On April 27th 2014, Divine Mercy Sunday Pope Francis canonized Pope St John Paul II and Pope St John XXIII. I mean no slight to the later by focusing this post on the former. On a personal level Pope St John XXIII is much more a historical figure to me as he died when I was not yet even in kindergarten. In contrast St Pope John Paul II was a central figure in my understanding of Catholicism. He was the Pope of my adulthood, becoming Pope the year I graduated high school. His canonization has a particular meaning for some of us. It is hard to believe he has been dead almost a decade, and was Pope for more than 27 years. Books have been written about his papacy and I imagine there will be many more. I would like to reflect on 3 aspects of the Papacy that ultimately capture its essence.
It has been suggested John O Sullivan ( former speech writer for Margret Thatcher , author and conservative pundit), that when historians think of St Pope John Paul II he will be seen as part of the triumvirate of historical figures (President Ronald Reagan, and British Prime minister Margret Thatcher) who brought an end to Soviet Union and the Cold War. This in a effect ended the period of European tyrannies that were the bane of the twentieth century. People younger than a certain age will have almost no sense of what the landscape of that period looked like. For those of us in midlife however, one major feature of that time will have been the duel threat of Communist tyranny and potential nuclear war. There is a whole world of novels and movies like Burdick and Wheelers novel Fail safe, to movies like Stanley Kubrick’ “Dr. Strangelove” that characterize the fear of a civilization ending nuclear exchange, characteristic of the Cold War. This was more than an idle fear. Nuclear war came relatively close to becoming a reality in 1962 during the Cuban missile crisis. This was not the only near miss. An equally near catastrophic confrontation with the Soviets that is less well known occurred during the 1967 Arab-Israeli six day war. The details of which can be read here . Beyond the ever present threat of war, lurked the spectre of expansionist Communist tyranny. The nature of this threat was outlined in books like Whitaker Chambers “Witness” or Solzhenitsyn’s’ “Gulag Archipelago” along with movies like Henkel von Donnersmark” the “Lives of Others”. Religious works like Fr. Walter Ciszek’s “With God in Russia” also capture the evil of the Soviet system. When I was a teenager it was a given that the half the World would live behind the Iron Curtain in what amounted to a giant prison camp. The election of John Paul II to the papacy and his subsequent electrifying visits to Poland gave birth to the Polish labor Union “Solidarity” which was the beginning of a real movement in opposition to Communism. (Indeed the fact that he was instrumental in the demise of the Soviet Union is one reason his assassination attempt by Mehmet Ali Agca’s has been at times linked to Soviet proxies, though inconclusively.) In any case even folks like Timothy Ash (a journalist for the British left wing news paper “The Guardian”) have conceded John Paul II was instrumental in ending Soviet Tyranny. He wrote shortly after John Paul II’s death the following:
“No one can prove conclusively that he was a primary cause of the end of communism. However, the major figures on all sides – not just Lech Walesa, the Polish Solidarity leader, but also Solidarity’s arch-opponent, General Wojciech Jaruzelski; not just the former American president George Bush Senior but also the former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev – now agree that he was. I would argue the historical case in three steps: without the Polish Pope, no Solidarity revolution in Poland in 1980; without Solidarity, no dramatic change in Soviet policy towards eastern Europe under Gorbachev; without that change, no velvet revolutions in 1989.”
The whole piece can be read here . In any case I think it is difficult to convey how astonishing all this appeared at the time. The Berlin Wall fell in 1989, and it appeared almost miraculous.
The second feature of the Papacy that particularly resonates with me was mentioned in Pope Francis’s homily during the canonization mass. I will quote the relevant passage below.
“In his own service to the People of God, Saint John Paul II was the pope of the family. He himself once said that he wanted to be remembered as the pope of the family. I am particularly happy to point this out as we are in the process of journeying with families towards the Synod on the family. It is surely a journey which, from his place in heaven, he guides and sustains.”.
This is a deep insight. There are a great many things wrong with the world today, but probably a lot of them can be traced to the destruction of the family. (Even on the prosaic level of practical politics, how much poverty, crime and drug abuse has been linked to the epidemic of non intact families?). A Great deal that John Paul II wrote about involved family life, from his Theology of the Body, to an early work prior to his Papacy (Love and Responsibility) to the classic pro-life encyclical Evangelium Vitae, all were devoted to strengthening the family. Unfortunately a lot of this appears to be currently falling on deaf ears, but then again so it appeared to Christ’s disciples that the preaching of Jesus too fell on deaf ears… so appearances can be deceiving. A little appreciated document that really should get more attention then it actually receives is Pope St John Paul II’s Letter to Families issued in 1994 (just about 20 years ago) in the year of the family… the full text of the letter can be read here .
The centrality of the family in John Paul II’s view can be appreciated from this passage taken from the letter quoted below:
………it seems clear that the “civilization of love” is strictly bound up with the family. For many people the civilization of love is still a pure utopia. Indeed, there are those who think that love cannot be demanded from anyone and that it cannot be imposed: love should be a free choice which people can take or leave. There is some truth in all this. And yet there is always the fact that Jesus Christ left us the commandment of love, just as God on Mount Sinai ordered: “Honor your father and your mother”. Love then is not a utopia: it is given to mankind as a task to be carried out with the help of divine grace. It is entrusted to man and woman, in the Sacrament of Matrimony, as the basic principle of their “duty”, and it becomes the foundation of their mutual responsibility: first as spouses, then as father and mother. In the celebration of the Sacrament, the spouses give and receive each other, declaring their willingness to welcome children and to educate them. On this hinges human civilization, which cannot be defined as anything other than a “civilization of love”. The family is an expression and source of this love. Through the family passes the primary current of the civilization of love, which finds therein its “social foundations”.
It is really not possible to do justice to Pope St John Paul II’s thoughts regarding the family in a small space. Suffice it to say he argues persuasively that the family is the “fundamental cell” of society, and its protection and cultivation is essential to a humane society. I would say its hard to dispute that. Unfortunately as George Orwell said “….. we have now sunk to a depth at which the restatement of the obvious is the first duty of intelligent men” Again I would urge everyone to read the entire letter at the above link.
Finally we would be remiss if we forget John Paul IIs devotion to the Blessed Mother. We will return to this topic in future posts. For now I simply encourage everyone to recall John Paul IIs letter on the Rosary in which he introduces the “Luminous mysteries”. The full letter can be read here . It too is an under-appreciated gem. In it John Paul II outlines the nature of the Rosary and links it to not just honoring Mary but to contemplative prayer in general. In particular one who says the Rosary joins with Mary in contemplating the Gospels, with every phase in the life of Christ being featured, Traditionally The Joyful Mysteries focused on the events surrounding the Incarnation, The Passion is featured in the Sorrowful Mysteries and the events associated with the Resurrection are called to mind by the Glorious Mysterious. In this Letter John Paul II gave us the Luminous Mysteries which focus on events in the Public Ministry of Jesus. There is a beauty to this that really makes it feel that the Holy Spirit was at work here. One other startling feature of this letter is that the Pope links the rosary to two parallel crises that are defining the new millennium, the assault on the family and the rise of radical Islam. It is significant that the “luminous mysteries” were given to us shortly after the threat of radical Islam was demonstrated by the events of 9/11. It is useful to call to mind the Popes actual words:
“A number of historical circumstances also make a revival of the Rosary quite timely. First of all, the need to implore from God the gift of peace. The Rosary has many times been proposed by my predecessors and myself as a prayer for peace. At the start of a millennium which began with the terrifying attacks of 11 September 2001, a millennium which witnesses every day innumerous parts of the world fresh scenes of bloodshed and violence, to rediscover the Rosary means to immerse oneself in contemplation of the mystery of Christ who “is our peace”, since he made “the two of us one, and broke down the dividing wall of hostility” (Eph 2:14). Consequently, one cannot recite the Rosary without feeling caught up in a clear commitment to advancing peace, especially in the land of Jesus, still so sorely afflicted and so close to the heart of every Christian.
A similar need for commitment and prayer arises in relation to another critical contemporary issue: the family, the primary cell of society, increasingly menaced by forces of disintegration on both the ideological and practical planes, so as to make us fear for the future of this fundamental and indispensable institution and, with it, for the future of society as a whole. The revival of the Rosary in Christian families, within the context of a broader pastoral ministry to the family, will be an effective aid to countering the devastating effects of this crisis typical of our age.”
It is perhaps fitting that this letter written in 2002 is probably the beginning of the end of the John Paul II era in the Church. The previous year the Pope was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease (indeed probably had the diagnosis earlier, but the disease had progressed to the point that it had to be revealed publicly.) Many of the features that critics of the John Paul II papacy point to can be traced to this time period. The Priest abuse crisis emerged in 2001-2002 (Cases were first required to be reported to Rome in 2001), the debacle that was the handling of the case of Legionaire’ s of Christ founder Marcial Maciel, the kissing of the Koran… All of these things were the deeds of the debilitated, slowly dying John Paul II in his waning years, not the vigorous charismatic John Paul II of 1978 through the end of the millennium. The Pope’s health began rapidly declining as the new millennium began. This period overlapped sadly coincided with the time that attacks on the family increased and radical Islam fully emerged as a grave problem and corruption of theism. It is fitting that Pope St John Paul II leaves us with the rosary as the last weapon against these evils. It is a sorrow that the Pope who was instrumental in ending the Cold War could not relish this great victory over evil, but as his health declined witnessed new threats to the world.
It has been suggested that the Pope at the end of his life may have been suffering from a degree of dementia. Dementia is common in advanced Parkinson’s disease and one is not showing disrespect to the Pope to point out that this could quite possibly be the situation in John Paul II’s case. In fact a brief but poignant piece by Fox News journalist Major Garrett points out that all three of the historic figures who largely were responsible for the bloodless end of the Soviet communism may not have been able to recall what they did before they died, as all of them had some degree of dementia. This is certain in the case of President Reagan and Lady Thatcher, and quite plausible in the case of John Paul II. The entire piece (which is really a tribute) can be read here .
I will close with a comment from that piece:
“For leaders now: Heed the instructive lesson laced through these three lives. Study, if you dare, the implications of their tragically dimmed memories and their heartbreaking walk down that vacant corridor toward death.
They took not wealth. They took not memory.
Yet they left a world transformed.
Lead not for wealth. Lead not for memory.
Lead as if years hence you can’t explain what you did or why, because you can’t remember.
Lead in a way that will not require it”.
St John Paul II transformed the world; he can continue to do so by his example and by his prayers for us in this time of upheaval.
St John Paul II pray for us!