June 2011

The End and the Beginning: Pope John Paul II — The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy.  By George Weigel. Double­day. 565 pages. $32.50.

Santo Subito! Magnus! These were the words shouted by many of the 800,000 people who attended the funeral of Karol Wojtyla, Pope John Paul II. “Saint Immediately! The Great!” they were saying, and while proclamations of sainthood are not an unusual part of modern requiems, emotional acclamations from the crowd are. Was he a saint? Only God knows for now, and certainly George Weigel makes no such claim.

What he does claim is this: that despite his failures, and there were some to be sure, John Paul II was a great man and a great pope. His papacy, the second longest in history, fulfilled to an extraordinary degree the Christian missions to govern (serve), teach, and sanctify. His unparalleled presence on the world stage — he was seen by more people than any other human being — gave witness to the evangelization we are all called to live.

John Paul II spoke to everybody, and his message was not for Catholics alone. The principled stance he took against the two most diabolical regimes of the 20th century demonstrated his belief that conscience and culture can stand up to tyranny. Without his leadership, surely the Polish people and the Polish Church would have suffered much more. And while the Church must have a preferential option toward the poor, politics and ideology are no substitutes for sanctity.

John Paul's efforts to prevent the conflagration in Iraq, while recognizing the role of secular authorities, and his defense of the dignity of women against current notions of liberation, stand as testimony to his belief in the Church’s call to participate in society. His 14 encyclicals and numerous letters and exhortations offer lasting evidence of his unshakable belief in the inalienable dignity of every human being, as well as the role of both culture and individual action as movers of human history.

Did he do everything right? Catholics from a good many different camps would say no — and for a long list of reasons. Even Weigel seems more critical in this sequel than he was in Witness to Hope. But according to Weigel and others who knew the man, John Paul II never lacked the courage to do right, and whatever decisions he made, he made for the good of the universal Church.

Yes, he brought errant theologians like Charles Curran and Hans Küng to heel, but he did so only after much deliberation and only when dissent was blatant and retractions were not forthcoming. Over the course of his long papacy, there were actually very few who were silenced, so charges of widespread repression are grossly exaggerated. Did he centralize power, leaving the local bishops unable to govern their own diocese and allowing curial officials to run amok? Not really. Much of his reticence in curbing liturgical abuses came from his belief that protection of the liturgy and the sacraments was the duty of the local bishop. Did he ignore what was going on in the local sees? Again, no. A full 40 percent of John Paul II’s public time was spent on ad limina visits with his bishops.

And these were not mere formalities. By all accounts, John Paul II spoke with candor and forcefulness. Still, some very poor bishops were appointed during his tenure and most remained in place despite their obvious missteps. Even the Pope saw that his lack of assertiveness may have caused problems, but in his words, “There is always a problem in achieving a balance between authority and service…. Yet it could also be related to the will of Christ, who asked His Apostles not to dominate but to serve.”

As Weigel shows throughout his extensive chronicle and analysis, Pope John Paul II acted with deliberation and care. That others did not understand his actions was at least in part their own fault. He did not kiss the Koran to suggest agreement with all its teachings or to suggest it was divine revelation but rather as a “kiss for Muslims.” Any other interpretation the Pope had already rejected in his 1994 Crossing the Threshold of Hope. Did he canonize too many saints, lower the bar perhaps? Or did his recognition demonstrate his conviction that sanctity was within everyone’s reach? That even today, the Holy Spirit bestows His Gifts on the Church?

There is no doubt John Paul II saw the papacy differently than some. When he could no longer smile or even swallow his own saliva, many wanted him off the stage. But as French cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger said, “The Pope, in his weakness, is living more than ever the role assigned him of being the Vicar of Christ on earth, participating in the suffering of our Redeemer. Many times we have the idea that the head of the Church is like a super-manager of a great international company, a man of action who makes decisions and is judged on the basis of his effectiveness. But for believers the most effective action, the mystery of salvation, happens when Christ is on the cross and can’t do or decide anything other than to accept the will of the Father.” So really John Paul II could not retire, even as he became so frail that celebrating Mass was difficult. During those years, when the gossips suggested that his mind was no longer sharp, that he was no longer functioning, he was still a witness to the sanctity of all human life and a testimony that we cannot take away a man’s dignity. It is God-given.

His lasting gift to us, and an unusual one from a man trained as a philosopher, might be that sanctity is more important than argument.

- Elizabeth Hanink





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