Blessed John Paul II: First Pope of the Catholic Resurgence

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Sometimes a great historical figure is not as recognized as such during his lifetime.  Other historical figures are recognized as monumentally important even while they live.  John Paul II, who was beatified yesterday, was definitely in the latter category.  He was the most important Pope of the last century, and the first pope I think of what will be viewed by future historians as a great Catholic resurgence.  It will take centuries for historians to fully assess his almost 27 year long papacy, but here are some of the factors that I think they will note.

1.  He largely stopped the post Vatican II chaos-After Vatican II the impulse to transform the Church into an institution fully reflecting the current views of cultural elites in the West wreaked much havoc.  Paul VI, a good and holy man, drew a line in the sand with Humanae Vitae, but he lacked the stomach and the will to fight it out with those who would have transformed the Catholic Church into what the Anglican Church is now:  a dying institution, adrift from any allegiance to traditional Christianity, and fully in accord with the mores and beliefs of the secular elite of the West.  Many were rubbing their hands with glee after the death of Pope Paul, in confident assurance that a new liberal pope would complete the transformation of the Church into something akin to Unitarianism with fancy dress.  Instead they got John Paul II, a Polish fighter who had stood toe to toe with the atheist rulers of Poland and was not the least frightened or impressed by the forces that sought to neuter Christ’s Church.  The chaos and low morale of the Church could not be completely reversed in one papacy, but John Paul II began the process and made a huge amount of progress.

2.  Presiding at the Funeral of Communism-During World War II, both the Nazis and the Communists slaughtered a huge number of Polish priests, viewing them as deadly enemies.  How very right they were!  The Polish Church, in the midst of one of the worst persecutions sustained by the Catholic Church in the last century, never lost faith that the Church and Poland would both ultimately outlast the totalitarian regimes and emerge triumphant.  John Paul II was the embodiment of this robust confidence that Communism, like Nazism, was merely a brief historical abberation that could and would be defeated.  The rise of Solidarity was completely predictable to him, and his embrace of it made a crackdown by the Polish Communist regime, and its Kremlin puppet masters, impossible.  John Paul II and Ronald Reagan in the Eighties brought about the largely peaceful collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe and laid the groundwork for its collapse in the former Soviet Union.  The heirs of Joseph Stalin learned to their sorrow that the type of power wielded by a skillful and determined pope cannot be counted in divisions but rather in human hearts.

3.  Culture of Life-In the teeth of an overwhelming movement among Western elites to jettison the belief that human life is sacred, John Paul II rededicated the Church to that proposition and waged a long uphill struggle throughout his papacy against abortion and euthanasia.  Like Moses, John Paul II did not live to see the victory in this fight, but ultimately we will win, and his brave stand at a crucial moment in history will be one of the reasons why.

4.  Pope of the people-With modern means of transportation, a vigorous Pope can treat the whole world as his diocese by globe trotting and that is precisely what John Paul II did.  In the Nineteenth Century, modern means of communication, the telegraph, photography and newspapers, were skillfully used by Pius IX to forge a personal contact between the Pope and average Catholics.  Pope John Paul II took this a step farther by bringing the Pope to the average Catholic.  A masterful stroke and superbly executed.

5.  Vocations-Pope John Paul II began the process by which the hemorrhaging of priests was staunched and laid the groundwork for the rebound we are now seeing in vocations to the priesthood in most of the Church outside of Europe.  Much needs to be done still, but without the efforts of John Paul II the situation now would be of truly crisis proportions.

6.  Theology of the Body-One of the crises of our time is the alienation between some men and women caused by rapidly changing relationships between the sexes brought on by modern life.  John Paul II addressed this in his Theology of the Body.  Go here for a good overview.  The exalted view of John Paul Ii of the love between man and woman in marriage of course ties in perfectly with his defense of the sanctity of life.  In many ways love was the central theme of the papacy of John Paul II.

7.  Centesimus Annus-With the collapse of Communism, in 1991 John Paul II released Centesimus annus, an overview of the mistakes of Marxism and the challenges that remained in a world where Capitalism now seemed supreme.  Go here to read it.  The most significant two paragraphs:

42. Returning now to the initial question: can it perhaps be said that, after the failure of Communism, capitalism is the victorious social system, and that capitalism should be the goal of the countries now making efforts to rebuild their economy and society? Is this the model which ought to be proposed to the countries of the Third World which are searching for the path to true economic and civil progress?

The answer is obviously complex. If by “capitalism” is meant an economic system which recognizes the fundamental and positive role of business, the market, private property and the resulting responsibility for the means of production, as well as free human creativity in the economic sector, then the answer is certainly in the affirmative, even though it would perhaps be more appropriate to speak of a “business economy”, “market economy” or simply “free economy”. But if by “capitalism” is meant a system in which freedom in the economic sector is not circumscribed within a strong juridical framework which places it at the service of human freedom in its totality, and which sees it as a particular aspect of that freedom, the core of which is ethical and religious, then the reply is certainly negative.

8.  Liberation Theology Rejected-In the Sixties and the Seventies of the last century, elements within the Church engaged in a strong flirtation with Marxism and the idea that the Kingdom of God could be brought about by class struggle and rebellion.  The idea was completely hare-brained, but it attracted quite a following.  John Paul II explained that the liberation that Christianity brought had nothing in common with the power grab the Marxists were seeking.  Go here for resources regarding the statements of John Paul II on Liberation Theology.

This list only touches some of the main features of the papacy of John Paul II, a papacy that will be discussed endlessly as the centuries pass.  Was everything perfect about his papacy?  Certainly not.  I have explored on this blog areas where I think the policies and actions of John Paul II were mistaken and I will do so in the future.  However, overall I think John Paul II had a very successful pontificate.  He took the rule of the Church on his shoulders and brought us through a very rough period. It was a privilege to be alive in his papacy, one of the most significant in the history of Mother Church.   

Blessed John Paul II pray for us, and intercede with God to give us future wise shepherds to guide the Church with the faith and skill that you amply demonstrated.

10 Responses to Blessed John Paul II: First Pope of the Catholic Resurgence

  • Bill Sr. says:

    Most revered and blessed John Paul II, faithful servant of our Lord; you gave your life in service to Him in the one body of Christ as testimony to the truth and light which He brought in the Fathers name to the world for the salvation of the people of God. That life and that service of yours which touched the souls of millions in a way that brought us to the threshold of hope and made the world seem less hostile to our fragile existence is now being given proper veneration and honor by those whom you so obviously held close and dear in your heart in answer to God’s calling for you. May you forever be held in our hearts as a reminder of the Fathers divine love for us and His gentle but firm grip on His people that we may live our lives and face the challenges to our faith without fear as we continue our pilgrimage to the peace promised to those who love Him.

  • Joe Green says:

    Don, I admired JP2 as much as anyone, but to dig him up and put him on display before 1.5 million people smacked of a PR stunt. When he died, he was properly praised and mourned, then he should have been left to RIP. When I read there’s “one more miracle” to sainthood, it’s sort of like saying that a baseball player needs another home run to get into the Hall of Fame. These kinds of ritualistic excesses are what hold the church up to ridicule from those who might consider converting.

  • Joe, you view the grave as an end, but for believing Catholics it is only a beginning. In the life of the Church the true work of Blessed John Paul II may only be beginning. This was no “publicity stunt” but a recognition by the Church of the heroic sanctity of a pope who was a remarkable Vicar of Christ.

  • Joe Green says:

    Certainly, a good Pope, Don, compared to, say, Stephen VI (896–897), who had his predecessor Pope Formosus exhumed, tried, de-fingered, briefly reburied, and thrown in the Tiber. The Borgias didn’t exactly produce a good crop either.

    But I did not mean to impugn JP2, who I esteem highly. No disparagement meant on the millions of believers who look forward to a life to come.

  • Pinky says:

    I hope he’s in heaven, and I’ll believe the Church if she says he is. But I don’t have an affection for his pontificate.

    I also worry that, in our culture of immediate gratification, we don’t appreciate history enough. The Church has many saints for us to revere. I didn’t like the number of canonizations that took place under John Paul, and I’m not crazy about the speed with which he himself is approaching canonization. I worry that too many new saints, too soon, dilutes the sense of continuity within the Church.

  • Bill Sr. says:

    “I worry that too many new saints, too soon, dilutes the sense of continuity within the Church”
    I’d like to think there’s no such thing as too many saints. Furhermore, I believe many of us have met or known one in our lifetime. A wonderful Sister of Charity I had the pleasure of working for years ago in Ohio inspired everyone who had the good fortune to deal with her as house mother and school princible at Immaculate Conception Parish in Dayton. The lesson she taught every day of her life was selflessness in the name of Christ. As a result of her life and work, here is my take on “Sainthood”.

    We know that this life of ours is but for a season and how we live and share it with others is of eternal consequence for the body and soul which envelops it. This is why it is so important that as parents we honor our obligation to instill deeply within the hearts and minds of our children those very first two rules of the catechism “to know and to love God”. Children without a true understanding of their heavenly father and why they were created have little hope to perform the third rule of Christian life, “to serve Him”. Hopefully our little children might develop the perspective that life was a playground where we sinners could train ourselves to become saints. The games or activities didn’t matter that much, only active loving participation and service at all times and a willingness to assist anyone needing help achieving the goals designed for us by our heavenly Father.
    As grown ups we become so entrenched in our often drab day to day existence by the requirements of producing and providing that we forget that we too are children, God’s children. We look at our children playing and think of how “worry free” they are since we have taken on all their cares for them. We forget that “Our Father” through the Holy Spirit has lovingly provided our Lord Jesus who invites us to place our cares and worries upon him so that we too enjoy freedom to become children of God, His “saints”. It has been said that a saint is someone who deep within his heart believes God loves him and offers him eternal life through Christ’s sacrifice and resurrection and desires to use their life to witness, inform, and assure others of the same truth about themselves. It’s that simple.
    So, who are the saints? They are people like you and me who believe and hope in their Creator and begin their heaven here on earth living Christ’s prayerful request by helping build “thy kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven”. We all have an “invitation” to sainthood and can respond according to our own abilities, gifts, and station in life willingly in the name of Jesus who relieves our burdens and has freed our spirits to be among the saints. Hopefully many of us will be among that “great number which no man could count” spoken of in Revelations which will eternally be the “communion of saints”.
    Father God, we pray that we can rejoice fully in the world as children of light and holiness so men can witness and know the truth of your merciful love and accept Jesus as their “personal” savior through and within the eternal “one body of Christ”.
    Yes, each of us are “personally” invited and will be welcomed to the community of saints, here, now, and forever!

  • Pinky says:

    Bill – Well said. I was thinking more of canonized saints. But we’re all called to be holy examples to one another, and to attain heaven.

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