The 20th century ended this past weekend with the death of its most important figure. Pope John Paul II breathed his last Saturday evening in a Vatican apartment overlooking St. Peter’s Square where thousands had gathered to pray the rosary. The accomplishments of his 84 years were numerous and continued into his final days, during which he taught primarily by his example. Much of the world will recall John Paul II as a political leader who, after enduring both the Nazi and Communist occupation of his country, rose to catalyze a solidarity movement that would eventually lead to the fall of the Iron Curtain. Others will remember him as a gracious and far reaching advocate for human dignity, and some will cast him as a backward-looking impediment to progress. John Paul II was certainly a distinguished and sometimes controversial scholar, playwright, diplomat and activist, but above all a magnanimous priest at the service of the Church—and it was through this role, above all, that he profoundly influenced the course of human events this past century.
The 20th century was a century of crises and horrors that witnessed the culmination of an age of ideology in which the mendacious fantasy of the human intellect combined with new military technology to facilitate the most extensive campaigns of murder in human history. Although some countries were not directly ravaged by violence, the intellectual and cultural conflicts that lie at the root of contending ideologies extensively pervaded contemporary societies around the globe. Karol Wojtyla, the man who was to become John Paul II, developed as a scholar, priest and bishop amidst the fragile Eastern Europe of the Cold War. He was also an important contributor to the momentous Second Vatican Council, which would articulate the Catholic Church’s engagement with the modern world as it emerged from false dilemmas of 19th century theology.
When he was, to the surprise of many, elected to the Papacy in 1978 John Paul II greeted the world, still in the clutches of so many troubles, with a prayer of hope: “Be not afraid.” This did not express some mere wish, for it derived from his deeply Christological faith and confidence about true identity of humanity. John Paul II had no ideology to offer on par with those that dominated the politics of his time, but rather he boldly proclaimed, in the opening sentence of his first encyclical, the confession and hope of the Christian Church, viz: — “The redeemer of man, Jesus Christ, is the center of the universe and of history.” In the more than a dozen encyclicals issued in subsequent years the Pontiff illustrated the social, moral and dogmatic claims that flow from this central insight—on issues as diverse as economic justice, philosophy, forgiveness and ecumenism. Taking advantage of the variety of opportunities and gifts presented to the Church of his time, John Paul II oversaw what his biographer George Weigel has called “the most intellectually consequential pontificate since the Council of Trent.”
The 27-year reign of John Paul II defined the way in which the Second Vatican Council will be understood and implemented for years to come. His remarkable encyclical Veritatis Splendor was the first in Papal history to deal explicitly with moral theology, and it enabled the Church to negotiate the challenges of what the Pope prophetically called “the culture of death,” as well as those presented by the often anemic Gospel of protestant Christianity and “liberal” Catholicism. However, the aim of his pontificate was deeply unitive, as witnessed by the “joint declaration on justification” reached with Lutherans and the serious dialogue John Paul II pursued with the Eastern churches, the Jewish people and Islam. John Paul II showed Christians that they do not need to abandon their identity to speak meaningfully with others and, moreover, he encouraged the faithful to “cast out into the deep” with a vision of evangelization compellingly performed in his famous World Youth Days.
The pope died on the evening of the feast of Divine Mercy—a feast that he had instituted for the Church in 2000 during the canonization of a fellow Polish religious, Saint Faustina. She was a great expositor of the meaning of God’s mercy towards the world and undoubtedly the inspiration behind John Paul II’s second and under appreciated encyclical Dives in Misericordia. One hopes that this document will now be revisited and the divine gift of mercy, which is also a gift of hope against fear, be better appreciated. John Paul II will soon, and deservingly, be called John Paul the Great, and perhaps his greatest achievement will have been to make the gift of hope intelligible to the modern world. Although many will mourn his passing, it is also an occasion for joy because of the truth to which John Paul II bore unfailing witness and which animates the present prayer of the Church:
Requiem aeternam dona ei, Domine. Et lux perpetua luceat ei. Requiescat in pace.
Bill English is a political science graduate student. His column appears every third Monday.