The 47-Year Epoch of The Two Great Popes 1958-2005

ZENIT Publishes Part III of Michael Novak’s Series of Articles Written for Corriere della Sera

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The great burst of energy that John Paul II infused into humankind by his emphasis on the culture of life cannot be understood apart from his other purposes.

It is fitting that the canonization of Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II are occurring on the same day, Divine Mercy Sunday, April 27, 2014. For what Pope John XXIII sought to make visible to the world through his very first speech to Vatican II was “the medicine of mercy rather than that of severity.” Some eighteen years later, the second encyclical of John Paul II also picked up this primary note of John XXIII, the mercy of God (Dives in Misericordia [1980]).

Some 750 years earlier, Saint Thomas Aquinas wrote that mercy – misericordia – is the most beautiful name for God, for it underlines how God opens his heart to the wretched ones, les misérables. God forgives sins, wipes them away – no one else can do that. It is an attribute uniquely divine, and it best captures the uniquely Christian vision of the nature of God. He loves us, and he has mercy on us. There are many forshadowings of this trait also in the Jewish Testament.

Within this larger vision, Pope John Paul II taught that the unique model, and the energy, and the End of all human striving lies in Jesus Christ, nowhere else. John Paul II announced, therefore – and strove to articulate – a new humanism uniquely illuminated by the life and death of Jesus Christ. John Paul II was a “witness to hope,” a hope not yet fulfilled, but a hope still on its earthly journey, still on pilgrimage still at war with evil, still striving to “Be not afraid.”

In this new pilgrimage, life and mercy, truth and liberty are the main themes. First is the

sacredness of each individual human life. In his 1995 encyclical The Gospel of Life (Evangelium Vitae) the pope quoted the Second Vatican Council:

Whatever is opposed to life itself, such as any type of murder, genocide, abortion, euthanasia, or willful self-destruction, whatever violates the integrity of the human person, such as mutilation, torments inflicted on body or mind, attempts to coerce the will itself; whatever insults human dignity, such as subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, deportation, slavery, prostitution, the selling of women and children; as well as disgraceful working conditions, where people are treated as mere instruments of gain rather than as free and responsible persons; all these things and others like them are infamies indeed.

They poison human society, and they do more harm to those who practice them than to those who suffer from the injury. Moreover, they are a supreme dishonor to the Creator.

John Paul II continued: “Unfortunately, this disturbing state of affairs, far from decreasing, is expanding. With the new prospects opened up by scientific and technological progress there arise new forms of attacks on the dignity of each human being.”

No one can doubt this, the science is so clear: that at the moment of conception what is conceived is nothing other than human (it can never become a cocker spaniel or anything else, only a human), and that already from its first moments its DNA reveals a new individual personal identity – it is the DNA of neither the mother nor the father, but of the inimitable offspring of both.

Each single life is made in the image of the Creator, and each reveals a new aspect of God. God is infinite. No one person can image all of Him. It takes, as it were, a virtual infinity of human beings to reflect back the full image of God.

Thus, those who prematurely deprive this unique human person of life forever prevent an aspect of God’s beauty from reaching full development. This is a great sin against God, and it marks a great loss for the whole human race. It is an irretrievable loss, first of all, for the child’s own mother and father. Secondly for all who would have been her or his companions in life, now deprived of that

irreplaceable image of God. Thirdly, for the whole human family. One more angle of vision into the infinite Caritas that is our God will be forever absent.

* * *

Human life is not merely vegetative life, nor even simply animal life, but life springing from an inspirited body, an embodied spirit: body and soul one, not separate as a “ghost in a machine.” The Christian faith does NOT divide body from soul. It envisions both as one.

And in its view, life is made forever restless, until it rests in God, its Origin. It is life seeking to learn the truth about itself. It is life endowed by its Creator with personal, responsible liberty. Made to be “condemned to liberty,’’ irretrievably bound to personal responsibility. Therein lies their dignity: humans called to profound personal choice about who they are, and who they are meant to be.

Humans are called to share a liberty which is itself a deeper image of God, a share in God’s own liberty. For if humans are invited into friendship by their Creator – and what an immense revelation by Jesus Christ that this is so, that so they are – they must also be gifted with the gift of liberty. For Jesus does not herald the worship of slaves, but the friendship with God chosen by free women and free men. Friendship is offered. Each is free to reject it, or to welcome it.

These are the first steps that began the new Christian humanism that Pope John Paul II announced to the world: First life, then mercy, then the restless pursuit of the truth about ourselves and our liberty. (“You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”) For God wishes to be worshipped in spirit and in truth, to be loved and thanked and followed out of our liberty, not out of coercion. To be authentic and genuine, the act of faith must be free. It must be freely chosen.

So God made us a free people, who ought to live in freedom. He made us, slowly and down through a long history, to create new and better societies in which freedom comes to its most fruitful end: in Caritas and Veritas, divine love, in truth whose origin is divine. True all the way down. (“Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth, as it is in heaven.”)

* * *

This is the cosmic perspective within which John Paul II’s thinking of the culture of life begins. It is true that women and men are born free, and that they must come to the truth about themselves through exploring their own (at first, obscure) identity. It is true that they are free to choose, but here arises a severe parting of the ways. It is possible for humans to choose to live in the light of the truth of their own nature and destiny. It is also possible for them to choose to do evil, and to turn away from their own nature and destiny.

It is true that human beings are free to choose to be new and unique images of God, which add to all human understanding new angles on the beauty of God. It is true that they are also free to choose to destroy this image of God in themselves and in others, even in the womb.

Yes, all women and men are free to choose, but choice brings with it an immense responsibility. It should not be approached without serious thought, deep reflection and an affirmation of God’s purposes for giving us liberty. As John Paul II fleshes out his vision of liberty:

The value of democracy stands or falls with the values which it embodies and promotes. . . . ‘The basis of these values cannot be merely provisional and changeable majority opinions, but only the acknowledgment of an objective moral law, the natural law written in the human heart. . . . Even in participatory systems of government, the regulation of interests often occurs to the advantage of the most powerful, since they are the ones most capable of maneuvering not only the levers of power but also the formation of consensus. Democracy easily becomes an empty word.

The social compact advanced by John Locke in his weak theory of human rights turns out not to be strong enough to protect a kingdom of brotherhood and sisterhood among h
uman beings. For Lockean social compacts prove subject to social change. When a large enough majority (or even a controlling minority) revise the social compact, so as after all to permit some members to use violence in aborting the defenseless lives of their progeny – in effect, for the first time excluding them from the circle of rights-bearing human individuals – there is nothing more to protect those poor victims. If their rights are not “endowed by their Creator,” protection by a so-called social compact, contingent and changeable, is no more than a parchment barrier.


Remember Pope John Paul II’s oft-repeated cry, his persistent cry? “Be not afraid!” When he entered into his pontificate in 1978, there was much in this world to be afraid of. Nuclear weapons. A dark and miserable future for those who lived under the drear clouds of communism. The dreadful inner fear that that Evil Empire might inevitably endure for generation after generation. Many could see no hope. Many suffered from many evils, whose origin is in man himself. There was much to fear.

“Be not afraid!” was a call to courage, a call to hope, a call to build a new humanity worthy of women and men made heirs of the Almighty. It was a great human vocation that Pope John Paul II laid out for us in all his fourteen encyclicals, one following upon the other before we had fully studied its predecessor. It will take decades for this rich teaching to be fully processed. Few popes have left us a richer trove of mature reflection on the depths of the Christian life.

The new Christian humanism of John Paul II springs from a creative response to God’s very early call in the Jewish Testament: “This day I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live.”

But this vocation does not end there. If the human race is to survive and to develop, and to fill out all the possibilities that the Creator implanted in it, it must learn to build ever more free and creative cities: polities and economies of virtue, truth, and liberty. It must learn to plant little growing acorns of the “city of God,” the civilization of love, Caritapolis.

Fearsome Difficulties to Overcome

After ascending to the papacy in 1978, the first thing John Paul faced was the division of Europe into two branches of the same tree, held artificially apart by a cruel and unnecessary wall through the heart.

“Be not afraid!” John Paul II told millions of his fellow Poles when for the first time he went behind the Iron Curtain as pope, during those early “nine days that changed the world,” in that June of 1979. “Be not afraid!” Nourish hope. And, as more than one Pole said to himself in those days, looking around at the millions close to him, “There are more of us than there are of them. We are going to win.”

And win they did. Within the first eleven years of his pontificate, John Paul II had thoroughly undermined that wall separating Europe, and eventually it crumbled of its own weight, built as it was on the loose sands of atheism.

That battle won, this great pope then changed direction and focused attention on the sins of omission and commission on the part of the free world in Europe and North America. He called this world too, to conversion. He called it to a culture of life. He called it to a culture of truth-telling. He called it to the liberty of the daughters and sons of God.

No wonder there sprang up in his footsteps all through this Western world an ever-growing number of marchers and workers struggling to build back up the broken culture of life of our time. These advocates for the culture of life multiplied in city after city, in ever larger marches, and in ever more thousands upon thousands of acts of prayer and persuasion presented to their fellow citizens: “Therefore, choose life.” Huge marches for life multiplied and bloomed: in Washington every year since 1974; in San Francisco since 2005; in Paris since 2005; in Warsaw in 2006, 2007, and 2008; in Madrid in 2009; in Kosice, Slovakia in 2013. These will continue and grow. For abortion is contrary to all that science teaches about life in the womb. It is unfeeling, and it is unconscionably cruel.

The reason for choosing life is that it is also a choice for hope. In the words of John Paul II: “A child conceived is always an invitation to live and to hope.”


Pope John Paul II is called the Great, just as his two predecessors in the whole long line of pontiffs, Leo the Great and Gregory the Great are, for all three called for the renewal of the Church on many levels at once. John Paul II led resistance to the powerful Soviet barbarians who persecuted and destroyed and left ruins behind them. He taught, and he called to new forms of worship and action, which might usher in from the depths of the human spirit a new and gentler civilization. Not just the beautiful but cruel civilizations of ancient Greece and Rome, but a new civilization called to the vocation of building “the city of God,” the shining city on the hill that Saint Augustine first described in book after book.

No longer simply that “city of man,” that city of selfishness, and greed, and the evasion of truth, and enmity, and of the violence of “all against all.” But the new civilization in which humans strive hard to show love for one another, even (beyond the powers of nature alone) to their enemies. A gentler world, conceived now in the image of the gentle and generous suffering Christ. A new world, passionate with concern for the poor, and the vulnerable, and the needy. A new humanistic vocation to build up the world on the model of Christ crucified, the God of mercy, the God of hope, the God of Caritas.

This was the holistic vision of Pope John Paul II – and also of Pope John XXIII, the “Good Pope John,” the warm face of the new sort of “universal pastor.” You cannot understand either of these popes alone, without understanding the other. For Pope John Paul II would not have been possible without Pope John XXIII, and the world of Pope John XXIII would not have been completed – rounded out on a worldwide basis, active in the outer world as well as in the inner world of millions struggling to become more holy – without Pope John Paul II.

From Pope John XXIII to Pope John Paul II – those 47 years from 1958 until 2005 – what an epochal period! What a time to be alive. What tremendous upheavals and changes we witnessed in the world all around us and within ourselves.

What a new call we have each felt in our hearts.

Continuing in this path is the way to the culture of life and to the full “civilization of love.” No doubt this life never comes about totally until the end of time. No doubt it will always in human history be in the “not yet.” Still, continuing in that way is the vocation to which we have been called by these two great popes, one without the other insufficient. Both together, a remarkable work of God.

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Michael Novak

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