Remembering John Paul the Great

George Weigel

A year ago, the world stopped, quite literally, to honor a Polish priest and bishop who had touched hearts, minds, and souls unlike any anyone else of his era. Millions poured into Rome to pay homage to Pope John Paul II. Two billion people participated in his funeral by television. In the year since his triple-casket of cypress, zinc, and walnut was buried in the crypt of St. Peter’s basilica, millions more have come to pay their respects, to leave flowers, and to pray.

Why? What did John Paul II do, such that his death elicited such an unprecedented response from virtually every corner of the globe? What did John Paul II mean?

Historians will be exploring those questions for centuries. On this first anniversary of what he called his “Easter,” let me suggest, all too briefly, what he meant to so many individual lives, and what he meant culturally, as a teacher of our times.

In Rome last April, it struck me that John Paul II had drawn such love and loyalty because he embodied paternity in a world increasingly bereft of fatherhood, with its unique combination of strength and mercy. The past twelve months have transformed that intuition into a conviction: at the root of John Paul II’s magnetism was his remarkable capacity to communicate paternal strength and compassion, qualities which the world may not have known it was seeking, but which millions embraced when they were offered.

Karol Wojtyla could embody paternity because he had reflected on it for a long time: on his natural father, a man of granite-like integrity; on his spiritual father, Cardinal Adam Stefan Sapieha, the “unbroken prince” who took him into his home as a clandestine seminarian and who ordained him to the priesthood; on his experience of spiritual paternity with the young men and women who, with him and around him, formed a network of friendship and fraternity that would outlive his death. In his 1964 drama, Radiation of Fatherhood, Wojtyla suggested that becoming a father meant being “conquered by love,” which liberates us from the “terrible” (and terribly false) freedom of self-absorption. To be conquered by love in this way was to be liberated in the deepest sense of human freedom: for only in “the radiation of fatherhood…does everything become fully real.”

That was what John Paul II’s paternity meant: in a world of delusions and illusions, he made things “fully real,” because his spiritual fatherhood was a reflection of the fatherhood of God.

Then there was John Paul II, the pope who taught that “the Church proposes; she imposes nothing” — but who proposed, time and again, a powerful, alternative reading of how we might understand ourselves at this moment in human history.

The mandarins of postmodern culture insist that the roots of our religious and moral traditions are irretrievably lost, such that men and women today can’t have access to what our ancestors believed to be true; John Paul II taught that Christians always have access to the origins of their faith and their way of life because the source of Christian truth, Christ, is alive and present to his Church. Post-modern culture teaches that agreement about the truth of things can never be reached across historical epochs or between cultures; John Paul II taught that every human being, no matter what the cultural or historical circumstances, can hear a saving word of grace and mercy from God. Post-modernism teaches us that knowledge is incoherent, that there is simply no way to put the world’s story together; John Paul II proposed Christian faith as a comprehensive, coherent, and compelling account of human nature and human community, of human origins and human destiny.

A man of reason in a season of irrationality; a man of compassion amidst murderous passions; a man of conviction whose convictions opened him to genuine dialogue about differences; a man who asked nothing of others that he hadn’t risked or suffered himself — this was paternity embodied in a world bereft of, but desperately seeking, a sense of purpose and direction. This was John Paul the Great.

COMING UP: For Love of Country: A Catholic Patriotism

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Our country has been through a lot this last year, as we all know. As many people have reacted against the founding and history of the United States, I have found myself drawn towards greater patriotism. By this, I simply mean a deeper appreciation of what I’ve been given by my country and also a growing realization of the duty I have to work for the common good, here and now. The Catechism of the Catholic Church speaks of this duty under the fourth commandment that enjoins honor not only to parents but also to anyone in authority.   

It is the duty of citizens to contribute along with the civil authorities to the good of society in a spirit of truth, justice, solidarity, and freedom. The love and service of one’s country follow from the duty of gratitude and belong to the order of charity. Submission to legitimate authorities and service of the common good require citizens to fulfill their roles in the life of the political community (2239). 

Catholics, and all people of good will, are called to a love and service of country in order to work for the common good.  

Eric Metaxas argues that the future of our country depends precisely upon the active role of Christians in his book, If You Can Keep It: The Forgotten Promise of American Liberty (Penguin, 2017). He describes something called the Golden Triangle, an idea he borrowed from Os Guinness, but which ultimately comes from the Founding Fathers. “The Golden Triangle of Freedom is, when reduced to its most basic form, that freedom requires virtue; virtue requires faith; and faith requires freedom. The three go round and round, supporting one another ad infinitum. If any one of the three legs of the triangle is removed, the whole structure ceases to exist” (54). John Adams, for example, related very clearly, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other” (quoted on 61). Metaxas comments, looking to specific examples around the world, “if you take God and faith and morality out of the equation, everything inevitably falls apart. It cannot be otherwise” (48). It cannot be otherwise. That may sound extreme, but we have many examples from Communist and Fascist countries and now even from movements within our country that aggressive secularism parallels a collapse of real freedom.  

The Constitution established an ordered liberty that requires responsibility and a determined effort of preservation. Hence the title of the book, taken from Benjamin Franklin, a republic “if you can keep it.” We are called to actively preserve our country: entering into a deeper understanding of the “idea” of America that undergirds the Republic as well as showing a loving determination to overcome challenges and threats to its continuance. This is not to whitewash the past, as we all know the injustices of our history. Metaxas argues that we can be grateful for the good and unique blessings of our heritage while also working to overcome failures. “To truly love America, one must somehow see both sides simultaneously” (226). Furthermore, by loving our country we are willing her good, drawing our own selves into the work for her good and helping her to be true to herself. “So that in loving America we are embodying her original intentions — we are indeed being America at her best — and in doing so we are calling her to her best, to be focused on doing all she can to fulfill the great promise which God has called her in bringing her into existence and shepherding her through trials and tribulations all these and centuries — and now” (235).  

As Catholics, we have a lot to offer our country by drawing from our rich intellectual and spiritual heritage. Michael Krom, a philosopher at St. Vincent College, provides us with a great resource in his new book, Justice and Charity: An Introduction to Aquinas’s Moral, Economic, and Political Thought (Baker, 2020). In an age of confusion, Catholics can bring greater clarity in our national discourse on the nature of human life, virtue, and politics. “We live in a time of ideological conflicts, in which the citizens of the nations of the modern world seem incapable of agreeing upon even the most basic of moral, economic, or political principles. Civil discourse has been replaced with violent protest, and reasoned dialogue with character assassination” (2). As Catholics, we should be able to look above all of this, literally: “While the Church does not force us to reject political citizenship, she demands that we direct it to the heavenly, and we can do that by heeding her call to engage the world rather than conform to it. I wrote this book out of the conviction that those who want to heed the Church’s call to engage our culture need to look to the past” (ibid.).  

Dr. Krom shows us that St. Thomas Aquinas has much to teach us about living the good life, in pursuit of a genuine freedom and happiness, and that this should inform a Catholic approach to economics and politics. It is hard to work for virtue if you don’t know what virtue really is, and difficult to act justly toward others if you don’t understand the nature of duty. Aquinas can help us to judge the direction of our country, as “a government cannot be called ‘good’ unless it promotes just moral and economic relationships between its citizens” (121). This is precisely the purpose of government — to promote right order and peace. We can’t just dispense with politics because, “the fact that humans find their fulfillment in political community means that situating their own good with the good of the community as a whole is central to happiness” (125). We are not isolated individuals and can’t attain a good and complete life on our own.  

Our ultimate good, however, is God, not the political life. Everything — all of our choices, including economic and political ones — must be directed to our ultimate goal. There are not “two ends to human existence, the earthly and the heavenly … [T]here is only one end, the beatific vision” (162). In this way the Church informs our citizenship. Krom explains “how inadequate this human law is as a teacher in the virtues, for it is limited in scope to the prevention of those vices from which even the wicked can refrain, and thus leaves those who seek after perfect virtue to their own devices … [H]uman law is in need of a higher law to truly bring about a just community” (155). Unfortunately, we’re seeing that our society is no longer even trying to prevent serious vice. Catholics and all believers have an important role to play, because “the lack of religion in the citizenry leads it down the path of totalitarianism. It Is absolutely critical that a people maintain a strong commitment to a transcendent measure of the common good in order to protect the true flourishing of its members” (171). Krom’s important work on justice and charity can teach us how a Catholic can exercise a proper patriotism, a true love of country.