc and Therese of Lisieux are models of heroic virtue, but not of entirely the same virtues. There are natural public leaders, natural warriors, natural teachers, and so on. Similarly, Pope John Paul’s successor on the Chair of Peter may also be a great man without being exactly the same sort of man.
In his longish reign, John Paul has named most of the current cardinals who will elect his successor, and he has chosen the heads of most of the Vatican’s highest offices. His successor will be a large part of his legacy. Perhaps the College of Cardinals, in their wisdom, will decide that the appropriate successor for a former philosophy professor is someone whose strengths are less those of a scholar and more those of a natural leader. I think, say, of someone hailing from a less technologically advanced nation that still possesses the memory of strong and wise tribal chieftains.
Such a pope, of course, would not be theologically ignorant, any more than John Paul has lacked his own brand of leadership skills. It is simply a question of emphasis. I think of a kind but firm, even “patriarchal” man, who recognizes the magnificent job John Paul has done in restating our ancient faith in modern language and who in his turn wishes to ensure that John Paul’s wise teachings be put into practice from Rome to the ends of the Earth.
This is no small or quickly accomplished task, and I would hope to see a pope who, when confronted by the wailing that always arises when anyone suggests Catholics live the truth they’ve been given, replies in a kind but authoritative voice, “All of your questions have been answered by our predecessor of happy memory, John Paul II. Now let us do our duty and be glad.”
Robert Louis Wilken
In the apostolic exhortation, Vita Consecrata, the Holy Father says that the call to holiness can be cultivated only “in the silence of adoration before the infinite transcendence of God.” He is speaking about prayer, and as I thought of the many things I admire and love in John Paul II, I realized that what has pierced my heart and soul most deeply is that he is a man of prayer. That may seem to be saying the obvious, but I don’t think so. In his words and actions as a priest, in the way he carries himself at the altar and meditates as he sits in the cathedra, one senses in his prayer an uncommon firmness of purpose and rare intensity of concentration.
In the spring of 1996 I lived in Rome for three months, and during my stay there I had the privilege of participating one morning in the Holy Father’s Mass in his private chapel in the papal apartments. When we entered the small chapel, the Holy Father was praying at the prie dieu facing the altar with his back to the congregation and he remained there, except when he was at the altar, for most of the Mass. The pope, by his example, seemed to focus our thoughts and feelings wholly on the sacrifice of Christ. The effect was powerful, for the fervor of his devotion raised our offering to a higher level. Yet there was a profoundly human dimension to the Mass because the pope’s prayer, as he says in Crossing the Threshold of Hope, has a dimension not present in our prayer, namely “his concern for all the churches.” Every day he writes, the pope must “open his prayer, his thought, his heart to the entire world.” He is called to a universal prayer, and in praying with the pope we were lifted not only to Christ but to the cares of the whole world. After the Mass, as we left the chapel, the pope remained fixed in prayer at his prie dieu, facing the altar where he had celebrated the sacrifice of Christ.