“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
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
People just wanted to see him. Television executives loved him and
hated himloved 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 capacitywhen talking to any
one, from children, to young people, to the important, to the oldof 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.
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 explainin simple terms that
anyone can understandwhat 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,
resurrectionthe 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 menmen
who recognize nothing outside of themselvesdeny 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.