The Teaching of John Paul II
The Pope's direction: the direction of faith
When John Paul II was elected Pope, he was an unknown figure to most in the Western world. People immediately began to ask questions. "Is he progressive or conservative?", they wondered, resorting to categories used at the time to describe the Church. Opinions were divided.
Facing all with 'serene power'
In fact, people soon realized that Karol Wojtyła was a man from "far away" and from a completely different dimension. His remoteness was not geographical; it had nothing to do with his Polish origins.
Actually, the Pope came from far away in another sense.
He was rooted in the world of faith and prayer. To those asking about the direction he would follow in his Pontificate, the Pontiff responded: "The Pope's direction: the direction of faith".
Those who met John Paul II during early mornings in his Private Chapel came away with an impression of his strong, deep roots in the world of faith and prayer.
Karol Wojtyła emerged from this environment calm and ready to meet the most varied people and situations. Yet, in his life he was never free of problems and suffering.
We can recall his childhood difficulties in a family visited by death, as well as the hardships of the Second World War in his own Homeland under Soviet domination.
And from the time of his Pontificate, who could forget the horrific attack on his life in 1981?
But through it all, the Pope faced men and women clothed in serene power.
In his human frailty, during his last years which he lived as an invalid, John Paul II was strong in the sense that the Apostle Paul meant when he wrote: "For when I am weak, then I am strong" (II Cor 12:10).
He never faced the historic events of his Pontificate as a politician. On the contrary, he often faced them with open, empty hands. It suffices to think of the epochal confrontation of his life: with Soviet Communism.
Great emphasis has been placed on the Holy Father's role in Communism's collapse. It is a story most of which has yet to be written.
The Pope, however, even in the Eastern nations and under many restrictions, set his Church on a religious plane close to the people and internally united. This is the "formula" which he proposed to all Churches in difficulty that he encountered during his long Pontificate.
The Pope has asked the Church to focus on the Gospel and to communicate the Gospel. He has been the first to do so on every possible occasion. He loved the response that Peter gave to the lame man at the Gate of the Beautiful in Jerusalem: "I have no silver or gold, but I give you what I have; in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk" (Acts 3:6).
Christians truly owe it to the world to communicate the Gospel of Jesus Christ, which offers people a new approach. This was John Paul II's crucial conviction and the heart of his pastoral ministry.
Pope of identity or dialogue?
The Holy Father arrived at an alternative position than those who were scrutinizing his Pontificate and questioning whether he was a Pope of identity or a Pope of dialogue.
Some feared that John Paul II, with his steadfast faith, might call Paul VI's openness to dialogue into question. Others, identifying a crisis in the Church, hoped that he would.
His response to the crisis was a response of faith, that is, of greater belief, and he plunged further into the depths of spiritual life. These are the topics on which he preached for more than 25 years. They are aspects of his life, which he communicated simply and directly to all who met him.
John Paul II was a Pope of dialogue. The great picture of Assisi in 1986, which portrays him in the city of St Francis among the world's religious leaders, inviting them to say "no" to war and particularly to war for religious reasons, was one of the great proofs of his commitment to dialogue. With him, Catholics and Christians of all traditions, despite their differences, began to think and feel like a family.
It is only possible here to mention his great attention to Judaism and the other religious worlds. Yet John Paul II was something more than a Pope of dialogue: he was a man of encounter, with everyone, without exclusion.
He was the Pope who visited the most countries of the world and met the most people. Rather than illustrate here all the "triumphs" of John Paul II, we attempt to take a look at the "philosophy of encounter" that marked his entire Pontificate and life.
I have frequently wondered about the Pope's use of his time, ever since his first steps after his election.
In Rome, he spent a great deal of time meeting young people, doing small things, listening and offering encouragement. He received so many people, asking them questions and listening to their answers. He did not act like a government leader or someone important. He refused to focus simply on "big business".
Was there a sort of "Papal Populism" that was intended to please and satisfy?
For John Paul II, a meeting with an individual had immense value. There was a sense of wonder in him that served to inspire everyone he encountered. However, the Pope also lived his responsibility as a "priest", feeling it his duty to offer a word of encouragement and hope to all.
Indeed, Pope Wojtyła always preferred to encourage, sustain and nurture all that is good and to overcome evil and perplexity with goodness. This did not mean that his behaviour was ambiguous or timid; his treatment of others was definitely full of trust, optimism and encouragement.
The Pope knew the weaknesses of people in the West, the difficulties of people in the East and the sufferings of people in the South. He wanted to repeat to them all, personally, the first Message of his Pontificate, a biblical expression, the words spoken by the Risen Jesus himself: — "Do not be afraid".
Ever the priest, ever the servant
When he became Pope, Karol Wojtyła never relinquished his roles as Bishop and priest. He never became a "Sovereign Pontiff"; on the contrary, he appeared to be totally disinterested in the "sovereign" aspects of his Pontificate.
He was a Bishop through and through, as he showed from his very first days in the Diocese of Rome by visiting parishes and meeting the people and priests. And he liked to understand the different communities, their composition, inclinations and problems. He had a true Pastor's taste for the Christian "little things" and not only for the "big picture" typical of many great leaders.
This conditioned the immensely generous management of his time, independent of any specific plan. Pope Wojtyła was not an organizer as Paul VI had been; the culture of planning was alien to him. He simply made himself available to the requests of the Church, the embrace of the people and "the signs of the times".
The long years of his Pontificate were marked, however, by a profound inner logic: Pope Wojtyła appeared to be motivated by a very strong inner coherence and a great openness to all. Today, his message appears crystal clear, while many can say that they have an almost personal memory of him and his presence.
His Papacy of more than a quarter century deeply renewed the Church. Yet John Paul II was not a reformer Pope. In other words, he did not set out to tackle the problem of changing Church institutions or structures; indeed, in this field he confirmed the general lines traced by Paul VI.
Nonetheless, he instilled a new spirit in the life of the Church, changing both her life and that of Christians. His existence and his Pontificate are contained in a Christian paradox: he was not dedicated to reforms, yet he introduced profound change.
A deeply spiritual Pope, he saw his actions as having decided effects in the political arena. A man of firm Christian faith, it was the Pope who achieved the greatest openings to the non-Christian world.
Faith dwells in weakness
The final Wojtyła, the Wojtyła of sickness and silence, recalled to us the essential dimension of human life: faith dwells in weakness.
It is that faith which becomes life, lived as a mission until the very last breath. It is that faith which gives life value, even when the body is bent beneath the burden of sickness, when words vanish, when everything becomes difficult.
For many years, with great and youthful energy, John Paul II taught a somewhat weary Church the meaning of vitality and faith.
In his last years and — I would like to say — in his last days, the Pope demonstrated the value of life stripped of all its resources. Such a gift is not thrown away, even when strength and youth have vanished.
In a world now filled with older persons (and one which despises and rejects the elderly), John Paul II, elderly and ill himself, bore in silence his final witness to the value of life.
And he continues today to urge us all not to be afraid.
Weekly Edition in English
20 April 2005, page 12
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