“The Pope (John Paul II) was praying and he asked God: ‘Will Poland regain her freedom and independence some day?’ ‘Yes,’ said God, ‘but not in your lifetime.’ Then the Pope asked: ‘Lord, after I am gone will there be another Polish pope?’ ‘Not in my lifetime,’ said God.”
—Cited in André Frossard, Portrait of John Paul II (Ignatius, 1988), 46
“My priestly vocation took definitive shape at the time of the Second World War, during the Nazi occupation. Was this a mere coincidence or was there a more profound connection between what was developing within me and external historical events?”
—John Paul II, Gift and Mystery (Ignatius, 1996), 34
As it watched him die, the world did not know what to do with John Paul II, or really what to do without him. Almost everyone who could make it to Rome for his funeral, from the mighty to the small, was there. Though we all die in private, he also died in public for the whole world to see. And they did see. Pope Wojtyla was the only man in public life in modern times who showed us how to live and how to die, both. He considered his illness as much a part of his papal office as preaching, appointing bishops, or the Sunday Angelus address. A pope is almost the only world figure whose office qualifications include dying as part of the job. When elected, he knows that his only escape is through death.
When I read George Weigel’s two-volume account of Karol Wojtyla’s life, I realized that this very prayerful man was also one of the most active men who ever lived. He was constantly thinking and often thinking ahead. He was both a man of thought and a man of action, a man of prayer and a man of amusement. The story I recounted above he enjoyed telling to others. Besides his many world trips, he visited more Roman and Italian parishes in his busy life than any Italian pope.
People just wanted to see him. Television executives loved him and hated him—loved him because he was always so remarkably personable and mysterious, hated him because he went right over their heads to say what he, not they, wanted. If he was there, he could not be overlooked. He was the most interesting figure in sight. He had a remarkable capacity—when talking to any one, from children, to young people, to the important, to the old—of shutting the rest of the world out and speaking directly to that person’s soul.
I have a the impression that every man who ever met John Paul II, especially if he was a man of social, intellectual, or political stature, knew that he was meeting a greater man than he. Many would not admit this fact because of the implications in their own lives and for their own prestige. Everyone knew that here was a man. Women knew it. Youth knew it. The poor knew it. Only the proud did not know it, but they could not afford to know it and remain what they were. His very presence demanded integrity and honor.
“It is quite human for the sinner to acknowledge his weakness and to ask mercy for his failings,” John Paul II wrote in Veritatis Splendor.
[W]hat is unacceptable is the attitude of one who makes his own weakness the criterion of the truth about the good, so that he can feel self-justified, without even the need to have recourse to God and his mercy. An attitude of this sort corrupts the morality of society as a whole, since it encourages doubt about the objectivity of the moral law in general and a rejection of the absoluteness of moral prohibitions regarding specific human acts, and it ends up by confusing all judgments about values. (#104)
Only a strong man can recognize the way that moral weakness can corrupt the soul and undermine the confidence of others. John Paul II understood the lethal nature of a compassion that refuses to acknowledge an objective order of what is good and what is not.
John Paul II’s two books of interviews, Crossing the Threshold of Hope and Memory and Identity, made the papacy a more familiar place. Someone could ask the pope about almost anything, from Buddhism to evil to Poland to Plato. In return, one would receive a clear, frank answer. In the first book, the Holy Father is asked by Vittorio Messori to explain—in simple terms that anyone can understand—what it means “to be saved.” Right away, knowing that the modern world wants only to talk of itself and its problems, John Paul II said: “To save means to liberate from evil. This expression does not refer only to social evils, such as injustice, coercion, and exploitation.” It does not mean to stop floods and hurricanes. “To save means to liberate from radical ultimate evil.” He then immediately added: “Death is no longer this kind of evil if followed by the Resurrection” (69-70). To be saved ultimately had to do with death, judgment, resurrection—the last things.
Pope Wojtyla, of course, had plenty to say about the problems of this world. Few if any men of his time were subject more graphically to the terrors and fears of what ideas wrought in the modern world. But he understood these ideas and their background. He did not fear them. He knew their limits. While few others thought anything could be done about communism, he was actively working for its defeat. From almost the very beginning of his appearance in Poland as a young bishop, the Communist Party knew he was dangerous. It knew what he stood for better than many of his friends.
What neither Wojtyla’s enemies nor his friends could grasp, however, was the nature of his personal power and dynamism. What he was could not be found in their theories. In his philosophical works, the pope always warned about what he called “reductionism,” the notion that one’s narrow, theoretical suppositions could force reality to conform to them. John Paul II always transcended the theories of his time, perhaps of any time. He was a man of God, not a man of theories about God.
In his famous encyclical Centesimus Annus, he wrote: “[T]he first and most important task is accomplished within man’s heart. The way in which he is involved in building his own future depends on the understanding he has of himself and of his own destiny. It is on this level that the Church’s specific and decisive contribution to true culture is to be found” (#51). This passage is mindful of Plato’s admonition that the order of the polity depends first on the order of the soul.
Unless we understand ourselves and our destiny, we will not understand the things of the world with which we are involved. We will make our destiny less than we are given. “The Church renders this service to human society by preaching the truth about the creation of the world, which God has placed in human hands…and by preaching the truth about the Redemption, whereby the Son of God has saved mankind and at the same time has united all people, making them responsible for one another” (Centesimus Annus, #51). This theme of speaking what is true both for reason and revelation would appear again as the core of his great encyclical Fides et Ratio. The central purpose of this seminal document was not to save Christianity from philosophy, but to save philosophy from itself, so that both can see the truth.
The last thing that I want to say about John Paul II is to recall something he said in his first encyclical, Redemptor Hominis. If anything described the man and his legacy, I think it can be summed up in this passage, spoken to the world before it even knew him: “Man cannot live without love. He remains a being that is incomprehensible for himself, his life is senseless, if love is not revealed to him, if he does not encounter love, if he does not experience it and make it his own, if he does not participate intimately in it. This, as has already been said, is why Christ the Redeemer ‘fully reveals man to himself’” (#10). Ultimately, we do not discover ourselves by ourselves. The whole modern world of autonomous men—men who recognize nothing outside of themselves—deny this. And in their denial, they form their character. When they stand next to John Paul II they seem narrow and insignificant. Karol Wojtyla was fully man because what he revealed to us was not Karol Wojtyla, but the Redeemer telling us who we are and what our destiny is.
“‘Lord, after I am gone will there be another Polish pope?’ the Pope asked. ‘Not in my lifetime,’ God replied.” “Was my [Karol Wojtyla’s] priestly vocation a mere coincidence or was there a more profound connection between what was developing with me and external historical events?” In retrospect, we cannot help suspect that in, as it were, “God’s lifetime,” such a connection between this man and world events did occur. This, too, is why he is beatified.
James V. Schall, S.J. is professor of political philosophy at Georgetown University, and the author of numerous books on social issues, spirituality, culture, and literature.