What Pope John Paul II Meant To Catholics


Words like greatness should not be used lightly lest they be devalued.  We can all think of learned people, of courageous people, of dynamic people, of virtuous people, and even of saintly people. But surely greatness is when these gifts come together in one rare man or woman. For Christians from the Catholic tradition – and for many others – John Paul II was such a man.

Whether at the Solemn Vespers for the Dead at Westminster Cathedral on Monday last – at which Archbishop Rowan Williams read from St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians – or in the services relayed from remote parts of South America, Africa and Asia, or in the faces of the crowds of predominantly young people gathered in vigil in St.Peter’s Square, there has been an extraordinary outpouring of affection and respect for this singular man.

During his remarkable 26-year Pontificate John Paul has been the Evangelist, Pilgrim and Prophet.  I have been privileged to meet some remarkable people but John Paul was undoubtedly in a league all of his own.

When he was elected in the autumn of 1978 the Catholic-world wondered aloud about the kind of man who had been chosen to lead them. This was, after all, the first non-Italian pope since 1523.

As Archbishop of Krakow , Karol Wojtyla came from a country occupied by Soviet troops and governed by hard-line Communist leaders. He was elected as Cold War tensions were reaching new heights, as the nuclear arms race was escalating, and as the world entered unchartered and dangerous waters.

From his first utterance from the balcony at St. Peter’s – where he famously encouraged Christians not to be afraid – it became clear that there was a profound interplay between John Paul’s religious beliefs and the working out of politics.

An Old Testament prophet gave their message openly and with God’s authority and the message was given with the purpose of bringing about change. John Paul was firmly in this tradition.

In Biblical times the compact between the prophet and the king did not try to divorce the sacred from the daily fare of life. That understanding held God to be both central and concerned with human affairs.  Prophets often made rulers uncomfortable and sometimes had to pay a price, even death.

This ability to make people feel uncomfortable – as well as the ability to touch millions of people in a profoundly personal way – was the mark of a man who did not compromise his beliefs.

In assessing him there has undoubtedly been some unalloyed hagiography but already there are the predictable attempts to assassinate his character.  In death he is still teaching and still has the capacity to challenge and provoke. Some Christians, let alone our deeply secular western society, find the exercise of clear teaching authority uncomfortable and would prefer to live as neutrals in a sort of spiritual Switzerland .

John Paul’s view of politics – whether characterised by the communist tyranny of his native Poland, the rampant materialism of the West, or the poverty and lack of human dignity of the Latin American favellas and shanty towns of the  developing world – was based on universal transcendent principles which he believed could guide statecraft, diplomacy, politics and economics.   His belief in the value of the human person – from the womb to the tomb – led him to take an uncompromising stand against all that degrades the human being – from abortion to euthanasia, from exploitation to servitude. This prophetic role is intrinsically different from “religious meddling” in the detail of the political process.

Pope John Paul has accomplished the prophetic role in our modern world through his encyclicals and speeches, by his proclamation of human dignity, through his evangelisation and by his call for reconciliation.

The great teaching documents of his pontificate –  which include Laborem Ezercens, Fides et Ratio,  Sollicicitudo Rei Socialis, Evangelium Vitae, Familiaris Consortio,  Redemptor Hominis, Mulieris Dignitatem, Veritatis Splendor, and Centisimus Annus- will go on teaching us for generations to come.  Prophetically, he asserted in Fides et Ratio that “Truth and freedom either go together hand in hand or together they perish in misery” and in Familiaris Consortio that “The future of humanity passes by way of the family.”

His writings on what he called “the theology of the body”, on the sanctity of human life, and on “being” rather than “having” are particularly challenging and, paradoxically, it is the younger generation who have embraced them.  They seem more inclined to give up some freedom and autonomy to gain a greater freedom.  In Evangelium Vitae the Pope wrote: “Respect, protect, love and serve life, every human life! Only in this direction will you find justice, development, freedom, peace and happiness.”  These teachings have radicalised young Catholics worldwide and will remain a tool kit for that generation and for challenging what John Paul memorably described as our “culture of death.”

The Pope’s personal experience of that culture began with Nazism and socialist totalitarianism. It developed through his encounters with anti-Semitism, along with the personal pain and hardships of his early life. This all shaped his attitudes and character. How could it be otherwise, coming as, he put it “from the country, on whose living body Auschwitz was constructed?”

John Paul’s starting point was always personal sanctification and prayer. From this rock-like foundation he believed that all challenges may be faced. He taught that if we experience deep religious renewal and change at a personal level then whole societies may be changed.

As we approach a General Election it is worth noting that that the Pope believed that the church had no partisan role to play in politics: instead it must “counter materialistic, atheistic, and repressive ideologies by evangelisation” and “establish Christian-based economics and politics.” Central to this teaching is the Imago Dei question, that is, that because we are all created in God’s image we are all worthy of respect. In all his writings and teachings John Paul has proclaimed a consistent and complex understanding of human dignity, exhorting all of us to defend human dignity and to serve the human being.

Imago Dei can be applied in every situation. It can, for instance, be the reason to assert justice for the poor or the basis for rejecting racism. 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.”

He held that Imago Dei (ital) can also be the basis of the call to defend life. Serving the cause of life is serving a truth bound by the biblical injunction “Thou shalt not kill” but it is also bolstered by the belief that people are most fulfilled by helping others when life is at its weakest: in giving we receive.

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

John Paul also had a message for the illiberal liberals who hide behind the cover of democratic structures. He correctly argued that “Democracy cannot be idolized to the point of making it a substitute for morality…Its moral value is not automatic…the value of democracy stands or falls with the values it embodies and promotes. The basis of these values cannot be provisional and changeable “majority” opinions but the objective moral law, the natural law…It is the obligatory point of reference for civil law itself.”  Authentic democracy for the Pope had to consist of state power based on law, balanced by subsidiarity; be grounded in superior values; and respectful of the freedom and dignity of humanity.

Throughout these challenging times John Paul II left ringing in our ears his exhortations to be “signs of contradiction”, to be “counter-cultural”, to “put out into the deep” and, above all, never to be afraid.

To be truly catholic – universal – he had to face the daunting task of reconciling the discrepant and varying needs of some one billion Catholics – most predominantly living in poorer parts of the world. He achieved that objective through unerring fidelity to the gospel and to the Lord he served.

Our memories of this Pope may be of a particular event, a particular journey or a particular encyclical. Perhaps it is the 1981 assassination attempt by Mehmet Ali Agca, – or the Pope’s subsequent visit to his would-be assassin’s prison and his prayer of forgiveness

Maybe it is the recollection of one of his remarkable journeys – to Jerusalem’s Western Wall to pray for forgiveness for the crimes of Christians against Jews, or his visit to the Synagogue in Rome, or his journey to Athens to seek healing and reconciliation between Orthodox and Catholic Christians. Or maybe it will be the first visit of a Pope to a Mosque, or the gathering he called, at Assisi , of the world’s spiritual leaders. None of this was about syncretism; it was about learning to respect one another’s different traditions and learning the way of co-existence.

For some of us, the abiding memory will be the Papal visit to Britain during the Falklands War, in 1982, first to Canterbury Cathedral and later to Liverpool’s Anglican and Catholic cathedrals, and his journey down the city’s Hope Street with Bishop David Sheppard and Archbishop Derek Warlock. I was privileged to be present at both these events and believe that Archbishop Runcie accurately summed up the historic importance of these encounters when he said that the road back had been sealed off.  Anglicans and Catholics may continue to disagree on a number of questions – and some may sadly never be resolved – but our relationships were now based on a better understanding and a fuller appreciation of one another.

In Britain I think we should especially recall with gratitude John Paul’s pilgrimage to Drogheda , in 1979, when he said to the people of Ireland : “I come as a pilgrim of peace. To Catholics and Protestants my message is peace and love.” To those engaged in violence he said: “I appeal to you in language of passionate pleading. On my knees I beg you to turn away from the paths of violence and to return to the ways of peace. You may claim to seek justice. I too believe in justice and seek justice. But violence only delays the day of justice. Violence destroys the work of justice.” Surely it was the day these words were uttered that we see the first glimmer of Northern Ireland’s Peace Process?

I have one personal enduring memory of this Pope. In 1995 I was with a small group who presented the Pope with the Jubilee Campaign’s findings on the persecuted church and the exploitation of children.  We  were invited to join the Popes’ early morning Mass in his private chapel. When we arrived he was deep in private prayer, kneeling at his prie-dieu. All the troubles of the world seemed to be bearing down upon his shoulders. Etched on his body were the lines of personal experience – his endurance through the tyrannies of Nazism and Communism, his acceptance of suffering and pain, his willingness to say the opposite of what the world wants to hear, his fidelity, faithfulness and total trust in God.

I had that memory in mind as with millions of others I watched the final dramatic days of his life. Teaching us until the very end, perhaps his final legacy will be the gift of showing us how to prepare for a good death and to prepare ourselves to meet God. Prophet, pilgrim, and teacher – until the very end.

All of these characteristics are surely the attributes that make a man great; and in John Paul are all the marks of greatness.