St. John Paul II and the ‘tyranny of the possible’

The reputations of the great often diminish over time. Ten years after his holy death on April 2, 2005, Karol Wojtyla, Pope St. John Paul II, looms even larger than he did when the world figuratively gathered at his bedside a decade ago: tens of millions of men and women around the world who felt impelled, and privileged, to pray with him through what he called his “Passover”—his liberation through death into a new life of freedom in the blazing glory of the Thrice-Holy God.

On this anniversary, as at his canonization last year, what seems most memorable about the man, at least at this historical moment, was that he refused to accommodate to the “tyranny of the possible:” the idea that some things just can’t be put right; that we’re stuck with the way things are, however much we may dislike them.

There was a lot of demoralized resignation in the Church and the world when Karol Wojtyla was elected Bishop of Rome on Oct. 16, 1978. The world from San Francisco to the Ural Mountains seemed permanently divided into two hostile, ideologically opposed, nuclear-armed camps, along a fault line defined at the end of World War II. Thirteen years after the conclusion of the Second Vatican Council, the Catholic Church seemed permanently divided, too—and perhaps condemned to the fate of mainline liberal Protestantism, which (to borrow from Richard John Neuhaus) had become the oldline on its way to becoming the sideline. Robust and evangelically vibrant Catholic conviction, it seemed, had no more place in the “real world” of late modernity than did the dream of a Europe without the Berlin Wall.

Yet John Paul II, who combined mystical insight with remarkable shrewdness, refused to bow passively to the dictatorship of the inevitable. The Lord had said to the prophet, “Come, now, let us set things right” [Isaiah 1:18]: and that’s exactly what the 264th Bishop of Rome proceeded to do.

He refused to believe that Vatican II, the ecumenical council he had experienced as a powerful work of the Holy Spirit, could only lead to permanent incoherence and division in Catholicism; and by providing an authoritative interpretation of the Council, John Paul II’s pontificate energized the living parts of the Church and made Vatican II the launch platform for the new evangelization and the Church’s rediscovery of itself as a missionary enterprise.

He refused to believe that the false ideas of the human person and human history embodied in communism could divide Europe indefinitely; and by igniting a revolution of conscience behind the iron curtain, the man the last president of the Soviet Union called “the world’s greatest moral authority” became an agent of liberation for his Slavic brethren and the precursor of new possibilities in international affairs.

These enormous accomplishments—and their roots in John Paul’s profound faith—should be remembered at this moment, when too many are tempted to despair about the state of the world and not a few are wondering about the condition of the Church.

As for the latter, those worried about another Catholic slide into incoherence should have faith in the ecclesial experience of the last three decades, which has taught enduring lessons about how Catholicism cannot merely survive, but flourish, amidst the cultural acids of post-modernity—if it holds fast to a dynamic orthodoxy lived with compassion and solidarity. John Paul II unleashed tremendous evangelical energies in the world Church—energies that embody Pope Francis’ call that Catholics be a “Church in permanent mission.” Those who live out that call will win the future.

As for the world, beheaded Christians, Syrian innocents slaughtered by chemical weapons, and a Russian invasion of Ukraine are stark reminders that “world order,” if not maintained, will disintegrate. Those frightened by the seeming power of the wicked in the world today can take heart from what John Paul II said to young people in Cracow in June 1979: “Be afraid only of thoughtlessness and pusillanimity.”

Be not afraid: his signature phrase, lived to the end, made him John Paul the Great.

COMING UP: Q&A: USCCB clarifies intent behind bishops’ Eucharist document

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Last week, the U.S. bishop concluded their annual Spring meeting, during which much about the Church in the U.S was discussed. In particular, the bishops voted to draft a document on the meaning of Eucharistic life in the Church, which was approved by an overwhelming majority.

Since then, speculation about the nature of the document has run rampant, the chief of which is that it was drafted specifically to instigate a policy aimed directly at Catholic politicians and public figures whose outward political expressions and policy enactment do not align with Church teaching.

The USCCB has issued a brief Q&A clarifying the intent of the document, and they have emphasized that “the question of whether or not to deny any individual or groups Holy Communion was not on the ballot.”

“The Eucharist is the source and summit of Christian life,” the USCCB said. “The importance of nurturing an ever
deeper understanding of the beauty and mystery of the Eucharist in our lives is not a new topic for the bishops. The document being drafted is not meant to be disciplinary in nature, nor is it targeted at any one individual or class of persons. It will include a section on the Church’s teaching on the responsibility of every Catholic, including bishops, to live in accordance with the truth, goodness and beauty of the Eucharist we celebrate.”

Below are a few commonly asked questions about last week’s meeting and the document on the Eucharist.

Why are the bishops doing this now?

For some time now, a major concern of the bishops has been the declining belief and understanding of the Eucharist among the Catholic faithful. This was a deep enough concern that the theme of the bishops’ strategic plan for 2021-2024 is Created Anew by the Body and Blood of Christ: Source of Our Healing and Hope. This important document on the Eucharist will serve as a foundation for the multi-year Eucharistic Revival Project, a major national effort to reignite Eucharistic faith in our country. It was clear from the intensity and passion expressed in the individual interventions made by the bishops during last week’s meeting that each bishop deeply loves the Eucharist.

Did the bishops vote to ban politicians from receiving Holy Communion?

No, this was not up for vote or debate. The bishops made no decision about barring anyone from receiving Holy Communion. Each Catholic — regardless of whether they hold public office or not — is called to continual conversion, and the U.S. bishops have repeatedly emphasized the obligation of all Catholics to support human life and dignity and other fundamental principles of Catholic moral and social teaching.

Are the bishops going to issue a national policy on withholding Communion from politicians?

No. There will be no national policy on withholding Communion from politicians. The intent is to present a clear understanding of the Church’s teachings to bring heightened awareness among the faithful of how the Eucharist can transform our lives and bring us closer to our creator and the life he wants for us.

Did the Vatican tell the bishops not to move forward on drafting the document?

No. The Holy See did encourage the bishops to engage in dialogue and broad consultation. Last week’s meeting was the first part of that process. It is important to note that collaboration and consultation among the bishops will be key in the drafting of this document.


Featured photo by Eric Mok on Unsplash