On this rock


Universe Column

By David Alton

There are some excellent new books out about the papacy. This renewed interest in the role of the Holy See and the Popes is undoubtedly due in large part to the extraordinary impact that Pope John Paul II has made.

St. Paul’s have published a well-written chronicle of the papacy – “On This Rock” – that celebrates the Popes and their times, from St. Peter to John Paul II.  Tony Castle and Peter McGrath have compiled a highly readable collection that puts the papacy into its global historical context.  It helpfully includes timelines alongside thumbnail sketches of every Pope and the warts and all remind us that the papacy has withstood extraordinary turbulence and vicissitudes.

In another highly readable account an American academic, Jo Renee Formicola, of New York’s Catholic University at Seaton Hall, has published “Prophetic Politician.”  This concentrates on the present successor to St. Peter and brilliantly summarises the challenges that have faced the Pope in the former Soviet bloc, in Israel, the Islamic world, in Cuba and Latin America, and in China.

She reveals how the leader of the world’s billion Catholics can become a counterpoint to superpowers and dictators, resisting the temptation to “meddle” but speaking prophetically and relevantly.

John Paul’s personal experience of Nazism and socialist totalitarianism, his encounters with anti-Semitism, and latterly his personal suffering shape his attitudes and character. How could it be otherwise, coming as, the Pope puts it “from the country, on whose living body Auschwitz was constructed?”

John Paul’s starting point is always personal sanctification and prayer. From this rock-like foundation all challenges may be faced. He passionately believes that through deep religious conversion at personal level whole societies may then be changed.

Central to his teaching is the proclamation of a consistent and complex understanding of human dignity: an exhortation to all of us to defend human dignity and to serve the human being.

Human dignity is to be observed in every situation for instance, at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem, the Pope said “The church rejects racism in any form as a denial of the image of the Creator inherent in every human being.”

It can also be the basis of the call to defend life – opposing abortion, euthanasia, embryo experimentation and cloning, all of which degrade human dignity and destroy life.

Challenging the culture of death, as John Paul has described contemporary society, is a truly prophetic role – not least because of its unpopularity.  In this and so many other respects John Paul stands in the tradition of Moses and the Old Testament prophets, at different turns correcting, rebuking, challenging and encouraging.

The Pope recently asked the leaders of other Christian denominations to meditate on the role of Peter. These two books could provide them with some good holiday reading – and, indeed, inspire anyone who wants a clear view of the apostolic tradition, the nature of the papacy and the role of this Pope in contemporary society.