|Set Out 'Towards Christ, the Redeemer of Man'
The human experience of Karl Wojtyła
and his cultural formation in both theology and philosophy have given him
a dimension of time that can never be repeated, with unique significance
for the individual and for all humanity. He therefore interprets in the
Sight of Providence the moment when he was designated Pastor of the Church
of Rome, hence, a Successor of Peter in his ministry.
The meaning of history
This Pope reminds the Church that at the close of the Second Christian
Millennium she is in "a season of a new Advent" (Redemptor Hominis,
n. 1), a time when it is necessary to remember the event that gave rise to
the history of Redemption: the Incarnation of the Word.
The theme of "hic et nunc" is a constant in the thought of John
Paul II, who becomes wisely pedagogical in connection with acquiring an
awareness of the significance of these times.
On several occasions, the Pope has referred to the importance of living
the hic et nunc as a mandate to spread co-responsibility among the
whole Christian community and express the meaning of our first steps in
the new millennium (cf. Novo Millennia Ineunte, n. 5), which must
be purified from the "loss of Europe's Christian memory and heritage" (Ecclesia
in Europa, n. 7).
He sees history as the realization of salvation. He sees time as God's
kairos where man is not a slave to the event but, if he accepts
Christ, plays a leading role in the uplifting dialogue of salvation (cf.
Redemptor Hominis, n. 4).
This history is often the place where the "mysterium iniquitatis"
subsists; the kairos, with its strength, has already defeated it,
but it must be depenalized by the mysterium pietatis which must be
accepted and practiced by individuals and communities of believers to
neutralize the structures of sin.
At the beginning of the 1980s, before the collapse of the two blocs,
John Paul II's gaze was fully focused on this "time of great progress"
which, however, simultaneously posed a "threat in many forms for man" (Redemptor
Hominis, n. 16).
He has grasped the positive aspect of accomplishments in the
international arena as conducive to "the definition and establishment of
man's objective and inviolable rights" (Redemptor Hominis,
n. 17). Recalling the Magisteriums of John XXIII, Paul VI and the Second
Vatican Council, he points out the path of peace as the truest way to
guarantee this attention and effort. History must essentially be seen and
foreseen, so that everything may contribute to the progress of the whole
person and all people (cf. Gaudium et Spes, n. 22).
Thus, John Paul II asks the international community to do its utmost to
protect Peoples and States from conflicts that escalate into the horror of
war, and to work for a history that promotes peace for the entire human
To realize this history of hope, Pope Wojtyła
instructs the international community "to create the basis for continual
revision of programmes, systems and regimes precisely from this single
fundamental point of view, namely, the welfare of man
let us say, of the person in the community
which must, as a fundamental factor in the common good, constitute the
essential criterion for all programmes, systems and regimes. If the
opposite happens, human life is, even in time of peace, condemned to
various sufferings and, along with these sufferings, there is a
development of various forms of domination, totalitarianism,
neo-colonialism and imperialism which are a threat also to the harmonious
living together of the nations" (Redemptor Hominis, n. 17).
The Holy Father has presented in various circumstances and Documents
this concern to purify history, not only on the part of believers in
Christ but on the part of all people of good will. He has stressed the
importance of working in all areas to create the conditions that make it
possible to overcome ideological and military opposition (cf.
Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, n. 20), but also to put the super powers on
their guard against the temptation of exploiting local conflicts and
activating "wars by proxy" (cf. ibid.).
He makes his own Paul VI's conviction that the new name of peace is
development (cf. Paul VI, Populorum Progressio, n. 77). This
prompted him to ask for an examination of the phenomenon of
interdependence between the "developed and less developed countries", now
obliged to confront the "question of the international debt" (cf.
Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, n. 19), and to invite industrialized society
to take on the problem of the "under-employed" and "unemployed" (cf.
Laborem Exercens, n. 18).
John Paul II says in Redemptor Hominis, and continues to
maintain in his pronouncements that the development of technology as well
as the development of the civilization of our time, marked by the
domination of technology, require a proportional development of the moral
life and ethics (cf. Redemptor Hominis, n. 15).
Jesus’ mystery as central
John Paul II presents with conviction the centrality of Christ's
mystery, not only for theological reflection, but also to achieve the
prospects of the Second Vatican Council and dialogue as a mission of the
Church which, the Pope writes in his first Encyclical (cf. Redemptor
Hominis, n. 7), Paul VI had already indicated as the way to understand
the relationship between the Church and the world.
The mystery that Pope Wojtyła
is looking at is the redeeming action of the Word of God made man. To do
the Father's will for humanity's universal salvation, the Word directs his
own will and his entire activity to this end in order to stress once and
for all the historicity on God's part of the "mysterium pietatis".
The Pope takes the relationship between the Father and the redeeming
mission of the Son as a practical "example" to be accepted by Christian
communities in order to travel the paths suggested by Vatican Council II.
The following passage from the Encyclical is meaningful: "What should
we do, in order that this new Advent of the Church connected with the
approaching end of the second millennium may bring us closer to him whom
Sacred Scripture calls 'Everlasting Father' (Is 9:6)?... To this
question... a fundamental and essential response must be given. Our
response must be: Our spirit is set in one direction; the only direction
for our intellect, will and heart is towards Christ our Redeemer, towards
Christ, the Redeemer of man" (Redemptor Hominis, n.7).
If the Subject and Object of the Annunciation is Christ in the mystery
of his death and Resurrection, the goal for the Church preparing for the
third millennium must be the same.
In 1979, what John Paul II was asking pastors, theologians, Religious,
laity and pastoral workers was not only to go beyond purely sociological
planning and the mere efficiency of horizontal, pragmatic community
management, but also to acquire theological criteria in renewing and
reforming the Church.
The Pope is aware of the dramas and the expectations. He is not
ignorant of the post-conciliar dialectic in the theological, ecclesial,
cultural and ethical contexts, which is why he asks us to "Set out anew
May his mystery of intimate sharing with those who find life
burdensome, who are impoverished, who are crippled by the burden of
injustice, convey the power of the miracle; "I will arise and go to my
Father" (Lk 15:18).
This Encyclical involves an anthropological interpretation in which one
can perceive, in accordance with the criteria of classical theology and
also of De Lubac, that the supernatural dimension must exercise not only
an ascetic emotion but also a dynamic action and basis for the integral
good of the subject. If the interpretation goes beyond the personal sphere
and is accepted and adopted by the community, all reality will benefit.
John Paul II's experience as a Christian and Pastor in a social and
political situation in which the Church had nothing to count on but the
power and wisdom of the faith, has brought him to communicate and
emphasize this truth which has set him free.
Christ is the model, and his style must be that of the whole Church
concerning her renewal and how she measures up to the conciliar analysis
of the contemporary world (cf. Redemptor Hominis, n. 8).
John Paul II is struck by what is asserted in the Council's Pastoral
Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (cf. Redemptor Hominis,
n. 9), where, to motivate trust in the complex world situation, the
Council Fathers recall the identity of the Christ event and stress its
exalting aspect: that the mystery of the Incarnation has potentially
restored to every person "that likeness to God which had been disfigured
ever since the first sin" (Gaudium et Spes, n. 22).
In his Magisterium, precisely by letting himself be conquered by this
Christological tension and convinced of the presence of the Creator's
features in humanity, however hidden they may be, Pope Wojtyła
has developed the idea that the Church should not look at the world from
the oppressive negative Augustinian vantage point, but, from the Gospel
perspective of the "vineyard" which we are sent into (cf. Apostolic
Exhortation Christifideles Laici, n. 1) to cultivate and make
It is essential that this renewal occur within the Church so that she
may live and make visible the threefold mission of Christ himself (cf.
Redemptor Homnis, n. 21), in which every Christian shares through
Baptism (cf. Dogmatic Constitution Lumen Gentium, n. 31).
In his first Encyclical, John Paul II already hints at the "training in
holiness", which he was to identify as an urgent pastoral need at the
beginning of the third millennium (cf. Apostolic. Letter Novo Miliennio
Ineunte, n. 32).
Church: responsible for truth
Drawing on the "images of the Church" portrayed by the Second Vatican
Council and including all aspects of the concept of Church, such as
"People of God" and "Body of Christ" (cf. Second Vatican Council, Lumen
Gentium, nn. 7-17), and of those symbols portraying her in the
Gospels, such as the "sheepfold" (cf. Jn 10:1-10), "God's field" (cf. I
Cor 3:9), a "spiritual house" (cf. I Pt 2:5), the "Bride of the Lamb" (cf.
Rv 19:7) and the "Jerusalem above" (cf. Gal 4:26), John Paul II wishes in
his first Encyclical to present a reflection on "the Church as responsible
for truth" (Redemptor Hominis, n. 19), that is, on the Church's
mission to promote the truth that Christianity holds for men and women who
are social and relational beings, independent of the act of faith (cf.
Gaudium et Spes, n, 12), and to whom the Creator has given dominion
over the order established in creation.
In this sense, the Pope shows that "man in the full truth of his
existence, of his personal being and also of his community and social
being... is the primary route that the Church must travel in fulfilling
her mission... the way that leads invariably through the mystery of the
Incarnation and the Redemption" (Redemptor Hominis, n. 14).
Many situations or relationships impoverish man and leave him in a
precarious material and social plight; but the poverty of the truth about
man affects entire Peoples and persons, even members of the
From the beginning of his Pontificate, John Paul II has felt the need
to recall the inseparable relationship between faith and reason. He points
out that this "supernatural virtue [faith] infused into the human spirit
makes us sharers in knowledge of God as a response to his revealed Word" (Redemptor
Hominis, n. 19). He recalls the duty of Christians to help all people
situate in eternal law the foundations of natural law, which involve
reason and faith in arriving at the truth.
This supports the foundations of Christianity and is the basis used by
St Thomas and the Scholastics to formulate natural law doctrine, which
also grounds Christian social doctrine.
This reminder was particularly apt at a time such as the end of the
1970s when other more or less superficial criteria to form judgments had
led to the interpretation of natural law as an assertion of what man
actually is, whereas it can only be considered as what, in man,
must be considered and respected.
John Paul II desires to start from solid, philosophical and theological
foundations, since it is only right to stress that the mission the
Redeemer gave to the Church responds to a real ontological requirement of
the human person who, if he accepts it, fulfils it in truth.
Man can also try to exclude from his fulfilment of the penultimate
reality the relationship with his existential foundation: God, the
ultimate reality of all things. Man can fight and deny this principle, and
thus will not be fulfilled. He will continue to lack existential happiness
because, as St Augustine warns: "Our hearts are restless till they rest in
expression of the "deep restlessness", the anguish and joy, he
John Paul II reminds a humanity that longs for an existential answer
concerning the truth about man that they can find it in Christ, who is
also proclaimed by the Church through the evolution of reason and science
(cf. Redemptor Hominis, n. 19). The Pope was to develop this theme,
outlined in the 1988 Encyclical Fides et Ratio, in which he
stresses that "this truth, which God reveals to us in Jesus Christ, is not
opposed to the truths which philosophy perceives. On the contrary, the two
modes of knowledge lead to truth in all its fullness. The unity of truth
is a fundamental premise of human reasoning, as the principle of
non-contradiction makes clear. Revelation renders this unity certain,
showing that the God of creation is also the God of salvation history" (n.
The relationship between truth and reason imposes a twofold
consideration "since the truth conferred by Revelation is a truth to be
understood in the light of: reason" (Fides et Ratio, n. 35).
Consequently, there is no contradiction between the two orders of
knowledge; rather, we can say with John Paul II that it is reason that
leads us to the threshold of the mystery.
In Christ, the Church fully reveals man to himself. It is this mission
that today, more than ever, she must take on as she faces the various
challenges that bio-technology poses to the entire human family, appealing
to the law that God has written in the heart of man; his dignity itself
lies in obeying it (cf. Veritatis Splendor, n. 54).
John Paul II gives particular importance in the sacramental and
ecclesial process to the relationship between the saving work of Christ
and his representation in every Christian community in the sacrament of
the Eucharist (cf. Redemptor Hominis, n. 20). In this Encyclical he
speaks as a Pastor who has grasped the conciliar perspective on the
Eucharist without in any way diminishing what Catholic theology has
believed and still believes concerning this sacrament.
John Paul II's interpretation at the beginning of his Pontificate is a
careful one that aims at eliminating certain ambiguous interpretations
concerning this sacrament, which were already stigmatized by Paul VI in
his Encyclical Mysterium Fidei in 1965 (cf. nn. 26-34).
He mentions the deep bond between the celebration of the Eucharist and
the sacrifice of the Cross, "the saving power of the Redemption". He
notes: "For by Christ's will there is in this Sacrament a continual
renewing of the mystery of the Sacrifice of himself that Christ offered to
the Father on the altar of the Cross, a Sacrifice that the Father
accepted, giving, in return for this total self-giving by his Son, who
'became obedient unto death' (Phil 2:8), his own paternal gift, that is to
say the grant of new; immortal life in the Resurrection, since the Father
is the first source and the giver of life from the beginning. That new
life, which involves the bodily glorification of the crucified Christ,
became an efficacious sign of the new gift granted to humanity, the gift
that is the Holy Spirit, through whom the divine life that the Father has
in himself and gives to his Son is communicated to all men who are united
with Christ" (Redemptor Hominis, n. 20).
The Pope is concerned with making people understand that Christ wanted
men and women to have the sacraments so that they might be united to him
and benefit from the fruits of his Redemption, becoming God's adoptive
children and obtaining a "royal priesthood". The "Eucharist is the
sacrament in which our new being is most completely expressed" (Redemptor
Hominis, n. 20).
John Paul II also recalls the conciliar teaching that the Eucharist
builds the Church (cf. Lumen Gentium, n. 11) as "the authentic
community of the People of God, as the assembly of the faithful, bearing
the same mark of unity that was shared by the Apostles and the first
disciples of the Lord" (Redemptor Hominis, n. 20).
stresses that the root of the continual regeneration of communion and
unity that the Eucharist brings is the Sacrifice of Christ himself (cf.
Redemptor Hominis, n. 20). This topic recurs frequently in the
Magisterium of John Paul II, and each time we can perceive his profound
faith in this Christic action which is the heart of the Christian
Lastly, he wished to focus the entire Church's attention on this
sacrament in his 2003 Encyclical, Ecclesia de Eucharistia. In
chapter two he again shows the connection between the celebration of the
Eucharist and the Sacrifice of the Cross, and in so doing highlights the
source of the "unity of the faithful, who form one body in Christ" (n,
"It is not permissible for us", John Paul II writes, "in thought, life
or action, to take away from this truly most Holy Sacrament its full
magnitude and its essential meaning. It is at one and the same time a
Sacrifice-Sacrament, a Communion-Sacrament, and a Presence-Sacrament" (Redemptor
Hominis, n. 20).
It would have been possible to study this first Encyclical of John Paul
II much more deeply, and much has already been written about it. These
simple "highlights" attempt to understand the priorities chosen by the
Pontiff himself and presented from different angles during the past 25
When he therefore turned his thoughts and heart to the Redeemer of man
at the beginning of his Petrine ministry, this Pope's goal was "to enter
and penetrate into the deepest rhythm of the Church's life.... She draws
it from Christ", who always wishes "that we should have life, and have it
abundantly" (cf. Jn 10:10).
"This fullness of life in him is at the same time for man. Therefore,
the Church, uniting herself with all the riches of the mystery of the
Redemption, becomes the Church of living people, living because given life
from within by the working of 'the Spirit of truth' (Jn 16:13)" (Redemptoris
Hominis, n. 22).
Having examined his Magisterium and his apostolic commitment, we can
say 25 years later that John Paul II has set himself to listen to the
mystery of God and of man, and that he has led the Church to be a sign of
hope for every People and for every person, hiding none of the efforts and
joys this mission entails.