The Missionary Pope: John Paul II and the New Evangelization

Historians are just as susceptible to falling prey to trends as the rest of us. For example, the writing of history used to concentrate on the “Big Events”: wars, battles, diplomacy, and the actions of large figures like heads of state, generals, diplomats, and the like. Now, however, the concentration increasingly falls on the more quotidian details of everyday life—how often people use religious language in their wills, subtle changes in marriage rites, the reading habits of widows in the 19th century, and so forth. One can even earn tenure by writing a history of the fork.

Similarly, biographies of the “Great Men of History” have fallen out of favor, at least among professional historians—the general public seems immune to the trend. Full-time historians will much more likely win respect from their peers by writing a study of minute social trends—loaded down, of course, with a truckload of statistics and footnotes—than they would by publishing a vivid narrative of human actors caught in the dilemmas of historical action.

Part of the trend is undoubtedly due to Marxism, with its insistence on the allegedly “scientific” laws of dialectical materialism. For Marxists, history really is just economics writ large, and statesmen and generals are but the playthings of larger impersonal forces. But just as Pope John Paul II did so much to discredit Marxism as a force in history, his life has also refuted Marxist historiography to the core, for it proved that great men really can alter the course of history. Indeed, he demonstrated that one man can attain a level of greatness to such an extent that he’ll bestride the world like a colossus and change the course of history through the sheer stature of his greatness. The course of the Catholic Church in the late 20th century is simply unimaginable without him. But I’d maintain that the same holds true of secular history: The world would have turned out much differently had Karol Wojtyla not been pope for the past 27 years.

To be sure, no human being can stand against all the wider forces that drive and determine world history today, single-handedly bending them his way. Particularly after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the subsequent collapse of Communism as a living force of the late 20th century, two trends quickly emerged that the pope could do little to avert: the rise of a resurgent Islam and the increasing secularization, even outright de-Christianization, of Western Europe (and to a lesser extent North America).

How the Church reacts to these two emerging forces will determine the Catholic Church in ways almost directly analogous to the challenge faced by the Church at the time of the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century or during the Industrial Revolution in the 19th. In other words, early mistakes will compound themselves for many later centuries, but wise leadership and a vigorous theology will serve the Church for even longer (think how St. Augustine’s City of God not only gave the medieval Church the resources for dealing with the collapse of the Roman Empire but has continued to serve the Church as the charter of her political theology for all subsequent ages).

Given the twin challenges of Islam and secularization, the most important and long-lasting legacy that Pope John Paul II has bequeathed the Church might prove to be not his role in the collapse of Communism, or his efforts to develop increasingly warm relations with the Jews, or his steady leadership of the Church during the unstable years following the stormy wake of the Second Vatican Council, or even his epochal encyclicals. More important than all of those, I suspect, will prove to be his travels around the world, coupled with the vigor of his message. To be sure, his encyclicals are part of that vigor. But anyone can write a document—the real point is to get the printed word not only read but followed, and that requires inspiring and charismatic leadership, for which this pope’s world travels were indispensable. According to the Reuters fact sheet that was attached to the news of his death, we learn that, during his pontificate, Pope John Paul:

  • traveled a total of 775,231 miles, or 3.24 times the distance from the earth to the moon;
  • read aloud, before audiences of millions, more than 20,000 addresses;
  • issued more than 100 major documents, including 14 encyclicals, 45 apostolic letters, 14 apostolic exhortations, and 11 apostolic constitutions;
  • beatified 1,338 and canonized 482 people, more than all of his predecessors in the last four centuries combined.

Astonishing as these statistics are, his travels, canonizations, and publications represent something much more than merely the world’s exposure to someone who could well prove to be the most important figure in the 20th century, transcending even Winston Churchill, Franklin Roosevelt, and Ronald Reagan. To my mind, his travels gave impetus to the Church to bring his call for a New Evangelization to reality.

Not, of course, that there can be a new gospel. As St. Paul told the Galatians, not even an angel can change the gospel. What is “new” in the new evangelization is something that has perhaps not sufficiently been noticed yet. Previously, before Vatican II, the model of evangelization aimed to bring people into the Church. Vatican II, on the other hand, called for the Church to evangelize by going out to the world. Unfortunately, something happened to the Church on this journey to the world, a fateful misstep that could well have proved fatal to the Church had not Karol Wojtyla been elected pope in 1978.

I recall—and not so fondly, either—my early years as a Jesuit seminarian, just after the conclusion of the council, when I would frequently hear the slogan, “The world sets the agenda for the Church.” Dinner table conversations were filled with admiring nods in the direction of Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud, with gushing and newly enfranchised liberal Catholics blithely asserting how much Marx and Freud had to “teach” the Church. No longer should the Church, they claimed, be a teaching Church but a listening Church. No wonder we were hit so hard by the maelstrom of the student rebellions of 1968.

But thank God for Cardinal Wojtyla—who saw. He realized that, through the instrumentation of the council, the Holy Spirit was calling the Church out of her “fortress mentality” (he was no doubt influenced in this view by the manifesto Razing the Ramparts, published in 1952 by the famous Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar, whom he tried three times to appoint to the college of cardinals). But the future pope also saw that the whole point of tearing down the Church’s turrets and fortress walls was not to see the Church conform herself to the world (a truly bizarre notion when one comes to think about it) but to call the world to be conformed to Christ. And by adopting that vision as his model of evangelization, Karol Wojtyla—as soon as he was elected pope—brought the Church to the world in a way that will undoubtedly inspire Catholics for the rest of this century. That, I believe, will prove to be his most lasting legacy.

But why was he so successful? The media have told us in the past month that he touched people because of his personal warmth, his training in the theater, his radiant masculinity, his courage during the Nazi occupation of Poland, the stamina he gained in opposing the Communists—all of which are true. But the main reason he could inspire the world to hear the message of Christ was because he knew that he first had to be conformed to Christ himself before he could call upon the world to do the same.

Moreover, like St. Paul, John Paul II understood that the Church can never go out into the world with her message of redemption unless her trumpet call is clear and pure. When the tocsin is out of tune, so will be the response. And this pope certainly never used an uncertain trumpet. If I were to risk the hopeless task of trying to boil down the message of all of his encyclicals, his addresses to world leaders, his sermons to the Catholic faithful at his huge outdoor Masses, his touching ministry to the handicapped, and his tireless defense of the unborn, it would be this: Jesus Christ really does offer true freedom, a freedom that comes only from Him. Not for this pope the watered-down and ultimately depressing notion of the liberty purveyed by secularism, that sterile yuppie “freedom” of individual autonomy (a notion that animates much of the dissent against the pope’s teaching on sexual morality).

Paradoxical as it might sound, the pope demonstrated his vision of true freedom perhaps most of all in his remarkable ecumenism. Not once did he abandon his belief that the truth of Christian revelation is absolute and overrides every other claim to truth. But far from letting that core belief lead to an antagonistic relation with other denominations and religions, his conviction that Christ is the summation of all truth is precisely what gave the pope the freedom to see the truth in others. For that reason, later generations will surely include his encyclical Fides et Ratio as one-third of that trinity of encyclicals for which he will be best known (along with Veritatis Splendor and Evangelium Vitae). For in that encyclical he shows, in the best Thomistic manner, how the absolute truth of revelation can never conflict with the truth of the world—and therefore, that there’s no reason for the Christian to feel afraid of the truth of the world.

But also, again in the true Thomistic manner, he knew that revelation, besides redeeming us from sin, also liberates us from error. For unlike the truth of revelation, truths in the world are maddeningly intermixed with error. The truth of revelation is like a light thrown into a dark world—a light that, among its other benefits, throws into relief all those trends and ideas that keep us from God.

Even putting it that way might still sound too negative. John Paul meant it when he opened his papacy with the cry, “Be not afraid!” Truth really does liberate. For that reason, among the greatest of his virtues was courage, one born of confidence in the truth of the gospel. Because of the gospel, we’re liberated from error and set free to follow the path of truth.

One sometimes hears comments on the tensions in the Church (or at least within the priesthood) expressed this way: Priests ordained from 1965 to 1978 are called “Vatican II priests,” whereas priests ordained from 1979 to the present are known as “JPII priests,” and the tensions that occur in presbyterates along these lines are assumed to be deep and irreconcilable. Maybe so. But I’ve always seen this pope as the most authentic interpreter of Vatican II. Speaking personally as one ordained in 1979, I’ve never felt the tension between Vatican II and this pope, precisely because he saw the council as the charter of his papacy.

I teach in a seminary where enthusiasm and love for John Paul II is universal. Each student here has not only been inspired to embrace the call of the priesthood by the radiant joy of the pope in his own priestly ministry, but also sees in him a model for how to carry out his own specific pastoral ministries. If each priest ordained were as great in his parish as the pope was in his Petrine ministry, the world would indeed soon come to know the liberation of the gospel. With John Paul II as a model, a priest could never go wrong.

No wonder history will call him, as it surely will, John Paul the Great.


  • Rev. Edward T. Oakes, S.J.

    Rev. Edward T. Oakes, S.J., Ph.D. is Chester & Margaret Paluch Professor of Theology at the University of St. Mary of the Lake/Mundelein Seminary, the Catholic seminary for the Archdiocese of Chicago. Oakes' articles and reviews have appeared in Journal of Religion, Pro Ecclesia, Theological Studies, First Things, Commonweal and other scholarly and popular periodicals.

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