JPII: A Trend of Confidence and Grace
Like most Catholics I have my own thoughts about the upcoming beatification of John Paul II. Perhaps because I was trained as a professional historian, I tend to assess things in terms of trends. To me, therefore, one of the most important points about the pontificate of John Paul II is that the Catholic Church was clearly trending downward when he was elected and just as clearly trending upward by the time he died.
I have always regarded it as unfortunate that some Catholics, even Catholics who would identify themselves as zealous, do not seem to have any appreciation for trends. They have little awareness of the factors which contribute to major cultural tendencies. They see only specific events, or specific problems, and they allow an emotional reaction to color everything else. This is what the expression means that someone cannot see the forest for the trees. Yet in assessing Pope John Paul II’s long pontificate, trends are extraordinarily important.
The secularization of the larger culture penetrated the Church rapidly during the pontificate of Pope Paul VI. This growing crisis of secularization can perhaps best be illustrated by four significant and closely related examples:
- The refusal of the Church’s priestly, religious and professorial elites to accept Catholic sexual morality (think of the response to Pope Paul’s teaching against contraception);
- The rapid loss of identity in Catholic education and publishing (think of the number of colleges and periodicals that were no longer recognizably Catholic by 1975);
- The failure of large numbers of religious communities (think of their catastrophic decline in both fidelity and numbers);
- The crisis of priestly identity (think of the endless roll-your-own liturgies which struck at the heart of the priest's sacrificial persona, and of the huge numbers of priests who sought laicization in the 1960’s and 1970’s).
Pope Paul VI was self-admittedly powerless to resist this secularizing trend. He said that all he was able to do for the Church was to suffer. Even so, of course, if he suffered gladly for Christ, his suffering may have laid the groundwork for something different.
In any case, something different did indeed follow. After a brief interlude for John Paul I, John Paul II was elected in 1978. He was destined to reign for over twenty-five years. This pope was a tireless teacher and traveller, taking both the message and the very image of Peter to every corner of the earth, constantly proclaiming, for all the world to hear, how to be a good man or a good woman, a good family, a good religious, a good priest, or a good bishop. John Paul II both taught and demonstrated how to identify and counter the culture of death. He taught and demonstrated how to seek holiness and guide a flock as a priest. He refused to retreat before the apparently overwhelming secular onslaught of the preceding years. He gave an unparalleled example of how to go on the offensive for Christ, with unshakeable wisdom, gentleness and strength.
Through a pontificate which was undoubtedly primarily a preaching mission, John Paul II inspired new confidence in the faithful wherever he went, and left lasting improvements in Catholic fidelity in his wake. Even as early as 1985, at the Extraordinary Synod of Bishops, the Pope made it clear that he intended to recover the authentic meaning of the renewal called for by the Second Vatican Council, and to wrest the Council’s message away from the secularists, modernists, doomsayers and cowards in order to put the Church and all her members on a path of reform consistent with an unalterable commitment to Christ.
By the mid-1990’s he had published an extraordinary new official Catechism, the first in nearly half a millennium, for every Catholic to use as a guide to faith and life. Meanwhile, throughout his pontificate he made increasingly better episcopal appointments, never ceasing to teach and exhort his bishops to be true vicars of Christ in their own dioceses. He revitalized Catholic sexual morality with his famous theology of the body. Laity around the world launched hundreds (perhaps thousands) of new apostolates under his spiritual banner. And he so obviously inspired a new generation of seminarians that they later became known as JPII priests. They are the backbone of the priesthood today.
Around the world, young people chanted “JPII we love you” and found new meaning in being Catholic. Meanwhile, those who were older by a generation or two (myself among them) began to hope that they would see a great Catholic revival before they died. This infusion of hope and confidence into the world-weary Church he inherited was the monumental achievement of John Paul II. It pales in comparison to this or that problem that was still unsolved by the time he died. It pales in comparison with his own self-assessment, near the end of his pontificate, that he may not have disciplined his subordinates sufficiently, even as he worked so hard to inspire them to discipline themselves.
Now, if we give any credit to the wisdom of the Holy Spirit at all, we may begin to see that this renewed confidence, a confidence without which nothing good would ever begin to happen, could have been infused into the Church only through the agency of a pope with John Paul II’s particular strengths. This is not the achievement of an administrative genius or a superb disciplinarian. No, it is the achievement of a man with a prodigious gift for teaching, attracting, and inspiring. This alone, of course, could not solve all problems. But what it could do—what in fact it did do—was create a new attitude which enabled the Church to start working seriously on her internal problems, step by laborious step. And in so doing it also laid the groundwork for more rapid and far-reaching improvements in the future.
There are those who argue that we are not yet on the right track. I am not one of them. We are, by now self-evidently, on the right track for those who have eyes to see. Though there is an enormous distance still to travel, the Church is getting stronger day by day, even in the pathetically self-indulgent West. This is the legacy of John Paul II, and it constitutes the single most important trend of our times. It is not just a trend; it is the trend, created almost alone by a single man in one of the greatest human relations stories the world has ever seen. And now, some years after his death, we have an opportunity to reflect on all that human contact—always with a divine trajectory—which John Paul II established with millions of people throughout the world. Therefore we can ask ourselves a critical question: What is the one thing that those who were touched said they felt again and again?
It was grace. Transparent holiness. God at work through Peter, touching all who responded to his presence and making them better than they were before. Amid all the many problems, it was grace at work slowly healing the Church herself. John Paul II renewed what he touched, leaving unrenewed only what was already spiritually dead. Surely this was a great grace at work in our world, a grace exemplified not so much in a program as in a person—grace in the young and vigorous Karol Wojtyla, frank and open and engaging and strong; grace in Our Lady’s Knight, struck down by a deadly assassin only to rise again undeterred; grace in the indefatiguable teacher who renewed a hundred truths in the One Truth; and grace in the even more attractive hero who died slowly, exhibiting neither fear nor self-absorption, day by excruciating day before our very eyes.
Truly this was grace, and the response to grace. Truly this is how saints are made.
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Posted by: koinonia -
Feb. 13, 2011 2:53 PM ET USA
As time passes in reviewing history, we may learn of new information that can become a "game changer." If due prudence and temperance are exercised along with due diligence, we can avoid the lamentable effects of "Haste makes waste." In the short time since Pope John Paul's death, the trend has not been good. Recent months have been particularly rough. Personally, I'd find it really cool to see the canonization of the pope who reigned for most of my life. But what will historians say in 2111?
Posted by: loumiamo7154 -
Jan. 23, 2011 11:27 AM ET USA
As Catholics, we believe that the Holy Spirit is the one who directed the election of JP2. To us that's as good as fact. What we don't know, and will probably never know, is why specifically. In general, he was the right man for the times, and for the future of the Church, otherwise he would not have been pope. I know that when the roll is called up yonder he'll be there. But calling him The Great? Rushing him to beatification for sainthood so quickly? I just can't get there.
Posted by: koinonia -
Jan. 22, 2011 11:04 AM ET USA
The pontificate of Pope John Paul II was remarkable indeed. He did exhibit a great personal devotion to Our Lord and to Our Lady. He had incredible charisma; and the in many ways unfavorable trends were reversed. But there were enough very significant problems and unprecedented personal and public actions by His Holiness to raise serious questions. The altar girl thing, kissing the Koran, WYD immodesty and irreverence, Bob Dylan, Assisi etc.- other popes hadn't gone there.
Posted by: Lucius49 -
Jan. 18, 2011 11:37 AM ET USA
I have mixed feelings. On the one hand there was personal sanctity, the encyclicals, the Catechism, but there was also kissing the Koran,Assisi,altar girls, and the continuation of the refusal to use penalties to deal with false teachers and doctrine. The ambivalence in the Vatican II hermaneutic was not addressed:for example the implication that mercy or pastoral is at odds with insisting on sound doctrine. The charity of correction is one of the reasons why Pius X is our only recent saint pope
Posted by: Jeff Mirus -
Jan. 18, 2011 10:08 AM ET USA
I concur with Cornelius. This personal reflection does not purport to show how sanctity must be exemplified, but only how John Paul II exemplified it, as a larger-than-life figure consistently capable of inspiring confidence and holiness in others. Pope Paul VI may have been a saint more in the mold of Pope Celestine V who, believing himself incompetent, resigned the See of Peter and was canonized for his pains. With respect to institutional leadership, too, I would argue that John Paul II's success was more personal than administrative. No particular human ability ever equates to holiness, but the Holy Spirit does generally work through a saint's human strengths. Given that this is so, it is easy to see why the crowds changed "santo subito" on the death of John Paul II but not Paul VI, though Paul VI may have been a great saint.
Posted by: Cornelius -
Jan. 18, 2011 8:38 AM ET USA
A good post, full of truth about JPII's pontificate. But does success in institutional leadership (which I readily admit, at least in the broad strokes you paint) equate to great personal holiness (which I have no special knowledge of)? I believe there's a movement afoot to canonize Paul VI too, though few assert exemplary leadership of the Church during his pontificate. Nevertheless, couldn't Paul VI have possessed personal sanctity sufficient for sainthood?
Posted by: jjen009 -
Jan. 17, 2011 8:23 PM ET USA
Trends - I have reflected (now 68 years old) on how many of my own decisions have, in fact, also been part of waves. 1964, I changed my major from science to arts - which was the thing then. 1969, I rode the 'street Christian' wave. And - thank God! - 1993, I started the process which brought me into the Catholic Church. All these decisions were mine - yet they were also a part of big trends.