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Saint John Paul II Institute studies both late pope and his Polish homeland

“The story of Poland and the story of St. John Paul II are deeply intertwined—to pursue one is to discover the other,” says institute director Dr. John Hittinger.

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)

It’s sometimes said Pope St. John Paul II was the most intellectually gifted occupant of the See of Peter ever, but inasmuch as the line of popes stretches back two millennia and includes some known to history only by their names, there is no realistic way of verifying that.

What is certain, though, is that Karol Wojtyla was an original thinker who made important and lasting contributions to the Catholic intellectual tradition.

Partly his intellectual stature reflects the time he spent in the 1950s and 1960s as a member of the philosophy faculty at Poland’s University of Lublin—an era when, one commentator remarks, the Lublin philosophers were considered to be “among the most creative anywhere.”

And in part it reflects not just the remarkable volume of his output as pope—14 encyclicals as well as literally hundreds of other important documents—but also its highly original contents. One thinks, for instance, of the Wednesday audience addresses in which he set out a new, much discussed “theology of the body” as well as the many expositions of his distinctive personalism.

Born in 1920 and elected pope 43 years ago this month, John Paul died in 2005 and was canonized in 2014. Perpetuating and propagating his heritage while situating it in the indispensable context of Polish history and culture are the twofold mission of a new project—the Saint John Paul II Institute at Houston’s University of St. Thomas.

The Houston program (which is not related to the John Paul II Institute for Studies of Marriage and Family in Washington, D.C.) takes its inspiration from something John Paul said:

I am the son of a nation which its neighbors have condemned to death several times but which has survived and remained itself. It has kept its identity in spite of partitions and foreign occupations by relying on its culture.

“The story of Poland and the story of St. John Paul II are deeply intertwined—to pursue one is to discover the other,” says institute director Dr. John Hittinger. A veteran philosophy professor, Hittinger has lectured and published extensively on the thought of John Paul II. The institute’s assistant director is Dr. Piotr Przybylski, a Krakow native who is first vice president of the Polish-American Council of Texas.

Now in its third year, the Saint John Paul II Institute houses two distinct but related areas of study—one covering the thought of John Paul II, the other devoted to Polish studies. The “flagship” of the John Paul studies is an online MA program—35 students now enrolled—and also includes a certificate program. Both areas of study offer undergraduate minors as well.

Speaking to a meeting of the institute’s newly established advisory board (disclosure: I am a member), University of St. Thomas president Richard Ludwick called John Paul II’s life and work “one of the greatest stories that we could ever tell.”

The institute’s goals are indeed praiseworthy as well as ambitious. But it has its work cut out. In 1998, near the end of Fides et Ratio (Faith and Reason), which some regard as his greatest encyclical, John Paul said a fundamental result of the “collapse of rationalist optimism” in the face of the 20th century’s “terrible experience of evil” was that “one of our greatest threats is the temptation to despair.”

The Polish Pope’s life and work stands as a bulwark against that temptation. The Saint John Paul II Institute aims to do its part to ensure that his powerful words and deeds continue to resonate.

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About Russell Shaw 296 Articles
Russell Shaw was secretary for public affairs of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops/United States Catholic Conference from 1969 to 1987. He is the author of 20 books, including Nothing to Hide, American Church: The Remarkable Rise, Meteoric Fall, and Uncertain Future of Catholicism in America, Eight Popes and the Crisis of Modernity, and, most recently, The Life of Jesus Christ (Our Sunday Visitor, 2021).


  1. JPII should never have been hastily canonized. George Weigel’s appellation was premature. JPII was not great after all. During his papacy the clergy homosexual predation sex abuse scandal erupted to become widely public and he did not do anything significant to turn back its surge. Today the Church is still suffering the ill effects of this absence of pastoral leadership during his reign. He had a misplaced hyper idealization of the priesthood (e.g. Pastores Dabo Vobis, Gift and Mystery, Holy Thursday letters to priests, etc.) and of sexuality (Theology of the Body, Love and Responsibility, etc.) that proved to be his blind spots in dealing with the emerging scandal. He had a preferential friendship with the Legionaries of Christ and Regnum Christi founder and serial sex abuser who sired children Marcial Maciel Degollano calling him a “heroic model of the priesthood.” JPII promoted Ted McCarrick four times: Bishop of Metuchen, Archbishop of Newark, Archbishop of Washington, and Cardinal.

    • This would be the Cardinal McCarrick rehabilitated by Francis (who knew of his crimes) for the express purpose of delivering the Chinese Church into the clutches of the Communist Party. Among JP II’s worst moves were his promotions of Bergoglio. We are certainly suffering the ill effects of those blunders.

    • Long time ago, he has been judged. No Pope, including the current one, has been effective in the scandal.

      That he made some bad decisions, promoted bad prelates and engaged with questionable people; that is reality and what saint can you absolutely confirm was spotless in that regard? That was a prime charge against that little nun from Albania…and it was absurd.

      The early Church – for centuries – declared saints quickly.

      ‘What is bound on Earth, is bound in Heaven’….maybe not?

      Pope John Paul II made monumental contributions with his encyclicals and exhortations. His teaching of the ‘Theology of the Body’ alone is a masterpiece and continues to be studied. He kept Eastern European countries together spiritually and physically with the Solidarity Movement that was a prime factor in the disintegration of the Soviet Union.

      The Apostles made bad choices, too. But their belief in Christ, especially after Pentecost, allowed them to build His Church on earth. Their Faith and subsequent achievements surely surpassed what they failed in.

      Regardless of the haste in declaring John Paul II a saint, was his failures such that his Canonization is null and void?

    • All matters of record and hindsight now, and also irrelevant. Canonization has to do with personal holiness, and (possibly unfortunately?) not with 100-percent good judgment in the management of unlimited affairs.

      You speak of “the Church still suffering the ill effects…”, and this is true. Yet, St. Pope John Paul II might have shown our era how to suffer when he carried on with his debilitating Parkinson’s Disease, to the very end, as a sign against both our abortion culture and culture of euthanasia. As for pastoral leadership, his misjudgments in management in Rome (a nearly intractable cesspool, apparently) was the flip side of his personal evangelization by visiting 129 countries. And, then, of course there’s his role in the historic dismantling the Soviet Empire.

      Your admiration for “Pope Francis the Greater” is perplexing, given your highlighting of John Paul II’s ill-advised friendships, and in light of Francis’ hobnobbing with the likes of homosexual enabler James Martin, Aztec Nancy Pelosi and gender theory/abortion czar Jo Biden.

      These are imperfect times in an imperfect world, inhabited by imperfect people including clerics. And yet, a few inspire as saints under the specific criteria applied. And, oh yes, including the testimony of miracles. John Paul performed his first miracle on a French nun with Parkinson’s disease in June 2005, several months after he died, while he performed the second miracle on a Costa Rican woman with an aneurism in 2011, six years after his death.

      Wondering here, surely with you, if the criteria for deciding personal sanctity and sainthood could be supplemented by consultation with yourself? Not even possible until you sign your one-sided commentaries with your actual name. CWR readers and the Vatican await your generous response.

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