Vocations in the Pontificate of John Paul II

Author: Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger


Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger
Archbishop of Paris


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 West.

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 celibacy.

In short, three ideas obfuscated the spiritual and sacramental realities of  presbyteral priesthood and of both the religious and baptismal vocation:

— 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 culture.

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 fully implemented.

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 Stalinism.

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 and greatness.

Karol Wojtyła 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 market-oriented.

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 'progressivism' — 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 — to 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 God".

He has done this — and continues to do so — in 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 — in the way that is peculiar to him alone, in keeping with his eternal love and mercy, with full divine freedom — and 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, even though — as biographers of the Holy Father assure us — all 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 VitaConsecrata), 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 Christ's priesthood".

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 truly priestly.

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 — and very legitimately — 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 justice.

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 occupation.

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 — to 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 faithful".

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 decisive principles.

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 sent".

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 'united'".

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 way".

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 — like Peter — the cross of Christ and becoming with the Apostle a 'floor' for our brothers and sisters, one finds the ultimate meaning of all priestly spirituality".

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 Kolbe.

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 vocations.

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 ministerial priesthood".

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 ministry".

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"  

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
17/24 December 2003, page 15

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