George Weigel on John Paul II’s understanding of fatherhood, priesthood

The great pontiff from Poland showed that "a true priestly vocation begins with a commitment to radical discipleship."

Homiletic & Pastoral Review recently posted a number of new articles, including an excellent, must-read essay, “Images of the Priest in the Life and Thought of John Paul II”, by George Weigel, author of the two-volume biography, John Paul II: Witness to Hope and The End and the Beginning. The central theme of the piece is summed up in this concluding statement:

Thus, if there is one great truth to be learned from the 58 years, five months, and one day of the luminous, world-transforming priestly ministry that Karol Wojtyła, Pope John Paul II, gave to the Church, it is this: a true priestly vocation begins with a commitment to radical discipleship.

Weigel begins, however, with a series of memories from the pontiff’s final years and then of his death:

When a pope is buried, a legal document called the rogito, which summarizes his life and accomplishments, is buried with him. Sealed in a metal tube, and placed inside the cypress coffin of John Paul II on the morning of April 8, the rogito for the late Pope ended in these fitting terms: “John Paul II has left to all an admirable testament of piety, of a holy life, and of universal fatherhood.”

This “universal fatherhood” was not generic, however, but quite specific: it was a distinctly priestly form of paternity, a form of paternity based on Christian fearlessness. “Be not afraid!” that familiar antiphon of the pontificate which first rang out at the Pope’s installation on October 22, 1978, is a paternal admonition, an expression of priestly encouragement.  John Paul II lived a form of paternity that took its strength from Jesus Christ, priest and victim: Jesus Christ, who carried all the world’s fear to the Cross, and by immolating that fear in the perfect sacrifice of the Son to the salvific plan of the Father, enabled all who are incorporated into him to live, not without fear, but beyond fear.

The essay examines some of the sources of John Paul II’s understanding of fatherhood and priesthood, and in doing so, takes on a widespead misunderstanding about John Paul II, one I’ve encountered many times:

What were the sources of this priestly paternity, this distinctively priestly form of fatherhood, in John Paul II?

The first inspiration came from his father.  There has been a lot of rubbish written about John Paul II and his mother, who died when he was a young boy; psychobabblers have long contended that the Pope’s Marian piety was displaced maternal affection, and so forth and so on. The fact of the matter is that Karol Wojtyła didn’t remember his mother terribly well. It was his father, Karol Wojtyła, Sr., who was the defining figure in his life as a boy, as an adolescent, and as a young man. A rather reserved gentleman, whose formal education ended in elementary school, a retired military officer of granite-like integrity, he was also, as his son later wrote, a man of “constant prayer” who taught his son by example that the Church is more than a visible institution of which one is a “member.” For, John Paul II put it in Gift and Mystery, his vocational memoir, Karol Wojtyła, Sr.’s ascetic and spiritual life taught the future pope that the mystery of the mystery of the Church, its invisible dimension, extends beyond the structure or organization of the Church—structures, as John Paul would later put it, are “at the service of the mystery.”

Weigel later notes this fact, which might be surprising to some readers: “It’s interesting to note that this most priestly of priests, Karol Wojtyła, was the first pope, in centuries, who had originally intended to live his Christian vocation as a layman.” As Weigel points out, “Most of the other popes of recent centuries put on their first cassock in an Italian seminary at age 11 or 12, emerging at age 22, ordained. John Paul II was different.”

There is much, much more, and I highly recommend the piece to those readers who wants some real insights into the person and thought of Saint John Paul II.

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About Carl E. Olson 1207 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.