An open letter to my friends in Poland

A son of Poland is now Blessed John Paul II. What is Poland to do now?

If a friend might offer a suggestion: the Church in Poland should start looking forward rather than backward.

Ever since the late pope’s death in 2005, the Polish Church seems to have been looking over its shoulder at the colossal figure of John Paul II. Given the magnitude of John Paul’s accomplishment, and the widely shared sentiment that John Paul II was a God-given blessing to Poland in thanks for the country’s fidelity during decades of partition and totalitarian occupation, that nostalgia is understandable. But it is now time to look forward, which is what Blessed John Paul II would want.

I’m often asked about the human traits I saw in John Paul II. One answer I often give is that the late pope was the most intensely curious man I’ve ever known. He always wanted to know about the new books, the new articles, and the new arguments in my corner of the intellectual and cultural world. He even wanted to know the latest pope-jokes.

That intense curiosity was a matter of theology, not psychology. John Paul II truly believed that in the designs of Providence, there are no mere coincidences. What seems to us “coincidence” is actually an aspect of Providence we have not understood yet. So his curiosity was a matter of looking into “here” and “now” to see where the wind of the Holy Spirit might be blowing, and in what direction.

Polish Catholicism should adopt this future-oriented stance. Remembering the John Paul II years should now be a remembering in service to the future. The 21st-century Church in Poland must take up John Paul’s challenge in the 1991 encyclical “Redemptoris Missio” and re-imagine itself as a Church that is a mission, not an institution for which mission is one among many activities. Or as John Paul put it in closing the Great Jubilee of 2000, the Church must leave the shallow water of institutional maintenance and put out “into the deep” of the New Evangelization.

How?

The Polish Church must recognize that the faith can no longer be transmitted by the ambient culture; it has to be persuasively and courageously proposed. There is a compelling Catholic apologetic in the magisterium of Blessed John Paul II. Let Poland take the lead in translating this teaching into effective catechetical material.

Polish Catholicism has not fully developed its public voice, and when it speaks about public policy, it does not always speak in a vocabulary that everyone can understand. Developing a public voice that speaks to all is another important way for the Church in Poland to be a “John Paul II Church” looking forward, not backward.

Then there is Europe. John Paul II knew that “old Europe” was in serious trouble. In “new Europe,” in America, and in their willingness to take the social doctrine of the Church seriously he saw a chance for the entire West to recover its Christian roots: not as a matter of reconstructing the old altar-and-throne regimes but precisely in order to build the free and virtuous societies of the future. A Polish Church that helps Poland build a free and virtuous Europe for the future would be a Church living the legacy of John Paul II in public in a very important way.

Poland has to stop looking in the rear-view mirror. Strengthened by the great spiritual, moral, and intellectual patrimony left it by its noblest son, John Paul II, Polish Catholicism must now look boldly toward the future. Monuments will continue to be built throughout Poland to this man who changed the global Church and the course of 20th-century history, and that is fine. Yet the most fitting Polish monument to Blessed John Paul II, the pope who called the world to courage out of the depths of Poland’s own courage, would be a courageous Polish Catholicism that maintained its own vibrant faith while helping re-evangelize Europe.

COMING UP: On Fathers and Christian Masculinity

Sign up for a digital subscription to Denver Catholic!

The Year of St. Joseph points us to Jesus’ adoptive father, Joseph, as the essential model for fathers. Joseph not only manifests genuine masculinity, he also images God’s own fatherhood, as Pope Francis makes clear in his apostolic letter, Patris Corde: “In his relationship to Jesus, Joseph was the earthly shadow of the heavenly Father: he watched over him and protected him, never leaving him to go his own way.” Jesus, though the Son of God, obeyed Joseph, learned from him, and worked with him, acknowledging Joseph as a true expression of God’s own fatherhood.  

God does not just use fatherhood as an image of himself, because he himself is Father, even within his own triune life. Earthly fatherhood comes forth from him and should manifest his life and love. St. Paul speaks of honoring the “Father, from whom all fatherhood in heaven and on earth is named” (Eph 3:15). God wants everyone to be able to see his own fatherly love and called certain men to share in his own paternal gift of bringing forth life and caring for others. Every father is called to be liked Joseph, “an earthly shadow of the heavenly Father” for his own family. 

Our culture, however, often denigrates masculinity, sometimes viewing even its proper expressions as toxic. We too often see maleness in its fallenness — dominating and selfish — rather than showing self-sacrificial service. In fact, later in Ephesians, Paul speaks of the true vocation of the husband and father: “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Eph 5:25). He also speaks of the role of fatherhood: “Do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Eph 6:4). Paul shows us the goal of fatherhood — sacrificing himself for the flourishing of the family by putting the good of his wife and children before his own desires.   

No matter what the contrary voices of our culture say, we need strong men and fathers. God created man and woman in complementarity, and they need each other to thrive, helping the other in relation to their own strengths and weaknesses. Children need the strong presence of a father to discipline and teach, as Paul reminds us. Study after study has shown that fathers have the largest impact on the faith of their children. Christian Smith explains in his sociological study, Young Catholic America, that “the faith of Catholic fathers is powerfully determinative of the future faith of their children (125). The same can be said for general wellbeing and success. When fathers are absent or refuse to exercise their role, a moral and spiritual vacuum appears. A strong majority of felons, for instance, grew up without fathers in the home.  

St. Joseph helps us to understand the strength of Christian fatherhood. First, like any good husband, Joseph listened — not just to his wife but also to God. Woken up frequently by angels, he demonstrated obedience and trust, quickly leaving everything behind to follow God’s instructions and to protect his family. We also know Joseph for his work as a carpenter and builder, content to live simply and to work hard. Importantly, he also taught Jesus how to work, showing that fathers model and teach by drawing their children into their life and work. And we can also learn from Joseph’s humility, serving the Incarnate God and his Mother without even a single recorded word in the Gospels.  

This humility points us to the essence of Christian fatherhood. Although living with two perfect people, Joseph was still called to lead. He quietly and humbly did what was needed for his family and taught his own maker how to share in his work. Fathers do not lead in order to be in charge or to get their own way. They lead because God asks them to care for and protect their families. Fathers and mothers share in the great and beautiful partnership of family life, although fathers cannot simply sit back and let mom take the lead in the spiritual life, as they are often tempted to do. Like Joseph, fathers should act firmly and lovingly to put God and the family before self, obeying God and leading the family in the right direction. They are called to model faith, work, and sacrifice to their children. 

On Father’s Day we can affirm that masculinity and fatherhood are not just good — they are essential to understanding God and his plan for human flourishing. If our culture turns around, it will be because, in large part, Christian men stand up and fight. As Christians, we cannot give in to the culture’s attempt to denigrate masculinity and fatherhood or to pit men and women against each other. We can use this celebration to affirm the essential role that our fathers play, leading their families like St. Joseph.