Sunday, May 1, 2011

Blessed John Paul II

The famous, so often quoted words from Pope John Paul II's first Papal Homily on October 22, 1978 - "Do not be afraid! Open wise the doors to Christ!" - were prominently displayed in the St. Peter's Square during today's beatification Mass. So, it was certainly no surprise when Pope Benedict himself cited them in his homily today.

What John Paul asked of everyone, Pope Benedict recalled, "he was himself the first to do: society, culture, political and economic systems he opened up to Christ, turning back with the strength of a titan - a strength which came from God - a tide which appeared irreversible. By his witness of faith, love, and apostolic courage, accompanied by great human charisma, this exemplary son of Poland helped believers throughout the world not to be afraid to be called Christian, to belong to the Church, to speak of the Gospel. In a word: he helped us not to fear the truth, because truth is the guarantee of liberty. ...Throughout the long journey of preparation for the great Jubilee he directed Christianity once again to the future, the future of God, which transcends history while nonetheless directly affecting it. He rightly reclaimed for Christianity that impulse of hope which had in some sense faltered before Marxism and the ideology of progress. He restored to Christianity its true face as a religion of hope, to be lived in history in an 'Advent' spirit, in a personal and communitarian existence directed to Christ, the fullness of humanity and the fulfillment of all our longings for justice and peace."

The Pope could hardly have put it better. In 1978, the Cold War as seen as a static state, a permanent division of the world, with the Communist Empire firmly established in Eastern Europe. It was the age of "Detente," a time when what passed for a progressive, forward-looking approach - both in international relations and within the Church - was to accept the permanence of Communist power and settle for making the best deal possible with it. Perhaps not unrelated to that, it was also a time when the fundamental beliefs and values of of Christianity and Western Civilization seemed to be under challenge - not just externally, which one would expect, but from within.

Blessed John Paul had many concrete accomplishments as Pope. Prior to any particular accomplishment and underlying all of them was the way he radically changed the tone of the time. The Church emerged from a defensive posture that more and more seemed to resemble a complete retreat in the face of the modern world - the modernity aptly identified by Pope Benedict as "Marxism and the ideology of progress" - to be a public and forceful witness to liberating truth (and so a "witness to hope)."

In a world in which lies like Marxism and the ideology of progress were permitted to be true, that was radical stuff - and it worked! To quote one of John Paul II's best-known biographers: "In a season of Christian timidity, John Paul's unapologetic Christian witness explained no small part of his transformative impact on individuals from an extraordinarily wide variety of backgrounds" (George Weigel, The End and the Beginning, p. 476).

All that was the fruit, of course, of a holy life, a sanctity rooted in the nurturing experiences of Catholic culture and family, challenged and strengthened through the tragic experiences of the 20th century, history's bloodiest century. Coming from a country, Poland, that had, as was so often said, lost World War II twice, John Paul proved to be the providential person to shake up the world's complacency and stop the downward spiral that was the 1970s.

In his own life, which saw so much struggle and suffering, producing such a fruitful ministry for the both Church and the world it is called evangelize, he exhibited to a heroic degree what the Paulist Constitution calls "those unique qualities of freedom and joy which a reflective experience teaches ... wil best display Christ and his church."

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