John Paul II and the Death of the Faith

The "wisdom" of the second half of the 20th century answered by the wisdom of a sainted pope, an American friar, and a British genius

Heaven and earth shall pass away, but my words shall not pass away.”

It will not survive; it will die. That was the view of the Faith when I was younger. Now, over 40 years later, I can only but agree: it will die.

Growing up in the 1970s, the pervasive view was that religion was an embarrassment, a throwback to an age of superstition whilst all around the white heat of technological progress burned ever brighter. The then Pope, Paul VI, old and frail, appeared to have all but “lost” to the so-called Sexual Revolution that seemed to permeate everything—or so we were told by the media, leaving us with the feeling that everyone, save a few Catholics, had moved on from religion. It was to be a different era now; we were moving into a future that promised to be as contrasting as it was to be momentous, and with the certainty that there was no room for Catholicism.

Television domininated the 1970s, and it had a monopoly on our young minds; the secular agenda set by television shaped our worldview, forming one with no relationship whatsoever with the teachings of the Church. Like most of my contemporaries, we lapped up any televised cant (as long as it sounded plausible), from “experts” and the favored intellectuals of the day, believing, as we did, that such men knew “something” about “everything”. And, all the time, joined in this communal mind control, there were those around us decrying Catholic education’s wholesale “brainwashing”. Looking back now, the assertion seems utterly preposterous, especially given the fact that many of those attending and teaching in such schools either misunderstood the Church’s teachings or already rejected them outright.

father karol wojtyla, the future pope john paul ii, is pictured reading in a kayak in this photo dated 1955.(cns photo)

It was clear this state of affairs couldn’t continue. The Faith just couldn’t survive, and not only in the British Isles, but all across the West. Nevertheless, as an adolescent, I wondered where it was all going to end; that said, one thing was patently clear: the Faith would die.

Heaven and earth shall pass away, but my words shall not pass away.”

Fast forward some 30 years to November 2006.

I sat in a London church, listening to a man with a New Jersey accent. His name was Fr. Benedict Groeschel. Surrounded by men dressed in the religious garb of the order he founded, many of them younger than me, Fr. Groeschel talked about the last 40 years. He spoke of how the Church had attempted a renewal at the Second Vatican Council only to have it hijacked by the “spirit of Vatican II”—a pale shadow of the original, that, in reality, had nothing whatsoever to do with the texts produced by the real Council Fathers, men including the likes of Karol Wojtyla and Joseph Ratzinger.

But this was to be no sterile lament, for Fr. Groeschel went on to describe a “miracle”.

The elderly Friar looked around the church, which was packed mostly with young people and families, and said that the “miracle” was that we were there that night. Why? Because, growing up in the times we did, we shouldn’t have been there. He documented the all-pervasive materialism; “sexual liberation” uncritically linked to false ideas of “freedom”; no religious instruction worth mentioning; a hostile media casting doubt on everything, but especially on Church teaching; and ultimately a culture that told us to forget God, just as it had done.

fr. benedict groeschel, cfr, speaking in london, november 2006.

So, how come we were there? Two things.

The first: God is God. If those he had entrusted to pass on the Faith had failed in that task, then the Holy Spirit would intervene, and that’s precisely what happened. It was indeed through this direct intervention that so many of my contemporaries had come to an understanding of God, often having gone through many diverse routes to get there, ending up right back where they started: the Catholic Church.

The second thing was the election of John Paul II. Knowing all too well the challenge at hand, the Supreme Pontiff took his teaching role directly to the world. He wrote, spoke and traveled with the one intention of spreading the liberating truth of the Gospel, beginning with a resounding cry of: “Be Not Afraid!” And he did so in such a way that no mediocre local initiative could withstand, hinder, or obstruct this authentic catechesis. The deposit of faith was the preserve of all the faithful—our birthright—and, as such, something that could not be denied us, and it was to these truths that the Holy Father witnessed, and, by so doing, helped set many of us free.

At the end of his talk, the elderly friar looked around at those assembled before saying: “You are the JPII Generation.”

The previous year, when John Paul II died, the media went into a frenzy of sound bites. Sticking microphones in the faces of young people in Rome, they got more than they bargained for when one young woman looked directly at the camera and gave the following epitaph:

When all the world was telling us lies, he told us the truth…”

But, regardless, the Church will not survive; it will die. Look no further than G. K. Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man (1925) to see just how much this was, and is, true. Written partly as a response to H. G. Wells’ atheistic The Outline of History (1920), it eventually played a role in converting the young C. S. Lewis to Christianity. The Irishman was later to comment wryly that a young man who is serious about his atheism should be careful about what he reads. The same could be said for those trying to foster their faith, and, indeed, it may be an apt time to revisit that book’s final chapter, “The Five Deaths of the Faith”.

It explains that Christendom has experienced a series of revolutions and in each one of them Christianity has died—died many times, in fact, and risen again, for it had a God who knew the way out of the grave. And, as Europe was turned upside down over and over again, at the end of these endless wars and revolutions the same religion is to be found standing.

It is not as an old religion that it persists, however, but, rather, it is in the Faith’s newness that it is always attracting and converting each era and age. On more than one occasion, in the history of Christendom, the soul seemed to have gone out of Christianity, with the world looking on expecting its end, seeing the Church as wedded to whatever political or social system was then imploding. As Chesterton states, if it was so wedded then it has been widowed many times, and yet, remains “a strangely immortal sort of widow”.

fr. benedict groeschel, cfr, greeting sisters from the missionaries of charity in london, november 2006.

“The Faith,” Chesterton wrote, “is not a survival.” The Faith has not “survived”. Instead, miraculously it has died and returned afresh, again and again, whilst all around other institutions perpetually perish. An example of this is found in the past century, when things really did look like the end, and then, that incredible thing happened, yet again: the Faith was born once more, with a greater following among the young than the old. Failing to understand the appeal of the Faith for today’s young, many commentators are baffled by this continuing vibrancy of a religion whose obituary they had long since written.

If Chesterton’s explanation of the five deaths of the Faith is correct, then those who attack the Faith need to beware.

At least five times, therefore, with the Arian and the Albigensian, with the Humanist sceptic, after Voltaire and after Darwin, the Faith has to all appearance gone to the dogs. In each of these five cases it was the dog that died.

In light of this, perhaps the most surprising thing about that night in a crowded London church was that it was a surprise at all. A puzzle, yes; a surprise, no. To have grown up in the culture of the 1970s is to know that nearly everybody had come to take it for granted that religion was a thing that would slowly die out; the thought of its making a return would have been deemed as remarkable as dinosaurs returning. Marxist historians, so beloved of that decade, loved to talk of the flow of history, but what they didn’t reckon on was that, in the words of Chesterton, “A dead thing goes with the stream, but only a living thing can go against it.” And to the horror of such academics there was, and is, still something swimming against the current, as it always had, and always will.

Nevertheless, perhaps the more extraordinary observation that Chesterton makes, and a consoling one at that, is the fact that the Faith has not only often been “killed” but has also died of old age. It is obvious that it has survived the most savage persecutions, from the fury of the earliest Roman oppression right through to the rage of the French Revolution, from the more recent assaults of atheistic Marxism to the ongoing clash with today’s culture of death. And yet, while kingdoms rise and fall, the Faith continues on her way. But it is not just that, it has a stranger and even more “weird tenacity”; it has survived not only war and persecutions, but also peace. It has not only died often, but also degenerated and decayed as well, and, thereafter, “survived its own weakness… even its own surrender”. Now, that really is remarkable, remarkable enough to point to something, or Someone, in charge of the flow of history, leaving one to conclude that it is not so much the concept of “flow” with which we disagree with the Marxist historians as to that flow’s eventual destination. Chesterton wrote:

It would seem that sooner or later even its enemies will learn from their incessant and interminable disappointments not to look for anything so simple as its death. They may continue to war with it, but it will be as they war with nature; as they war with the landscape, as they war with the skies. They will watch for it to stumble; they will watch for it to err; they will no longer watch for it to end.

Under the watchful eye of John Paul II, the Faith did not end, it grew stronger. A truly universal pastor who took a “dead” Faith to the world and brought about its rebirth, for the Church of the 1970s did not survive, but died, and in its place, something new was born. Today, in spite of all those who endlessly conspire to cloud and compromise its message, it grows still, and shall continue to do so until history has, at last, run its course.

Heaven and earth shall pass away, but my words shall not pass away.”

A man sits near a large image of St. John Paul II at a national shrine in his name in Washington Oct. 7.(CNS photo/Bob Roller)


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About K. V. Turley 61 Articles
K.V. Turley writes from London.