For the 25th Anniversary of Redemptor Hominis of Pope John Paul II

Author: Ettore Malnati

For the 25th Anniversary of Redemptor Hominis of Pope John Paul II

Ettore Malnati

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 family.

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 — or, 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 from Christ".

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 fertile.

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 post-industrial society.

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 you" — expression of the "deep restlessness", the anguish and joy, he experienced.

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. 34).

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).

Eucharistic Dimensions

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).

Pope Wojtyła 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 sacramental economy.

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, 21).

"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 years.

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.

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
14 July 2004, page 10

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