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Blessed John Paul II: First Pope of the Catholic Resurgence

(Today Pope John Paul II is being canonized, so I am rerunning this assessment of his papacy from 2011.)

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.

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Donald R. McClarey

Cradle Catholic. Active in the pro-life movement since 1973. Father of three and happily married for 35 years. Small town lawyer and amateur historian. Former president of the board of directors of the local crisis pregnancy center for a decade.

12 Comments

  1. I miss Pope John Paul II. Thank you, Mr. McClarey, for so positively restating the accomplishments of this holy man.

    As many here may have inferred, I lean to the Traditionalist side of Catholic worship and life – which makes me no less a sinner than anyone else. Certain “rad Trads” with an ax to grin blame Pope John Paul II (and John XXVIII) for the priest abuse scandal, and the appointment of the likes of Cardinal Mahony, and the sad Father Maicel situation. Certain of these people are perpetually angry – angry because of the Assisi conference when John Paul II kissed a Koran, anfry because Archbishop Lefebvre (SIC) was excommunicated (he ordained Bishop Williamson).

    We should remember that there has never been a time when things were perfect in the Church and they never will be perfect in this world. Wojtyla dealt with the death of his family, the invasion of Poland by Hitler and Stalin, the murder of millons of Polish citizens, the abandonment of his homeland to the Communist occupiers and the subsequent repression of his people. He persevered through it all. I would like for his most outspoken critics to walk in his shoes and then talk.

  2. Great post Donald! I agree 100% with all the points. It is hard to place any of these in a hierarchy but I would say three things ‘stick out’ in my mind concerning Saint Pope John Paul:

    1) stopping the chaos that taken over the Church after the closing of the Second Vatican Council by:
    a) calling for the Extraordinary Synod of 1985 which gave us:
    i. 6 principles by which we can properly interpret Vatican II
    ii began the process of real ‘reception’ of Vatican II within the Church
    iii.Calling for a new Catechism to put forth the teachings of the Church with an
    emphasis on interpreting the Council within the greater Catholic Tradition
    b) held synods and in turn wrote apostolic exhortations on every major area and grouping
    within the Catholic Church

    c) began (granted on a limited scale) the reintegration of TLM within the Church, responding to both the genuine pastoral need as well as the richness of the tradition found in TLM. This began the process by which TLM was no longer a bone of contention which it should never have been [An important note here. For those who do not know me well, I am a regular participant in the Ordinary Form of the Roman Rite]

    2) Brought forward for all to see the vision of Jesus Christ, God made flesh, true God and true man [Council of Chalcedon 451 AD] through the prism of Vatican II’s four foundational Constitutions and revealed: The Redeemer of Man: that Christianity is not simply a humanism it is really the ultimate humanism, since in Christ, each human being discovers their identity, dignity, worth and meaning of life. Saint JPII showed that the Council and the Catholic Church is not ‘anthropocentric’ (man-centered) versus God-centered, but Christ-centered.
    a)In turn, Christ becomes the foundation of an ultimate interpreter of ‘culture’. It is culture and not economics (a la marx) or politics, or technology that makes this world run. Some theologians have put forward this thought: the Council of Trent wrestled with and put forward the Church’s teaching on grace and human nature; Vatican II wrestled with and put forward the Church’s teaching on grace and culture.
    b)in turn Christ is the Lord of history, The Church has wrestled with and accepted historical consciousness [not the exact same as ‘historical criticism’], Saint JPII saw all of the present moment of the CHurch moving toward the turn of the Millenium in 2000 AD and proceeding from that great moment [can anyone deny we are living in a very different ‘age’?] Since Christ is the Lord of History we need not be afraid: “Be not afraid!”

    3) revolutionized Catholic moral theology giving us the first encyclical on the foundations of moral theology: “throwing out” the various theologies being put forth in the chaos after the Council supposedly in the ‘spirit of VII”. He did thisnot by ‘fiat’ (an edict) but by showing that they have been ‘seen, judged, and found wanting’.

    a) This gave the foundation for his piggy back encyclical: the Gospel of Life on the foundations and applications of the Dignity of Life

    b)also put forward his Theology of the Body which is a phenomenal teaching which only now is beginning to be received into the Church
    c) social doctrine of Centissimus Annus [I have to be honest, the fuller implications of this encyclical got by me for years. So I can say with Saint Augustine, “Late have I loved thee” lol but it’s understanding of human freedom etc within the economic sphere is phenomena

    4) Because of his ‘vision of Christ’ he had a profound (deep) view of man as ‘religious’. He saw the Lord Jesus [Iesus Domine] as the unique Lord and Savior, through Whom all who are to be saved, are saved.
    a) He was passionate about ecumenical relations all attempting to encourage and assist the process toward which all Christians would be one as the Father and Christ are one, in the Spirit-most especially with the Orthodox seeing the Church must breathe out of both lungs (East as well as West)
    b) Nonetheless, he saw the Catholic Church’s responsibility to build dialogue and communications with all world religions (most especially Judaism with which we have unique ties) Freedom of religion, mutual respect, growth in communications and understanding must mark ‘religious man’s’ journey through history. After 9/11 Saint JPII added that no one, absolutely no one can claim to kill in the Name of God.

    I am sure I have forgotten some things here. These were off the top of my head. BTW I was on pilgrimage to Rome in 1978, saw Pope John Paul I at his last audience, and was there for some of his funeral rites. As things turned out, I was the very last ‘public person’ in the Sistine Chapel before Saint JPII was elected pope. I treasure that memory

  3. Our Pope! He touched us deeply with his love his sincerity and his wit.

    One more to add Mr. McClarey; The Catechism of the Catholic Church. His oversight and vision in having a clear teaching tool to reinforce the truths of our faith should be mentioned. Santos JP II !!!

  4. I remember Pope Saint John Paul II because he was an instrumental part of that triad – himself, Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher – who engineered the defeat and dissolution of the Iron Curtain. Without a doubt God’s hand was upon him.

  5. PS, I wonder if all three – JPII, Reagan and Thatcher – are now in Heaven together, and I wonder what they are saying as they look upon the State of the Church and Western civilization. We do a grave disservice to their memory.

  6. I have two photos of him with my son, when my son was not yet in the seminary and one later during an ad lumina visit with our bishop when son was studying at gregorian
    I say my son is a third class relic!
    My friends, praying for my son to come back to the Church! Ask St John Paul for him. When my son met him the pope called him Grande (sp). My son is 6’7″. He was there during last days of JP and first of B16. Please pray for my son.

  7. He (John Paul II) largely stopped the post Vatican II chaos…
    –Donald R. McClarey

    Unfortunately, he didn’t reverse it much. Pope Benedict XVI began to reverse the chaos, then came Pope Francis. Chaos thrives when foot-in-mouth disease strikes.

  8. Anzlyne.

    Holy hour coming up!
    Your son is in my prayers.
    God bless your family and St.Pope JPII will be busy….very busy! Peace.

  9. Thank you Philip and Mary god has blessed you with generous hearts. Mary I hope that is a prophecy from God.

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