Remembering John Paul II on His Birthday

A new generation deserves to know him as a source of profoundly Catholic thought

May 18 would have been Karol Wojtyła’s 103rd birthday.

In the 18 years since his death, a whole generation has grown up not knowing St. John Paul II. It’s not accidental that there’s a new character assassination effort to stain his reputation and minimize his contributions to the Church.

Monika Jabłońska steps into that breach with her new book, A Pope for All Seasons: Testimonies Inspired by St. John Paul II (Brooklyn: Angelico Press, 2023, 263 pages). A collection of 46 interviews, the work brings back memories for those of us who knew the Polish Pope and introduces him to a whole new generation.

Interviewees range broadly, from the Church (Cardinals Dziwisz, Ruini, Müller, Comastri, Erdö, postulator Sławomir Oder) to academe and the think-tank world (Zbigniew Stawrowski, Jan Żaryn, George Weigel, John Hittinger, Monica’s husband Marek Jan Chodakiewicz), from the political (Melania Trump, Michael Reagan, Edwin Meese III) to the cultural (Placido Domingo, Krzysztof Zanussi), from childhood friends of the Pope (Eugeniusz Mróz) to his photographer (Arturo Mari) to other spiritual leaders (the Dalai Lama XIV).

Msgr. Oder insists that the beatification and canonization processes took account of claims that John Paul did not properly handle sexual abuse cases. “Neither I nor the commission involved in investigating the life of the late Pope for sainthood — based on extensive research carried out in the Vatican archives and elsewhere — found any evidence that the Pope consciously neglected or covered up the sexual abuse scandals” (p. 34).

Of greater interest to me is the effort to walk back the late Pope’s clarification and reaffirmation of the Magisterium, especially in areas of familial and sexual ethics. Cardinal Müller scores “[t]he false dichotomy of theology and pastoral care in vogue today [which] contradicts their common root in Christ, the incarnate Logos … and in Jesus, the good shepherd (the pastor), who gave his life up for his sheep” (p. 18). Fr. Robert Skrzypczak criticizes bishops “who issued a letter apologizing to the faithful for John Paul II’s teaching on marriage and sexuality. In other words, we apologize for John Paul II. We apologize for him being demanding. We apologize for him preaching the Gospel” (p. 50). Skrzypczak focuses on the essential: “The greatest achievement of his pontificate was not the defeat of communism but the restoration of faith in God’s action in man — holiness. We started to believe again that God’s love had a plan for our life, that one could describe life in terms of a vocation” (ibid).

Particularly in the area of family and sexual ethics, John Paul II brought clarity to an area of thinking that is extraordinarily muddled for modern man, at the threat of his dignity. Skrzypczak identifies how providential John Paul’s foci were: “How did John Paul II know so long ago that the attempts to destroy this sign [sexual differentiation] that man belongs to God, this fundamental relationship with man’s Author, would take place on the stage of sexuality?” (p. 47). He adds, “The greatest epidemic of the 21st century is not the Coronavirus but loneliness. A man who lives in atheism is a man who has deprived himself, or has been deprived of, the fundamental relationship on which all existence is based, the relationship to his creator. Loneliness makes men yearn to belong. They try to treat their loneliness with collectivism …” (ibid).

I’ll admit my bias. I wrote my dissertation on the prepapal sexual ethics of Karol Wojtyła back in 1985 when the Pope from Poland still wasn’t cool. I was attracted to him upon reading Love and Responsibility because he was saying, in very academic language, the same sorts of things I heard in far less exalted verbiage from my Polish-American mother.

That’s why I think another generation deserves to get to know John Paul II, not as an historical artifact but as a source of profoundly Catholic thought that needs to be carried forward and applied by a new generation facing new problems which, in some sense, are more primordial than even those with which Wojtyła wrestled. On a popular level, Jabłońska’s book affords a positive introduction to the man.

 

John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) was former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. All views expressed herein are exclusively his.

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