ROME, MARCH 7, 2004 (ZENIT.org–Avvenire).- A key theme of John Paul II’s pontificate has been that Christ fully reveals the most profound truth of every person, and that’s why the Church’s first and fundamental concern is people.
The Pope said as much in “Redemptor Hominis,” his first encyclical. For a perspective on that 1979 document which outlined the themes of the pontificate, the Italian newspaper Avvenire interviewed Cardinal Georges Cottier, theologian of the Papal Household.
Georges Cottier was born in Celigny, Switzerland, in 1922. A Dominican, he was for a long time professor of philosophy and theology at the University of Fribourg. The Pope called him to Rome as Papal Household theologian in December 1989. Last October, John Paul II elevated him to cardinal.
Q: What impressed you most when you first read “Redemptor Hominis”?
Cardinal Cottier: I was then still teaching in Switzerland. I remember having noted immediately how this Pope presented a very wide vision of the tasks of the Church. Today, rereading this text a posteriori, one can truly say that in the encyclical there already was in a small way what he would develop later.
Q: For example?
Cardinal Cottier: I am thinking of the importance he gives to the affirmation of “Gaudium et Spes,” which says that Christ is close to every man, revealing to him his mystery. It is an idea that continually runs through John Paul II’s teaching.
However, in “Redemptor Hominis” there is also the whole topic of ecumenism and interreligious dialogue. Assisi would come much later, but suffice it to reread some pages of the encyclical to realize that all the premises were already there.
And then: the insistence on the rights of man; the mission as a prospect of the Church; the centrality of the Eucharist and its connection to the sacrament of penance.
Already in this text the Pope spoke of the Jubilee of 2000.
It is true — and even this impresses me very much — already in 1979 the year 2000 was a great guideline for him. It was not a given: There were still more than 20 years to go; it can be said that no one in the Church was yet thinking of the Jubilee.
Instead, from the very first words of the encyclical, John Paul II proposes this horizon, describing the path toward 2000 as a new Advent. Here again we see the breadth of his vision.
Q: What significance did the stress on man as the primary concern of the Church have in 1979?
Cardinal Cottier: It had a particular force. We must not forget that Marxism had the pretension of founding a new humanism; it was presented as the creation of a new man.
The Pope who came from Poland began his ministry by reminding us that Christ is the way and that life is a journey that every man must undertake with him and under his protection.
In the face of the prospect of Communist collectivism, he made a personalist affirmation. It was like a time bomb: The words Marxism and Communism are not found in “Redemptor Hominis.” But it is on the foundations, on the idea that one has of the human person, that the Pope placed the confrontation.
Q: The encyclical gives great importance to the topic of the rights of man.
Cardinal Cottier: He speaks about the rights of man and, in this context, of religious freedom, which is one of the fundamental rights. Later he will reflect on the right to life.
But here, there is already another fundamental concept: the appreciation and respect for man as foundation of Christian ethics.
It is no accident that in the Wednesday catecheses, John Paul II speaks at once of marital life and the family and says beautiful things. There can be no well-being for man without an ethical view. It is the line that will culminate in “Veritatis Splendor.”
Q: What legacy of the Second Vatican Council appears in the encyclical?
Cardinal Cottier: Above all, certain great themes: That which the Pope calls the self-awareness of the Church — the awareness of her mystery and of the weakness of men who are her members.
It is no accident that his reflections stem from the principal text of the council, “Lumen Gentium,” the dogmatic constitution on the Church. Then, surely, the accent on the personal and human dimension of “Gaudium et Spes.”
In regard to the Church, he already speaks very clearly of collegiality and of the role of the bishops’ conferences. But he also takes up the council on the subject of the mission, to say something important: The proclamation always begins with respect for the non-Christian man. It is a very beautiful observation.
Q: What developments of the pontificate were not envisioned in this programmatic document?
Cardinal Cottier: The Pope could not, of course, foresee the surprises of the Spirit; the problems that arise little by little. However, he is a man who constantly listens to the Holy Spirit.
The fall of the Berlin Wall is not foreseen. … Even the Catechism of the Catholic Church, for example, is an idea that will come later, through the reflection of the synods.
In this text of ’79, John Paul II alludes to the post-conciliar crisis. He admires the way it was addressed by Paul VI. But he could not know that this crisis would last a certain time and he would also have to intervene in certain areas to recall truths. And he has done so.
He certainly has a confident outlook. In the concluding prayer, Mary is called Mother of Hope. It is a title that is very close to his personality. His first word as Pope was: “Do not be afraid.” And “Redemptor Hominis” places us in a climate of optimism. It is full of encouragement.
Q: It you had to suggest a page of “Redemptor Hominis” to rediscover, which one would you indicate?
Cardinal Cottier: The affirmation that only in Christ does man have a full awareness of himself.
It is a very important truth today, when we are faced with new problems of bioethics, questions connected with the beginning and end of life. Of course, reason alone is capable of suggesting to us an attitude of respect.
But, as the Pope often reminds us, to know that in the incarnation Christ united himself to every person, even to the littlest, gives an extraordinary force to this way of looking at life.
[Translation by ZENIT]