A Pontificate under the Banner of Mary: Hans Urs von Balthasar on Pope Saint John Paul II

“You could never really understand the spirituality of our Holy Father, though,” wrote the Swiss theologian in 1988, shortly before his death, “if you left out his relationship to the Mother of the Lord.”

St. John Paul II greets throngs of Poles waiting for a glimpse of their native son at the monastery of Jasna Gora in Czestochowa during his 1979 trip to Poland. (CNS photo/Chris Niedenthal)

Editor’s note: This essay, written by Hans Urs von Balthasar in 1988, was published in the May 2020 issue of KIRCHE heute (Church today) and is republished here in English, in slightly different form, with the kind permission of that publication. 

Hans Urs von Balthasar (1905–1988)

For the 100th birthday of Pope Saint John Paul II on May 18, 2020, we are publishing an essay that the theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar wrote back in 1988. The occasion was the tenth anniversary of the papal inauguration of John Paul II, whose pontificate finally lasted 26 years and five and a half months, from October 16, 1978, until his death on April 2, 2005. The way in which Hans Urs von Balthasar appraised even then the influence of the Pope from Poland could not be more pertinent and it retains its validity to this day. Besides his profoundly Marian character, this retrospect accentuates the preaching of this great Pope, who brought the revelation of Jesus Christ into the world in an entirely new way. This emphasis is in keeping with the concern of the Polish Bishops’ Conference to declare John Paul II a “Doctor of the Church” and a “Patron Saint of Europe”, as it announced on October 22, 2019. On that occasion the President of the conference, Archbishop Stanisław Gądecki, was quoted as saying: “The pontificate of the Pope from Poland was full of pioneering decisions and important events that changed the appearance of the papacy and influenced the course of European and world history.”

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The spiritual depth of his charismatic personality

It would not be enough to describe all the multifarious fields of influence which our Holy Father, Pope John Paul II, has fructified most beneficially in the ten years of his pontificate that he has now completed, unless we highlighted as the first and most important the perspective that defines all his work: the spiritual depth of his personality. From it alone flow all the blessings which accompany his indefatigable activity and his creative power, which for human estimation is incomprehensible. Many of these blessings are visible on the surface, but more of them can probably be grasped only indirectly and not at all in statistics, although we know that millions of hearts have been moved and transformed by them. The press can sometimes speak about the “charismatic radiance” of his personality, as though that said something psychologically tangible, but such epithets cannot even come close to the true sources from which these powers gush forth.

Nor would it be enough to speak about the Pope’s strong “sense of mission” that allegedly compels him to make his very frequent journeys: this too would remain, at least for most people, a purely human motive that prompted him to such an unusual degree of engagement. Any reference to his “vitality” would miss the essential mark even more, especially considering how physically weakened he is after having escaped from the almost lethal assassination attempt. And the fact that his surely increasing fatigue does not keep him from visiting more and more new countries or traveling again to those that he has already visited, proves clearly enough that what drives him is neither wanderlust nor the need to mingle with new masses of humanity, but solely an urgent duty to launch into exertions which, by all reports, are endured by his fellow-travelers only with difficulty, while he himself soars on the wings of an incomprehensible strength that allows him each time to overcome the most extreme weariness.

The creative power of his humble prayer

This mysterious strength has a very simple name: it is called prayer. No doubt all great popes were great men of prayer; there is no doubt about it in the case of those of our [twentieth] century. In heaven we will be allowed to look into the mystery of their souls, how each one of them in his own personal way, closed off in the little room of the Sermon on the Mount, drew the strength he needed to carry his heavy burden. But in the case of the present Holy Father, the walls of his chamber seem to have become transparent, as it were, so that any half-benevolent observer can perceive the fullness of simple, humble prayer from which the strength for his work flows. No one has access to the secret conversation between God and him, but anyone who has had the good fortune to celebrate a Holy Mass together with him or to attend some other devotion—for instance the Way of the Cross on Good Friday—must have sensed something of the creative power of this prayer. His countless sermons, homilies and addresses are saturated with it, even when he discusses human questions of ethics, sociology, human rights, peace or science.

Without in the least eclipsing the accomplishments of his great predecessors—accomplishments which he himself calls attention to and praises again and again—we can nevertheless point to a particular new note struck in his major Encyclicals to the Church: Certainly they are Magisterial documents, but presented with such a perceptible personal warmth, so little encumbered by the objective Curial style, and flowing so much from direct contemplation in the choice of topics and expression, that one senses the beating heart of the speaker and therefore is also cordially affected. This is true starting with his first Encyclical Redemptor hominis [March 4, 1979], which does not develop an abstract social doctrine but rather speaks directly to the practical conscience of today’s humanity, and also for all the subsequent documents, whereby we should pay close attention particularly to the Encyclical on Divine Mercy, Dives in misericordia [November 30, 1980], because here the choice of topic and the diction seem to be selected and formulated with extraordinary intensity from the innermost center of prayer.

His ardent message of salvation to real human beings

Everyone who is somewhat familiar with Wojtyła’s work knows that, on the basis of his philosophical and anthropological studies and writings, he centers it on man and looks at the real, spiritually active human being, for whose sake all the ethical, sociological and political sciences exist. The Pope is acquainted with them and tries to keep up with the changes in them, but they interest him only insofar as they deal with real human beings and help them to attain a purer humanity. For the Church, which as a whole is the concreteness of Jesus Christ in the world and in history—where there are no abstract “functions” and “offices” (as in the State), but only concrete missions—the concrete human being as an actual or possible member of the Body of Christ is always the only thing that she has in view and at heart, and everything that she has to proclaim about salvation always applies solely to this human being in the flesh. Much more intensively than in the writings of Marx she is concerned about “concrete humanity”, even and precisely when she looks Das Kapital eye to eye and speaks about human labor. Nothing in the speeches of this Pope is mere “theory about…”; everything aims at person and act (as the title of his masterpiece puts it). But because according to the Christian message of salvation the human being as person and thus also as acting person finds his true liberation only in God’s act in Jesus Christ and in the reception thereof by the human being, therefore the Pope, when he speaks about social justice, about peace and human rights, can never view the human being and his concerns except in the light of the message of salvation. And this is not a one-sided view, indeed because the whole Good News about God, including the mysteries and sacraments of the Church, yes, including the revelation about God’s One and Triune Loving Nature, is addressed wholly and entirely to the human being. Nothing in theology—if it is truthful, as it should be—can even for a moment forget that it is aimed at the human being. This goes without saying for everything that the Pope says and writes, and therefore it is so close to the Gospel, indeed it is nothing but its elaboration and rewording [Auswortung] for today.

Which human beings does the Pope address? Above all those in whom he hopes to be able to confide, those in whom he expects to find an open ear. Surely first and foremost the bishops, without whom he never undertakes anything on his journeys; he relies on them and gets their consent for everything he does. Then the priests (for instance in his Letter to Priests for Holy Thursday 1979 on service out of greater love for Christ), from whom he rightly expects so much and yet unfairly has to experience so much mistrust and alienation. And then young people, who are not yet confused by the destructive effects of the press and the media and listen to him in great multitudes. The sick, to whom he shows such special care; the poor of all countries, whose rights he tirelessly defends; the workers, to whom he showed his pastoral care already as an Archbishop and whose living conditions he knows from experience; finally all who are searching for true salvation, whether or not they may believe in a personal God: In Christ, who lived and suffered for all, they are brethren. What prevents us from seeking and looking up together for a salvation which we cannot give to ourselves?

He looks up to Mary as the model and heart of the Church

You could never really understand the spirituality of our Holy Father, though, if you left out his relationship to the Mother of the Lord. This devotion, God knows, is not something specifically Polish, if you look back at the whole Tradition of the Catholic Church. In his altogether personal and original Encyclical about Mary, the Mother of the Redeemer, the Pope’s prayer and his anthropology and ecclesiology are united in a special way.

Mary herself is the perfect woman of prayer: as the woman who said Yes at the Incarnation, as the woman who intercedes in Cana, who by her indifference—“Do whatever he tells you”—gains a favorable hearing, as the Mother fitted with John, her son, into the Church, into whose prayer she enters, while at the same time too (as the Pope strikingly shows) through her whole life she shows the way in faithful prayer. Thus she becomes simultaneously the model and the heart of the Church. In the Book of Revelation she, the Mother of the Messiah (chap. 12) becomes his eschatological Bride (chap. 19); she definitively represents in the New Covenant the female role of the people of God that began in the Old Covenant and thus becomes the true response to a feminist reading of Scripture, indeed the guide for one.

The Successor of Peter, who as the Bishop of Rome has to care for the unity of the visible Church, intrinsically refers to this Marian principle of Church unity as Bride of Christ; the two ecclesial principles—both of them expressly assigned to their role by Christ himself—are inseparable and can be divided from each other only with very great harm to the organic unity of the Church. Mary as Mother and model of the Church cannot usurp ministerial functions any more than the papacy and any other ministerial office can perform its duties without regard for the womanliness and motherliness of the Church.

His orientation toward faith-filled service to the Immaculata

Papacy and Mariology have been considered since the earliest times as special distinguishing marks of the Catholic Church, which is why it is not surprising that the churches of the Reformation reject them simultaneously. But the connection between the two was recognized also in the heydays of Marian devotion, for instance in the Middle Ages or again during the era of the Pius popes, although Mary in the West—more than in the East—was nevertheless always seen as the original model of the Church. But even when considered in terms of the new formulations of Marian dogmas, she nevertheless was viewed vividly as an individual graced person: her privileges were the object of admiration. John Paul II sees her differently, much closer to simple believers. He emphasizes her faith, which distinguished her throughout her earthly life: a faith which did not see, indeed often (as with the twelve-year-old) did not understand. Thereby he not only brings her closer to the countless pilgrims to Marian pilgrimage places—indeed, the humblest, most unassuming Christians are often precisely the ones who seek help and safety from the “Mother of the Church”—but also to his own ministry, which he shares with the bishops and priests: If he is the Servant of the servants of God, then Mary is the Handmaid of the handmaids; both point to the one Lord of the Church: “Feed my sheep,” “Do whatever He tells you.” The feminist are claims satisfied and their one-sidedness is overcome only in this simple, Catholic view (of course one has to delve into its depths). Satisfied, insofar as the Immaculata stands high above Peter, and the Church of Christ in all her members is essentially feminine; overcome, since Jesus from the cross introduces His Mother into the Church, and indeed through John into the altogether concrete Church led by Peter.

His ardent witness to the mystery of the Triune God

These references to the Church’s organic structure—communio hierarchica [hierarchical communion] is the well-known watchword of the Council—should in no way imply that our Pope’s spirituality is centered on this. Naturally it is centered on the place where the revelation of the One and Triune God unfolds in the incarnate Son; proof of this is the mighty trilogy of Encyclicals about the Son, the Father and the Holy Spirit. How necessary it was to remind the faithful about this altogether fundamental mystery which has become remote for so many—an unintelligible truth that they cannot understand! Yet it is nevertheless the thing that should be the most familiar to everyone: the fact that God, as John says, is love, and it cannot be otherwise: He is One and Three and wants to draw us into this, his eternal life of love, through the Incarnation, the cross, the Eucharist and the bestowal of the Spirit.

The spirituality of our Holy Father is a unique refutation of the weary resignation of many Christians today who think that the truths of revelation are too old to “be true any more”, too worn out to influence the world of today and therefore should be transformed from within. The colossal spiritual vitality of our Pope shows instead that precisely these central Christian truths and they alone are capable of leavening all the problems which the present book* will develop one after the other, and of opening up a way from an apparent dead end to a road that leads onward.

Concluding note:

Hans Urs von Balthasar composed the preceding tribute in German for the tenth anniversary of the pontificate of John Paul II. The text was published for the first time in German this year in the May 2020 issue of Kirche Heute. Until now it had appeared only in an Italian translation as the introduction to a Festschrift* which had been published by Sergio Trasatti, the editor-in-chief of L’Osservatore Romano: Giovanni Paolo II.: 10 Anni di Pontificato: Testimonianze e Riflessioni (Rome: Edizione Aquila Bianca, 1988), 11-17.

Von Balthasar dated his manuscript April 17, 1988. This is all the more astonishing when we reflect that he died shortly after that on June 28, 1988. The text therefore was produced immediately before his death and represents a unique testament.

Two Lampstands before the Lord

Karol Józef Wojtyła, Pope John Paul II, was born on May 18, 1920, in Wadowice. On the occasion of his 100th birthday in the year 2020 we look at the collaboration and the “spiritual kinship” of two great figures. Pope Saint John Paul II and Hans Urs Cardinal von Balthasar are like “the two olive trees and the two lampstands which stand before the Lord of the earth” (Rev 11:4). The two men were not only contemporaries and close collaborators, but also genuine friends and great witnesses to the faith. Both men, blessed by the Lord with numerous talents, placed their manifold gifts unselfishly at the service of God and their fellow human beings. In the spirit of evangelical poverty both sought only the one thing necessary. Pope John Paul II—in an altogether Marian way (Totus tuus)—wanted to respond to Jesus’ question to Peter: “Do you love me?” with a fundamental and essential answer, namely: “The only direction for our intellect, will and heart is towards Christ our Redeemer, towards Christ, the Redeemer of man. We wish to look towards him—because there is salvation in no one else but him, the Son of God—repeating what Peter said: ‘Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life’” (Redemptor hominis, no. 7). Prof. Anton Štrukelj

(Translated from German by Michael J. Miller)


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2 Comments

  1. Open to the voice of the modern world Karol Wojtyla reached it with a coherent vision of Christ. He spoke language comprehensible to mod man studying young people as a young priest learning their expressions. Remarkably reaching a mind like Urs von Balthasar. As a doctoral student he defended Max Scheler German Jew converted to Catholicism who was censured by Germany’s bishops. Wojtyla’s writings on phenomenology, writings with a Thomistic flavor are entered in the prestigious Analecta Husserliana. Edith Stein [she taught at Gottingen with Scheler] personally influenced by Scheler, converted to Catholicism specialized on St John of the Cross martyred a Discalced Carmelite nun Auschwitz 1942. John Paul II canonized her. Andropov former KGB director [mentor to Vladimir Putin] perceived the danger to the USSR E Europe hegemony allegedly arranged his assassination through the Bulgarian Party to enlist Turkish nationalist assassin Mehmet Ali Agca [who eventually converted to Catholicism]. John Paul’s charisma conveyed a distinctly brave and compassionate witness to Christ. His Veritatis Splendor is and will remain the antithesis to any doctrine written or suggested that distances from Christ. His flaw apparently softness in tolerating Mccarrick, Marcial Maciel. Apparently suffering from a naivete that the good of a collective human nature would prevail. Although there isn’t a great saint apart from the Blessed Mother that I’m aware of that didn’t have flaws. As such like the Apostles Peter and Paul we have the example to the faithful that even the flawed can become saints.

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  1. A Pontificate under the Banner of Mary: Hans Urs von Balthasar on Pope Saint John Paul II | Catholic Canada
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  3. Some reading material, 20.05.20 – RC Largs and Millport

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