[Editor’s note: This essay originally appeared on CWR on April 1, 2015, and is reposted here, in slightly different form, to mark the 40th anniversary of the election of John Paul II.)
“We, who are called to hold the Supreme Office in the Church, must manifest this fidelity with all our might and for this reason we must be a shining example both in our thinking and in our actions. This indeed must be done because we preserve intact the deposit of faith, because we make entirely our own the commands of Christ…” — Pope John Paul II, First Radio Message “Urbi et Orbi”, October 17, 1978.
The first time I really thought about Pope John Paul II was when I watched him being ripped to shreds.
Not literally, thankfully, although there was actual ripping involved. I was an Evangelical at the time, a year removed from Bible college and living in Portland, Oregon. One evening, in October 1992, my housemates and I tuned into “Saturday Night Live”, which was notable since I rarely watched television and I had little interest in watching Irish singer Sinead O’Connor perform. But I did watch, and therefore saw her take a photo of John Paul II and angrily rip into pieces while snarling, “Fight the real enemy!” O’Connor’s act caused a furor and forever altered her then-promising career.
I had been raised in a Fundamentalist home and had spent my youth mouthing the usual anti-Catholic nonsense about Catholics worshiping Mary, worshiping a piece of bread, and worshiping the Pope. In Bible college, my views began to change, in part due to reading the poetry and fiction of Catholics (Gerard Manley Hopkins and Flannery O’Connor, no relation to Sinead) and Anglo-Catholics (C.S. Lewis, T.S. Eliot, and Charles Williams). A host of other topics and questions followed, and around the same time I watched Sinead O’Connor lash out at the pope, I was also reading books on Church history and discovering the writings of the early Church Fathers.
I then began to read some of the writings of John Paul II—and I was instantly hooked. Fight the real enemy? Turns out the enemy, for me, had been a truckload of stereotypes and misrepresentations about the Catholic Church. Among the first of John Paul II’s writings I took up was Redemptoris Hominis, the first of his fourteen encyclicals. The opening sentence was something that I would not have thought, growing up, a Catholic would believe or state: “The Redeemer of man, Jesus Christ, is the centre of the universe and of history.” That encyclical presented many of the key themes of his pontificate: the centrality of Christ, the Eucharist as source and summit of the Faith, a rich and challenging anthropology, the nature and mission of the Church, the importance of Christian unity and true ecumenism, and the ultimate goal of salvation: communion with the Triune God.
What I found in the thought and witness of John Paul II was a cohesive and grand vision of the meaning of creation, life, and love. It was, of course, the Catholic vision, for the greatness of John Paul II was not found in a radical, new system of philosophy and theology, but in his ability to present the radical, transforming truths of Catholicism in a way that was profoundly biblical and patristic, traditional and modern, philosophical and theological, spiritual and personal. After entering the Church in 1997, I was able to study John Paul II’s work in a more systematic, rigorous way in pursuing a graduate degree in theology, reading all of his encyclicals, his “theology of the body,” and various apostolic letters, exhortations, and addresses.
Now, it is difficult to select a specific point within John Paul II’s rich teaching that stands out above the rest, if only because it is such a remarkably rich and cogent whole, a mosaic that rewards repeated study and contemplation. That said, there are two aspects I want to note here, on the fortieth anniversary of his election as pope. The first is his teachings on deification, or (in Eastern terms) theosis. In my 2002 essay, “The Dignity of the Human Person: Pope John Paul II’s Teaching on Divinization in the Trinitarian Encyclicals” (originally an academic paper, hence the overly long title), I wrote:
In Redemptor Hominis, John Paul II refers to Christ as the “one who penetrated in a unique, unrepeatable way into the mystery of man and entered his ‘heart’” (RH 8.2). When the mystery of man is met by the mystery of the Incarnation, they become unified: “For, by his Incarnation, he, the Son of God, in a certain way united himself with each man.” The Incarnation is the bridge spanning the gap between man and God. It is the ultimate expression – the final Word – of God’s merciful love.
In Dominum et Vivificantem the Holy Father writes of “God’s salvific self-communication” and “giving” (see DeV 11, 12, 13,14). He states this self-communication gives mankind “the capacity of having a personal relationship with God, as ‘I’ and ‘you,’ and therefore the capacity of having a covenant, which will take place in God’s salvific communication with man…” (DeV 34, see all of 34). This culminates in the Word, whose Incarnate entrance into history “constitutes the climax of this giving, this divine self-communication” (DeV 50.1).
The Incarnation and man’s divinization should be seen as part of a familial reality. Just as the Father sent his only begotten Son (Jn 3:16, Heb 1:5), the Son in turn sends forth adopted sons (Gal 4:4-7). Just as the Son came to do the will of the Father (Lk 22:42, Jn 4:34), adopted sons go forth to do the will of the Son (Jn 15:14-17). This spiritual procreation occurs by the power of the Holy Spirit, the giver of life (2 Cor 3:6, Gal 6:8). John Paul II writes:
For as Saint Paul teaches, “all who are led by the Spirit of God” are “children of God.” The filiation of divine adoption is born in man on the basis of the mystery of the Incarnation, therefore through Christ the eternal Son. But the birth, or rebirth, happens when God the Father “sends the Spirit of his Son into our hearts.” Then we receive a spirit of adopted sons by which we cry ‘Abba, Father!’” Hence the divine filiation planted in the human soul through sanctifying grace is the work of the Holy Spirit. “It is the Spirit himself bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ.” Sanctifying grace is the principle and source of man’s new life: divine, supernatural life. (DeV 52.2).
By entering into human history and uniting Himself with mankind, God not only restored communion between the divine and the natural, He modeled divine sonship for us. By becoming united to humanity, he demonstrated that man can become one with God. Man can become by grace what the Son is by nature. Put another way, the Son of God became a Son of Man so that men might become sons of God (see CCC 460).
While this incredible truth had certainly not been ignored by John Paul II’s immediate predecessors (and it is actually quite prominent in the documents of Vatican II, especially Lumen Gentium), he brought it forth in a truly beautiful way, perhaps in part because of his intimate knowledge of Eastern Christian theology; it is a subject within his writings that deserves far more attention than it has been given (and it is taken up by Tracey Rowland in a chapter in Called To Be the Children of God: The Catholic Theology of Human Deification).
The second is the topic of mercy, which has been much discussed and mentioned in recent years. At risk of over-simplifying, John Paul II situated mercy not only in relationship with justice, but within the meaning of man and within the perfect example of the God-man, Jesus Christ. There are many possible texts to point to, but his 1993 encyclical Veritatis splendor, which focused on the Church’s moral doctrine, is a key text. In that work, John Paul II noted that man “always has before him the spiritual horizon of hope, thanks to the help of divine grace and with the cooperation of human freedom.” We can only become fully human through the grace of God—that is, being filled by God’s own life—and then cooperating, by our free will, with that supernatural power:
It is in the saving Cross of Jesus, in the gift of the Holy Spirit, in the Sacraments which flow forth from the pierced side of the Redeemer (cf. Jn 19:34), that believers find the grace and the strength always to keep God’s holy law, even amid the gravest of hardships. As Saint Andrew of Crete observes, the law itself “was enlivened by grace and made to serve it in a harmonious and fruitful combination. Each element preserved its characteristics without change or confusion. In a divine manner, he turned what could be burdensome and tyrannical into what is easy to bear and a source of freedom”.
John Paul II understood, having stared into the face of raw evil many times, that we are tempted to believe that the call to holiness is a burden imposed by a heavy-handed, despotic deity. We are inclined to feel that we must follow our passions in order to be “fulfilled” and to be “authentic,” to use the language of our therapeutically-oriented culture.
But those thoughts and feelings are false. For “only in the mystery of Christ’s Redemption do we discover the ‘concrete possibilities of man.’ … Christ has redeemed us! This means that he has given us the possibility of realizing the entire truth of our being; he has set our freedom free from the domination of concupiscence. And if redeemed man still sins, this is not due to an imperfection of Christ’s redemptive act, but to man’s will not to avail himself of the grace which flows from that act.”
And then this essential paragraph:
In this context, appropriate allowance is made both for God’s mercy towards the sinner who converts and for the understanding of human weakness. Such understanding never means compromising and falsifying the standard of good and evil in order to adapt it to particular circumstances. It is quite human for the sinner to acknowledge his weakness and to ask mercy for his failings; what 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. (pars. 103-104)
There is much more. But it is clear to me that Saint Pope John Paul II was prophetic, and his understanding of the human condition and his insights into the moral challenges of our time are not out of date or only for certain Catholics. They are for the whole Church and the whole world. “Through the moral life,” John Paul II stated, “faith becomes ‘confession’, not only before God but also before men: it becomes witness.”
The great pontiff from Poland was one such witness, and he challenges us today to be the same.