John Paul II a Spanish Pope?

Cardinal Rouco Recalls His Memories of Pontiff

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MADRID, Spain, APRIL 26, 2010 ( Here is the translation of an interview with Cardinal Antonio María Rouco Varela, archbishop of Madrid and president of the Spanish episcopal conference, published by the Spanish weekly newspaper Alfa y Omega on the occasion of the fifth anniversary of the death of Pope John Paul II.

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“The pontificate of John Paul II bears such enormous significance and depth for the Church that, five years after his death, it is probably still too soon to grasp it in its full complexity and richness,” stated Cardinal Rouco to Alfa y Omega. The archbishop of Madrid is one of the few who knew that Pope the best, as well as his strong connection with Spain.

In addition to John Paul II’s rich magisterium and strength, Cardinal Rouco Varela pointed to a series of historical circumstances, unique in every way, in which the human and supernatural qualities of that Pope turned out to be providential, for the Church and for the world, and in a particular way for Spain. 

“John Paul II was elected Pope in 1978, practically one decade after the Second Vatican Council,” the archbishop of Madrid recalled, who at that time was the young auxiliary bishop of Santiago of Compostela, and who, because of his academic connection with Germany, had been able to gain first-hand knowledge of the situation in Central Europe. 

The cardinal continued: “The Church was at a difficult moment of sometimes traumatic, though also very hopeful, application of Vatican II. Ever since 1965, we were facing an unprecedented and rapid wave of the laicization of priests, consecrated men, and women. 

“At the same time, the Church was experiencing its relationship with the world, very dramatically at times, in which the Marxist utopia was touching and reaching the very heart of the Church’s theological reflection and pastoral guidelines, on a global, worldwide scale, and with particular inflections in Ibero-America, and in some Asian and African countries.”

He noted that there was a general environment of uncertainty: “Neither was the spiritual assimilation of the Council, from the deepest need to rekindle the Christian vocation to sainthood, finding clear ways of being applied and brought alive. There was a certain degree of intellectual obscurity, bewilderment and insecurity, in the atmosphere. 

“Paul VI had taken the rudder of the Church firmly and serenely. Ever since the end of the first session of the Council, he had been a luminous guide to council activity, but he soon encountered extremely difficult situations, which he faced with courageous and firm faith, and a flair for being able to diagnose what was happening, which many people disliked, but which proved to be really accurate. 

“Within his magisterium, one paradigmatic document stands out — the encyclical ‘Humanae Vitae’ — not only because of what it stood for, in terms of the clarification of basic principles of Christian morals and existence, but because of how it clarified matters decisive to humankind, beyond any particular faith context, such as human sexuality, marriage, and the family. The reception of this encyclical, in many cases in combat and denial, even within the Church, revealed problems in the implementation of the Council from a spiritual and pastoral point of view.

“It was then that John Paul II appeared, a young figure — for the average age of the successors of Peter — overwhelming from a physical, psychological, and human viewpoint, with exceptional communication skills, and considerable intellectual and moral lucidity and courage. 

“John Paul II was not afraid to declare what the council was for the Church — a great gift of the Holy Spirit. Nor was he afraid when it came to leading the application of the council, in clear communion with Church tradition, and in answer to the moist poignant and serious problems of the times.” 

“Secondly,” Cardinal Rouco continued, “he did not hesitate to promote those courses of ecclesial life which the council set under way and which could be termed “synodal.” He promulgated a new Code of Canon Law, in which the institutions for the co-responsibility of all the faithful in the life and mission of the Church take shape and mature, in a systematic and ordinary way, in the relationship between the bishops and their head, in how the collegial dimension of the Church’s government is updated. 

“General and special assemblies of the Synod of Bishops become ordinary and periodical, particularly at significant moments such as the Jubilee Year 2000, which the Pope prepared with continental synods for an overview of the life of the Church in each one of them.”

The universal magisterium

If Paul VI was already “the Pope of St. Peter’s Square with the multitudes, of the encounter with crowds of people representing the five continents,” Cardinal Rouco explained, in the case of John Paul II, this “style of exercising the magisterium became a universal, permanent, method, and not only on specific occasions.”

Additionally, with the Polish Pope, the Church was made visible “in the various scenarios in which the history of humankind takes place. His apostolic trips, for example, constituted a living and normal part of his ministry, and there is no field within the social reality, over the last third of the 20th century and first years of the 21st, in which the Pope was not present, announcing the Gospel, at the head of a Church in which he wants to see an in-depth spiritual renewal in the light of Vatican Council II, interpreted correctly, in the light of the Church’s great live tradition, and with an extraordinary spirit of pastoral charity applied to the observation and diagnosis of the present moment.”

Furthermore, the pontificate of John Paul II was outstanding for “the development and application of the Church’s social doctrine, with special awareness of the needs of each continent and particular situations.”

The new Europe

This universality that John Paul II imprinted upon his ministry was intensified by his ability to focus on particularly significant concrete issues. “To begin with one matter — not the most important — we could mention his role in the fall of the Berlin Wall and in the disappearance of the communist regime in Eastern Europe. Beyond that, of how he accompanied the shaping of Europe, enlightening the unity processes which had begun in the 1950s. That unity was to be founded on the solid grounds of culture, spirit, morals and faith. 

“Historically, Europe’s roots are unquestionably Christian, and John Paul II developed his magisterium along those lines, without neglecting the dialogue with the lay world not hostile to the Church, and favoring the encounter between Christian denominations.”

John Paul II’s magisterium crystallizes not only “in decisive thematic issues of that moment”: It also focuses on key groups of persons. “We could speak of marriage and the family, of youth; of his addresses to the UN, and of his references to the European integration process; of how he throws himself into the commemoration of the fifth centenary of the Evangelization of America.”

Spiritual energy

Cardinal Rouco was privileged to experience “many moments of great closeness” to John Paul II. When Karol Wojtyla was elected, the cardinal admits, “I was auxiliary bishop of Santiago of Compostela, about to board the plane to Germany, for some confirmations among the communities of Spanish immigrants, and I thought the Pope chosen must be an African, because of the sound of his last name.” This impression, at once, was completed with “that first sentence, which impressed us so much: Do not be afraid to open the doors to Christ.”

The first personal encounter took place only a few months later. During that audience, Cardinal Rouco said, “he welcomed me with a stirring fatherly cordiality, encouraging me with an even physical vigor. He would take you by the shoulders and it seemed
as if he were going to raise you off the ground!” 

This was something typical of him: “Whenever he came across a young person, in this case, a bishop, he encouraged them and found the way of injecting spiritual energy and apostolic enthusiasm into them.”

The Pope and Spain

Cardinal Rouco and John Paul II were in contact very often, with Spain being one of the countries the Pope visited most often, and also one of the countries he knew best and had most on his mind. 

But the cardinal said he perceived John Paul II’s preference for Spain most during the Pontiff’s last visit, in May 2003: “Upon receiving the invitation, despite his poor health, he did not hesitate to accept, in a gesture which many of us interpreted as a desire to come on a farewell trip to Spain before his death.” This wish was expressed in a particularly clear manner toward the Spanish youth: “His words to the youth at Cuatro Vientos contain much of that, of something like the Pope’s last will and testament to the youth, when, for instance, he asks them to be witnesses of the Lord.”

Cardinal Rouco said the trip also demonstrated John Paul II’s confidence in and hope for Spain: “He knew well and appreciated the history of the Church in Spain and its missionary action ever since the 16th century. He was also particularly familiar with what the Road to Santiago involved in building Europe, as he showed during the Fourth World Youth Day. And, above all, he knew very well the possibilities of Spain’s Catholic faithfulness and communion with the Church and with its universal shepherd, something he greatly appreciated.”

Cardinal Rouco specially treasures, among the various memories of this visit, the Pope’s homily during the canonization of five new saints, and his ending words, which were “really stirring, when he exhorts us to avoid losing track of our roots, to continue with the contribution of Spain’s experience and fidelity toward the Church, to keep up the Catholic identity, the apostolic courage and enthusiasm, and to undertake generously, as our very own, our responsibility, our vocation, within the Church.”

However, for Cardinal Rouco, “perhaps the most intense memories are those of the Fourth World Youth Day,” in Santiago of Compostela, 1989, because then, as archbishop, he was able to “accompany him longer and more closely, as the Pope stayed at the home of the archbishop of Santiago.” 

The night after his arrival, the cardinal recalled, John Paul II “barely slept at all, because he arrived with a fever, with some throat infection, perhaps. He did not wish to mention it, and he overcame it completely during the night of the Vigil on the Mount of Joy, where it was remarkably cold. John Paul II gave himself entirely to the youth.”

The visit to Spain had an intense program “for a person who was no longer so young, and had suffered the attempt of May 13, 1981. He did not seem to bear any outstanding traces of it, but age was already weighing on him.”

The last encounter

The last time Cardinal Rouco saw John Paul II was only a few days before his death, during the ad limina visit of the bishops from Madrid. “He questioned and replied in monosyllables,” he remembered. “I spoke to him in Spanish, as he requested. He asked about the prince, and then moved on to the subject of vocations and seminarians. 

“We got the impression that the Pope had improved but, the following morning, we learned that he had not been able to receive any more bishops, so we were able to keep that final memory: His great interest in Spain, focused particularly on vocations and on the aspirants to the priesthood.”

[Translation by Clara Iriberry]
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