CARDINALS' SYMPOSIUM, 15-18 OCTOBER 2003: TALK 6
The body of pronouncements by John Paul II on the subject of priests,
consecrated life and the vocation of the baptized
therefore including the laity
covers thousands of pages. I would like to try here to highlight their
logic and their originality, to understand their "economy" in the sense of
the word as used by the Fathers to describe the economy of salvation in
which the Trinitarian mystery is revealed to us. Beyond their diversity,
one finds in them the great challenges of the life of the Church at the
end of the 20th century and a coherent, structured response that draws its
strength from the mystery of Christ.
The very personal pages that the Pope gave us in 1996 on the occasion
of the Golden Jubilee of his priestly ordination, published under the
title of Gift and Mystery, throw precious light on the subject.
Indeed, in this modest volume John Paul II not only provides us with a
spiritual biography, but also records that "these spiritual experiences
were fundamental in shaping that journey of prayer and contemplation which
gradually brought me to the priesthood, and which would later continue to
guide me in all the events of my life". And he adds: "As I look back, I
see how all things are connected: today as yesterday, we find ourselves no
less deeply caught up in the same mystery". This mystery is, of course,
the inexhaustible gift of Christ the Redeemer. It is also the mystery of
the priesthood and of vocations in their organic diversity and ecclesial
unity, and this includes the baptismal vocation of the laity.
. . .
I. On this subject, what was the general outlook of 25 years ago
when John Paul II pronounced his first words in public: "Do not be afraid!
Open wide the doors to Christ"?
I.1. Almost all the Churches under the yoke of Communism were
trapped in distress and silence. They were thought to be static, for
little was known about them, and they were isolated and underrated.
The young Churches of Asia were just entering the concert of Catholic
thought. Certain Western theologians sought to find in them grounds for an
"inculturation", calling into question the very nature of the priesthood
in its universality.
On the other hand, Africa, with a rich experience of Christian fervour,
was already torn by the human dramas that, still today, sporadically
sorely try it.
Latin America, for its part, was under the misguided influence of
various brands of "liberation theology", with its Marxist leanings. In the
English-speaking parts of America, the United States and Canada,
Catholicism had fallen prey to an enormous crisis in which the role of the
priest, religious life and consequently vocations and the place of the
laity were called into question.
Lastly, the well-established Christian countries of Western Europe were
affected by the same syndrome that had stricken North America. The ailment
was perhaps more serious here, however, than in the New World, due to the
social upheavals caused by 30 years of uninterrupted economic growth since
the end of the Second World War and accelerated urbanization.
I.2. The new Pope had a very precise knowledge of this. Indeed,
seven years before, as Archbishop of Krakow, he had participated in the
Second Ordinary Synod of Bishops held in Rome from 30 September to 6
November 1971, which dealt with the priestly ministry and justice in the
world. Newspapers announced that the Bishops would ask the Holy Father to
ordain married viri probati. Many suggested banishing the word
"priesthood" in favour of "presbyteral ministry".
The outcome of the 1971 Synod is well known. Pope Paul VI bravely
resisted such pressure. Was not the beatification of Fr Maximilian Maria
Kolbe as a "Catholic priest" his answer to the questions that downplayed
the figure of presbyteral priesthood? In any case, the problems and the
crisis I have just mentioned had put down lasting roots in the developed
Those who are old enough to have lived through this period will not
have forgotten the intensity of the crisis in the 1970s, nor the questions
posed by the desertions that increased and the drop in the number of
candidates for seminaries.
Had the teaching of Vatican II really been understood at that time? Be
that as it may, the problems of the Church were perceived by public
opinion from an organizational or socio-political angle rather than from a
theological or mystical one. In retrospect, one can recognize in them the
symmetrical influences of Marxism and a certain liberalism. The former led
to a conception of all things in terms of a power relationship. The latter
was an invitation to consider all things in an administrative perspective
and to promote individual freedom.
Obedience, poverty, chastity and lastly, the very nature of the
priesthood and vocations, including the baptismal vocation of the laity,
were obviously contested when reasoning according to viability power
relationships or power sharing and social recognition, whose only gauge is
money, etc. Sociology was in the limelight; anthropology in its various
branches seemed to defy the traditional teaching on sex, whereas history
merely served to demonstrate the absolute relativity of ecclesiastical
In short, three ideas obfuscated the spiritual and sacramental
realities of presbyteral priesthood and of both the religious and
Firstly, the sacramental reality of the priesthood had to give way before
the functionality of the ministerial tasks which, it seemed, could be
carried out without ordination. This was what certain people have called "desacerdotalization".
Then, the dialectics of power led to the desire to entrust the latter to
the democratic assembly of the faithful. This went by the name of "declericalization".
Lastly, the abolition of celibacy was supposed to complete the
"secularization" of a Christianity considered too tied to an out-of-date
Nevertheless, Vatican II had foreseen these difficulties. As Gaudium
et Spes proclaimed, "Ours is a new age of history with critical and
swift upheavals spreading gradually to all corners of the earth.... We are
entitled then to speak of a real social and cultural transformation whose
repercussions are felt too on the religious level" (4, 2). But the
intuitions of the Council in order to face this situation had yet to be
I.3. What lesson did the future Pope learn from the Synod of
1971? He came from the part of Christ's Church which, behind the Iron
Curtain, was subjected to State atheism, crushed under the boot of
The "seduction of Marxism" and of the sociology of power held no sway
with him. For the young Karol Wojtyła
shared with a whole people under the yoke of Nazism and then of
Marxism-Leninism the tragic experience of man crushing man. This
experience had strengthened his conviction that humanity can only overcome
its contradictions and nihilistic temptations by welcoming the mystery of
the Redeemer, Christ the one and only High Priest. By his priestly action,
he comes to deliver man from his sin and restore to him his true dignity
had also learned that the grace of salvation alone can free reason and
culture and enable them to resist the lies and devious ideologies based on
socio-economic and political analyses, whether Communist or
The future John Paul II had encountered this freedom of thought and the
conceptual tools it required not only in the Tradition of the Church (from
the Bible to St John of the Cross, including St Thomas Aquinas), but also
in dialogue with dissident intellectuals (artists, philosophers and
scientists, not all of whom were believers) and with his contact with the
Mitteleuropa "personalist" current, in the wake of the
phenomenology of Husserl, notably with Max Scheler. These are "schools"
that have regrettably been out of fashion in the West for several decades
and which have since demonstrated their fruitfulness.
. . .
II. In 1978, how was the new Pope going to answer the questions
that Paul VI had asked in 1971? Along what paths would he lead the Church
of Christ over which he now had to watch?
II.1. It was not by chance that the young Archbishop of Krakow
had already made a notable contribution to the most decisive, the richest
formulations of Gaudium et Spes and Lumen Gentium. And one
also understands here why, once elected Pope, he refused to resort to
confrontations of force or to play power games to solve problems
authoritatively. The reason was that the opinion of the West would
subsequently have interpreted a hierarchical intervention as a means of
domination, an ideological response to a crisis whose "motivation" was
precisely to bring everything down to ideological confrontations. A phrase
in Gift and Mystery reveals to us the reality that avoided this
snare: "Christ is the measure of every age. In his divine, human and
priestly 'today', the conflict between 'traditionalism' and
once so hotly debated
finds its ultimate resolution".
Thus, John Paul II has not acted or reacted with disciplinary measures
any more than Paul VI (except in truly precise and limited cases).
However, as the Second Vatican Council did and asked, he has committed us
to returning to the heart of the mystery from which we receive our
existence and vocation. He invited all the faithful
laity, deacons, priests, bishops, men and women religious
judge as Christ commands us in the Gospel according to John (7:24;
8:15-16), "not according to the world, but according to the Spirit of
He has done this
continues to do so
what one may call the daily events of his Ordinary Magisterium: Wednesday
General Audiences, receiving different groups, ad limina Visits,
trips, publications, etc. Among all these activities, two deserve special
mention: his Visits to the Churches throughout the world and his annual
Letter to Priests.
In each Country to which he goes, the Pope not only meets the Bishops,
but also the clergy, the consecrated Religious and the laity. Each meeting
is an occasion for a Catechesis, an encouragement, a reminder of the
goodness, the greatness and the need for the grace that is given to those
who, through Baptism and their personal vocation, are called to live by it
and to share it.
And then, ever since Holy Thursday 1979, the Pope has written to the
priests of the whole world. He has continued to do this every year, each
time sharing his experience fraternally with his brothers in the
priesthood and referring to theirs.
All these words aim at comforting and touching hearts and at preparing
the People of God to enter more deeply, all together and each according to
his or her own vocation or state, into the Paschal Mystery of salvation.
II.2. John Paul II has anchored the Church in the economy of
salvation by situating her, paradoxically, in an Advent. From his first
Encyclical Redemptor Hominis in 1979 he speaks of the "Church of
the new Advent", of "humanity's new Advent".
"We also are in a certain way in a season of a new Advent, a season of
expectation: 'In many and various ways God spoke of old to our fathers by
the prophets; but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son...', by
the Son, his Word, who became man and was born of the Virgin Mary. This
act of redemption marked the high point of the history of man within God's
loving plan. God entered the history of humanity and, as a man, became an
actor in that history, one of millions of human beings but at the same
time Unique. Through the Incarnation God gave human life the dimension
that he intended man to have from his first moment, and he has granted
that dimension definitively
the way that is peculiar to him alone, in keeping with his eternal love
and mercy, with full divine freedom
he has granted it also with the bounty that enables us, in considering the
original sin and the whole history of the sins of humanity before the
errors of the human intellect, will and heart, to repeat with admiration
the words of the Sacred Liturgy: 'O happy fault... which gained for us so
great a Redeemer!'" (Redemptor Hominis, nn. 1, 6).
This was followed in 1980 by Dives in Misericordia. The attack
on his life in 1981, then the Holy Year of the Redemption in 1983-84 and,
in 1985, the important Extraordinary Synod marking the 25th anniversary of
the closure of the Second Vatican Council, postponed the publication of
Dominum et Vivificantem until 1986, to conclude this first phase.
Ten years after the inauguration of his Pontificate, the three Post-Synodal
Apostolic Exhortations began to appear. They were dedicated respectively
to vocations, that is, to our subject: to the laity (Christifideles
Laici) in 1988, to priests (Pastores Dabo Vobis), and to men
and women religious (Vita Consecrata) in 1996.
This group of three Encyclicals, followed by three Apostolic
Exhortations, deploys a spiritual teaching whose coherence is amazing,
as biographers of the Holy Father assure us
the stages were not systematically planned. And his steadfast aim is even
more striking if one takes into account the circumstances and events that
arose to hinder his development of it.
In a certain way, the Pope bases the following of Christ on the
commitments of the people of our time, whether they are priests,
consecrated persons or lay people, by placing them in the economy of
salvation: at the end of this Advent, the person discovers himself in his
inalienable dignity, which is his participation in the priesthood of
Christ. This redeemed person can celebrate his Redeemer and enter into his
saving work. In announcing the opening of the Great Jubilee of the Year
2000, John Paul wrote: "Since my first Encyclical, Redemptor Hominis,
I have envisaged this event with the sole intention of preparing the
spirits of all to be docile to the action of the Spirit". His three
Apostolic Exhortations prepared the spirits of lay people, priests, and
consecrated men and women, in short, of everyone, because they confront
each one with the revelation of the Father and of the Spirit, brought
about by the one Redeemer of us all.
By proclaiming this last quarter of a century of the second millennium
as an Advent, the Pope prepared one and all to stand before the mystery of
the Redemption. This was the "economy" into which John Paul II introduced
us; he situated each vocation in this Advent, a season in which the coming
of the Kingdom is imminent, a season of Christ's coming. Advent also
captures, as the Pope emphasizes, the "unceasing 'here and now"' of God (Redemptoris
Mater, n. 52).
His confidences in Gift and Mystery will help us to discern and
follow the guiding thread. They were published precisely at the end of
this cycle (in 1996, a few months after Vita Consecrata),
and shed light on its conception, but also on its scope whose timeliness
endures, ceaselessly to be rediscovered.
. . .
III. Indeed, in his teaching, John Paul II focused first of all
on what is at the root of the different states of life and the various
missions in the Church, in other words, the mystery of Christ.
It was certainly quite a radical reversal of outlook. For the Pope it
was a matter of taking up the challenges of the new times, of evaluating
the real needs and providing responses to them, no longer taking politics,
sociology or anthropology as criteria, but addressing the human being,
wounded and redeemed, such as faith grants us to see and to love. This
realism of faith sets people free from the prison of ideologies.
III.1. In Gift and Mystery, we read: "After I was elected Pope,
my first spiritual impulse was to turn to Christ the Redeemer. This was
the origin of the Encyclical Letter Redemptor Hominis.... I see
ever more clearly the close link between the message of that Encyclical
and everything that is found in the heart of man through his sharing in
In other words, the Redemption is not only what makes a human person
intelligible to himself despite his contradictions and nihilistic or
suicidal temptations. By enabling the human being to understand how much
God loves him/her, the person begins to evaluate his infinite dignity,
which requires an immediate and concrete union with Christ's sacrifice.
Every Christian vocation finds in this its meaning and content, which are
III.2. John Paul II would duly explain and develop all this
later, as will be seen. But first he was to complement Redemptor
Hominis with two other fundamental Encyclicals, thereby rooting his
teaching and action in the Trinity, that is, in the mystery that is
closest to God himself.
Dives in Misericordia, the following year, explored the mystery
of God's fatherhood, stressing the gratuitousness of his love from the
Creation until his plan of saving man from sin and death which is its
consequence. Inevitably, the figure of the Father is always hard to
define. We know him through his Son and thanks to their Spirit. What
remains impossible to grasp in the ultimate source of all life, usually
suggests a distancing that seems in turn to mark God's majesty. The
Encyclical of 1980 completes this vision through its indispensable
symmetry, strongly recalling that it is first the Father who draws near to
man and that his mercy far exceeds the proportional norms of strict
Here we have, of course, an essential orientation for this
participation in the divine life that is the response to every vocation.
Dives in Misericordia reminds us of the deep meaning of all
fatherhood, in the Church and in the world, as well as in the Holy
Trinity. The distancing is not eliminated but forms the space where the
gift of oneself can unfold, becoming part of the dynamic of creative and
redemptive love whose mercy is inexhaustible.
On this point, Gift and Mystery enlightens us, at least
indirectly, when the Pope mentions the role played in his priestly
vocation, on the one hand by his father, and on the other, by the future
Cardinal Sapieha. Both remain for him somewhat distant figures, but with a
"powerful influence". He remembers that "sometimes [he] would wake up
during the night and find [his] father on his knees". And he added, "We
never spoke about a vocation to the priesthood, but his example was in a
way my first seminary, a kind of domestic seminary". He also recounts his
emotion at encountering almost every day his beloved "Prince-Metropolitan"
of Krakow who, at his residence, gave hospitality to candidates to the
priesthood who were forced to go underground towards the end of the Nazi
III.3 In 1986 Dominum et Vivificantem came to complete
the Trinitarian basis of John Paul II's teaching. The very title is, as
always, highly symbolic: the Spirit is God and Lord, and it is he who
obtains for us participation in the life of the Father and of the Son.
The gifts of the Holy Spirit were one of the "rediscoveries" of the
conciliar period. The Pope recalled that the power of the Spirit is not
only manifest in special "charisms", but enlivens the whole Church in her
inner and sacramental life as well as in her external mission.
It is he, the Spirit, who "convinces the world", as the Gospel of St
John relates (16:8). It is also "the action of the Holy Spirit", as shown
in the passage in Gift and Mystery, "whom the priest invokes when
he extends his hands over the gifts of bread and wine... so that they may
become for us the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ", and which "is
the secret of this miracle" of consecration, whether in the Mass or in a
priestly or episcopal ordination or, we can add, in religious vows or the
commitments assumed by lay people.
. . .
IV. Today we can clearly perceive how the Pope wanted the 1971
Synod of Bishops to be resumed, starting from scratch. He required the
three new Synods
first on the vocation of lay people, then on the formation of priests, and
lastly on the consecrated life
formulate the appropriate answers.
Here the method was as important as the conclusions of each Synod,
since each time the Bishops' delegates conveyed the thoughts of the
Bishops and faithful, after they had been duly questioned. The Apostolic
Exhortations, through the authority of Peter, express the collegial
sentiment of the Bishops.
Furthermore, the order of the three synods is significant: to begin
with the laity sheds light on the universal vocation to holiness of the
priestly People. Likewise, with lay persons, the Synod revisited
Gaudium et Spes as well as Lumen Gentium and spelled out the
mission of the Church of our time. The ministerial priesthood, the theme
of the next Synod, suddenly appeared clearly as the means by which Christ
wanted to make the holy People live; the radical call to holiness casts a
prophetic light on the "special fittingness" of priestly celibacy. It must
be considered consistent with the consecrated life which signifies
prophetically the destiny of humanity whose eschatological anticipation it
is in the here and now.
The logic of the three Apostolic Exhortations in the light of the three
great Encyclicals of the beginning of the Pontificate develops from the
concept of the priesthood which is itself inherent in the Redemption:
"Christ is a priest because he is the Redeemer of the world". The
intuitions and memories given to us in this valuable text will once again
be able to serve us as a guide or counterpoint to illumine or condense
various aspects of vocations through their diversity and their theological
and mystical unity.
IV.1. The mystery of the Redeemer offers man the understanding
of his own condition: Christ reveals to humanity that it is both wounded
and loved. Christ's essentially priestly immolation of himself redeems
human beings from evil by giving them forgiveness for their sins. As a
priestly sacrifice, it necessarily has a sacrificial dimension in which,
as John Paul II repeats at every opportunity, quoting chapter 7 of the
Letter to the Hebrews, Jesus is not content with interceding because, as
the "perfect High Priest", he offers himself as an "immaculate victim".
His Resurrection does not only mean that his sacrifice is pleasing. In a
sense, by showing solidarity to the very end with humanity disfigured by
sin, in his obedience he fulfils the love that from all eternity unites
him to his Father. On Easter morning, he demonstrates that this love,
which is the very life of humanity, is victorious over death.
For men and women, salvation consists in offering themselves in turn to
the Father, united with Christ, through the power of the Spirit, so as to
make their own contribution to spreading and sharing this mercy. The
Christian is in a certain way incorporated into Christ to be associated
with his priestly and redeeming action. This is the extent to which it is
right once and for all, following the Second Vatican Council, to speak of
the "common priesthood of all the baptized".
Christifideles Laici took up this theme clearly in 1988,
reminding all the baptized of the two dimensions of their vocation: fully
called to holiness, they will participate fully in the Church's mission.
One might say that here, at least implicitly, the concept of the "new
evangelization" emerged, which has had an important place in the second
decade of the Pontificate.
This term has sometimes been wrongly interpreted. It is not, as certain
external observers in the West have flatly claimed, a mobilization from
the "base" to relaunch proselytism in a new effort to reverse the
socio-cultural movement of secularization. Its "newness" lay not only in
the unheard of context already identified by the Second Vatican Council,
especially in Lumen Gentium, but rather in the pressing invitation
to lay people to engage actively in the mission of evangelization, since
to do so is incumbent on every member of the Body of Christ and not only
on a more or less specialized clergy.
This commitment is based on the Paschal Mystery and on the priestly
dimension of Christian life in the midst of the whole of creation and in
the course of history. Gift and Mystery explains it clearly: "The
Redemption, the price which had to be paid for sin, entails a renewed
discovery, a kind of a 'new creation' of the whole created order: the
rediscovery of man as a person, of man created by God as male and female,
a rediscovery of the deepest truth about all man's works, his culture and
civilization, about all his achievements and creative abilities".
If lay people are thus called to "rediscover" the truth of the world,
to witness and to act in it, it is not, of course, because of some
political design. It is by virtue of their participation in Christ's
sacrifice, actualized by every Mass. In the appraisal of his 50 years of
priesthood, the Pope writes that by "celebrating the sacraments,
especially the Eucharist, the priest makes the whole People of God ever
more aware of its share in Christ's priesthood, and at the same time
encourages it to live that priesthood to the full".
IV.2. The Pope explains that "the priest, as steward of the
'mysteries of God', is at the service of the common priesthood of the
We can see here that John Paul II has powerfully renewed the approach
to the roles, at the same time very distinct and interdependent, of
priests and lay people. He has likewise insisted on the fact that the
ecclesial mission of the lay faithful has its source in their priestly
dignity and flows into their temporal tasks. He has also shown that the
immediate purpose of the ordained ministries is to enable this vocation of
every baptized person to be fulfilled.
Here each word has an importance of its own. The common priesthood is
not the origin of the presbyteral priesthood. The latter is at the service
of the former, but does not derive from it. The reason for this, as the
Pope points out in Gift and Mystery, is that "the priesthood, in
its deepest reality, is the priesthood of Christ", and of no one else.
It remains to legitimize the distinction and complementarity of these
two aspects or levels of the one priesthood. Among other things, this is
what the Synod of 1990 and the Apostolic Exhortation Pastores Dabo
Vobis, published 16 months later in 1992, set out to do. It should not
be forgotten that this Synod first focused on the formation of priests.
Nonetheless, the final text signed by the Pope is one of the longest papal
documents ever to be published (226 pages in the original edition), and
that the issues are thoroughly treated, going back to the most exalted and
It is out of the question, therefore, to list here all the resources
offered by Pastores Dabo Vobis. However, as regards what concerns
us here, we will be able once again to find a significant echo of them in
Gift and Mystery. John Paul II writes, "...while the Second Vatican
Council speaks of the universal call to holiness, in the case of the
priest we must speak of a special call to holiness. Christ needs holy
priests! Today's world demands holy priests! Only a holy priest can
become, in an increasingly secularized world, a resounding witness to
Christ and his Gospel. And only thus can a priest become a guide for men
and women and a teacher of holiness. People, especially the young, are
looking for such guides".
The priest does not choose this special holiness on his own, although
he commits his freedom to it: he is called, ordained and consecrated to
it, in order to speak and act in persona Christi. This vocation,
this mission, cannot be given to him by anyone other than Jesus himself,
and requires a specific gift of the Holy Spirit. In his spiritual
autobiography on the occasion of his priestly jubilee, the Pope recalls
once again that the priest "receives from Christ the treasures of
salvation, in order duly to distribute them among the people to whom he is
John Paul II insists on two situations in which the priest "offers his
humanity to Christ, so that Christ may use him as an instrument of
salvation, making him as it were into another Christ".
First comes the celebration of Mass. "In our world, is there any
greater fulfilment of our humanity than to be able to re-present every day
in persona Christi the redemptive sacrifice, the same sacrifice
which Christ offered on the Cross?", the Pope asks. "In this sacrifice, on
the one hand, the very mystery of the Trinity is present in the most
profound way, and, on the other hand, the entire created universe is
Secondly, there is what the Pope calls "the ministry of mercy". "The
priest", he stresses, "is the witness and instrument of divine mercy! How
important in his life is the ministry of the confessional! It is in the
confessional that his spiritual fatherhood is realized in the fullest
Here we are permitted to see in action the relationship between
fatherhood and mercy, mentioned above in the reference to the Encyclical
on the heavenly Father. In its paternal dimension the priesthood implies,
as it were, a "distance" or, if you like, a distinction, a
differentiation, a "setting aside". It is in this perspective, among
others, that we can understand the "special" character of holiness to
which the priest is expressly called.
The vocation to the priesthood takes the very precise form that John
Paul II describes in Gift and Mystery, explaining that his ministry
commits him "to a way of life inspired by the radicalism of the Gospel.
This explains his particular need to live in the spirit of the evangelical
counsels of chastity, poverty and obedience".
The indissoluble bond between the priesthood and sacrifice justifies
such a requirement. Remembering his own ordination, the Holy Father
singles out the profound meaning of one of the rites of the sacrament. The
future priest, he writes, "prostrates himself completely and rests his
forehead on the church floor, indicating in this way his complete
willingness to undertake the ministry being entrusted to him". And he
comments: "In lying prostrate on the floor in the form of a cross before
one's ordination, in accepting in one's own life
the cross of Christ and becoming with the Apostle a 'floor' for our
brothers and sisters, one finds the ultimate meaning of all priestly
The Pope explains clearly that there is no ensuing injury to the
person. On the contrary, the "young man, hearing the words 'Follow me!',
can give up everything for Christ, in the certainty that if he follows
this path he will find complete personal fulfilment".
IV.3 But the evangelical counsels lead us almost naturally to
the third Synod of Bishops which addressed vocations in 1994, with concern
for the religious life, and to the Apostolic Exhortation Vita
Consecrata, again, 16 months later, in 1996.
John Paul II concludes by stressing, among other things, a difficulty
he has come across at the end of the 20th century, not only within a
number of Religious Orders but also throughout the Church: the temptation
to evaluate everything by the utilitarian criteria of society. The
consecrated life, the Pope responded, obeys other laws, and in particular
that of the gift, both inherent in the human condition and confirmed by
the Incarnation and the Cross. Lives that are totally devoted to God, with
no prospect of "gratification" here on earth, help contemporary culture
once again to call itself into question. They are also witnesses in this
world to the coming of the Kingdom of God that has already begun.
But the "radicalism of the Gospel" still has a "motivating" role in the
Church, not only by virtue of the many services rendered by religious men
and women, but especially through the examples and models of holiness
offered by priests and baptized lay persons who have taken vows. This
revitalizes the entire People of God, the clergy as well as the faithful.
Gift and Mystery, which serves as a guide for us, contains no
structured thinking on the consecrated life. Yet it is strongly present
through an impressive series of figures belonging to the important Orders
or who created new ones, and guided and stimulated young Karol Wojtyła
on the path of his vocation. I will mention here at random the holy
Brother Albert, Bl. Sr Faustina Kowalska, the Salesians and the Carmelites
of Krakow, the Jesuits in Rome, the holy Franciscan and Maximilian Maria
The fact that he relates the meetings and experiences that these
figures enabled him to have wonderfully suggests that, for John Paul II,
consecrated life in some way mirrors or integrates and then reflects back
the freedom and superabundance of God's gifts, without denying any of
those that have already been irreversibly dispensed. On the contrary, it
stimulates their assimilation by means of the constantly renewed variety
and riches of vocations and commitments.
This perspective easily enables one to avoid the polemics that arose
after the publication of Vita Consecrata, on the translation of the
Latin word praecellens. Was it necessary to infer that the
religious state of men and women religious is "objectively superior" to
other states of life?
The question, in truth, just as often arises regarding the relationship
between the clergy and the faithful. That the holiness to which the priest
is called has something "special" about it, takes nothing from the
authentic perfection to which lay people are also called.
The very existence of consecrated life illustrates the same logic of
the gratuitous and organic coherence which already expresses the
complementarity between the "common priesthood" and the presbyteral
priesthood, without the possibility of giving either one greater
importance. "Gospel radicalism" has been shown to work in the same kind of
interdependence, in need of the same mystical order for the benefit of the
whole People of God and of the world whose Saviour is Christ.
. . .
V. Many lessons can be learned from the picture that has just
been sketched, necessarily with rough strokes and undoubtedly not devoid
of omissions, of all that the Pope has taught and done in the field of
V.1. In the first place, John Paul II has directly and
vigorously grappled with the difficulties the Church has met in the last
third of the 20th century. He has not overlooked anything, therefore, in
either our trials or our temptations. But he has done so by firmly
shifting the problem. He asks us to replace a reflection in terms of power
over the institutions with a renewed perception of the drama of the human
condition, deciphered in the light of the mystery at the heart of the
Christian faith: the Redemption.
In other words, the Pope has been able to refocus everything on Christ
without the fear of not being "part of the times in which he lives".
Gift and Mystery once again enables us to understand him. He is
speaking of priests, but his remarks apply to all the faithful because of
the solidarity between the states of life in the Church and the oneness in
Christ of all vocations.
John Paul II therefore writes: "I am convinced that a priest, committed
as he is to this necessary pastoral renewal, should at the same time have
no fear of being 'behind the times', because the human 'today' of every
priest is included in the 'today' of Christ the Redeemer. For every
priest, in every age, the greatest task is each day to discover his own
priestly 'today' in the 'today' of Christ to which the Letter to the
Hebrews refers (13:8). '...Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today
and for ever'".
V.2. Secondly, we can see that the Holy Father has delved into
his rich personal experience, those of the Church-martyr, to gather the
treasures of Tradition and so take up the challenges of the third
millennium. Gift and Mystery conveys to us the influence of his
father and of Cardinal Sapieha, as well as of the men and women religious
who enlightened him on his vocational path.
The text also offers us at least two other testimonies of the way in
which John Paul II lived what he teaches us.
First of all, he very soon acquired an awareness of the critical
importance of the mission of lay people. He says: "In Rome [that is, at
the end of his studies after his ordination], I was able to grasp more
fully how much the priesthood is linked to pastoral ministry and the
apostolate of the laity [we mean, of course: the lay apostolate]. A close
connection, or better, a mutual correlation, exists between priestly
service and the lay apostolate. As I reflected on these pastoral issues, I
came to appreciate ever more clearly the meaning and value of the
This precious insight was strengthened during his early days as a young
vicar, professor and chaplain, and was confirmed by the Second Vatican
Council. "When the Second Vatican Council", the Pope recognizes, "spoke of
the vocation and mission of lay people in the Church and the world, I
rejoiced: what the Council was teaching corresponded to the convictions
which had guided my activity ever since the first years of my priestly
Moreover, the Pope's experience of the Nazi occupation and then of the
Communist dictatorship in Poland gave him a direct proof of what sacrifice
means in human terms as well as of the meaning and fruitfulness of even
the most tragic events, seen in the light of the Redemption. In Gift
and Mystery he writes: "My priesthood, even at its beginning, was in
some way marked by the great sacrifice of countless men and women of my
generation. Providence spared me the most difficult experiences; and so my
sense of indebtedness is all the greater, both to people whom I knew and
to many more whom I did not know; all of them, regardless of nationality
or language, by their sacrifice on the great altar of history, helped to
make my priestly vocation a reality. In a way these people guided me to
this path; by their sacrifice they showed me the most profound and
essential truth about the priesthood of Christ".
V.3. Among the memories he recounts for his priestly jubilee,
John Paul II poignantly recalls one of his comrades at the underground
seminary, who failed to appear one morning to serve with him at the Mass
of the "Prince-Archbishop". This young man, Jerzy Zachuta, had been
arrested during the night and would soon afterwards be shot. The Pope
still wonders, 50 years later: "Why not me?". And he replies: "Today I
know that it was not mere chance. Amid the overwhelming evil of war,
everything in my own personal life was tending towards the good of my
vocation". Already Isaiah, in the second song of the Lord's Servant,
provides the key to all vocations: "In the shadow of his hand he hid me;
he made me a polished arrow, in his quiver he hid me away" (49:2).
We may say today that Karol Wojtyła
was drawn by his vocation much further than he could have imagined, and
that Providence, which spared him some 60 years ago, reserved him in a way
to guide the whole Church and to bring her around the perilous cape of the
third millennium of the Christian Era. We can only give thanks for this,
with an emotion in which our amazement at the gifts and the mystery of God
vies with filial recognition.
For John Paul II guides us faithfully in the steps of Christ the
Priest, who brings about the Redemption of the world by giving birth to a
holy people. The universal call to holiness illuminates the nature of the
spiritual struggle in this new millennium of the history of salvation. In
this very way, it illuminates the grace God grants his Church to recognize
the "special fittingness" of the evangelical counsels radically followed
by priests; and also the grace of receiving the charism of the consecrated
life so that the whole Church may respond generously to the mission Christ
has entrusted to her until "his coming in glory"