“We would like to invite Saint Pope John Paul II to a conversation in the contemporary world and the contemporary culture.”
In an exclusive interview with ZENIT, the Rector Magnificus of Rome’s Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas (the Angelicum), Father Michał Paluch, O.P., says this is the inspiration for the launch of the Angelicum’s newly-established St. John Paul II Institute for Culture.
The ‘launch’ is today, May 18, the 100-year birthday of Karol Wojtyła, ahead of which, ZENIT traveled to the Angelicum masked, with gloves, had temperature taken, and socially distant, to conduct the interview.
“The Angelicum, which can rightly be called the home university of Karol Wojtyła,” Fr. Paluch says, “is a natural place to establish an institute inspired by the legacy of John Paul II. That is why the establishment of the St. John Paul II Institute of Culture at that same university where he studied will research and recognize the achievements of Karol Wojtyła in contemporary Christian thought and culture.”
In the wide-ranging conversation with ZENIT, the Dominican Polish priest reflects on the great Polish saint, how he himself was influenced by him beginning as a young man in Poland and throughout his vocation, the Institute itself, and how the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas has adapted amid the pandemic global crisis.
This evening, after having concelebrated with Pope Francis the morning Mass at the tomb of St. John Paul II in St. Peter’s Basilica, Father Paluch will be reading a letter from Francis at the presentation of this one of a kind Institute intended to shed light in areas of science, art, culture, philosophy and theology through the lens of the Angelicum’s most distinguished alumnus known for his charity, love and extraordinary impact on youth around the world.
The letter will be read by Archbishop Jan Romeo Pawłowski from the Secretary of State.
“We want to make him alive,” the rector says, speaking about the Institute, noting: “He is our partner in the discussion, and this means to take risks as well, to enter into the discussion about his proposals. We think this is what he would like us to do.”
In the Eternal City’s historic center, the Angelicum’s origins go back to the medieval Dominican house of studies in Rome, founded in the 13th century, where Thomas Aquinas taught. The Angelicum is among the most influential universities in the world, educating future elites of the Catholic Church. It exerts a significant impact on intellectual directions and the way the Church adapts to the challenges of the modern era. It is the only pontifical university in Rome that offers its education in Italian and English for those preparing for the priesthood.
The St. John Paul II Institute of Culture’s mission is to reflect on the most current problems of the Church and the modern world in relation to the thought and teaching of John Paul II. Situated in the Angelicum’s Faculty of Philosophy, the program will begin the 2021 Spring semester due to the pandemic. Every year, eminent intellectuals from around the world representing various scientific disciplines will be invited to cooperate as lecturers. They will also provide a scholarship program for young scientists.
The Angelicum is celebrating the launch with the sponsors – the Saint Nicholas Foundation and Futura – Iuventa Foundation.
The Futura-Iuventa foundation was founded in 1998 by Maciej Bednarkiewicz, a Polish lawyer, politician, oppositionist fighting in the Polish Solidarity movement, and president of the Polish Bar, who was very much involved in the transformation of the Polish state after 1989, working closely with the Church in Poland. The foundation supports initiatives in the fields of culture and education, and especially those undertaken by young people in these fields.
The Saint Nicholas Foundation, since 1998, has been putting into practice the ethos resulting from the teaching of John Paul II. During its 21 years of activity, the foundation raised over 11.5 million EUR for charity, scientific and cultural activities. At that time, the Foundation realized a large number of scientific projects. It has also published dozens of books by outstanding philosophers and thinkers.
Here is our exclusive interview with the Rector Magnificus, Fr. Michał Paluch, O.P.:
ZENIT: Why is it significant that the Angelicum celebrates the 100-year anniversary of the birth of Pope St. John Paul II with the launch of the St. John Paul II Institute of Culture?
Rector Magnificus, Father Michał Paluch, O.P: Well, as you know there are many monuments of John Paul II in the world, but among the most precious monuments, we might say, are academic; therefore, we are happy and excited to have this opportunity to launch this new academic project. I think he would like to see us doing [this], developing his heritage in this direction. Its focus on culture is important and relevant for our day … The heritage of John Paul II has always been tied to family values, important as they are, but there is much more that he has left the world. It is important also to expand this to the level of Culture – to begin at a kind of “ground-zero” level for all that he wanted to present during his life.
ZENIT: What does this institute hope to achieve and what does it have planned?
Father Michał Paluch, O.P: Well, we would like to invite John Paul II into a conversation with the contemporary world and contemporary culture [smiling]. It’s not only about reminding us about his thought, nor about his various achievements, political achievements or events … Don’t forget, his was the first visit of a Pope to a synagogue or mosque [John Paul II was the first Pope to have ever visited a synagogue or mosque]. We want to make him alive, if you will. He is our partner in the discussion, and this means to take risks as well, to enter into a discussion about his proposals. We think this is what he would like us to do. He himself organized annual encounters (and not only with the Catholic world), to engage in discussions with different viewpoints. He wanted to keep his thinking open and to listen to the people who shared his values and opinions, but also to all those who did not share them. I think that this way of thinking about the contemporary world should be continued.
ZENIT: What types of discussions do you expect to come forward?
Father Michal Paluch, O.P: Well, as you understand, culture means almost everything [smiling]. Because of that, we organized for this project to be under the care of our Philosophy faculty. Philosophy will keep the proper methodology and the right tools to approach this immense theme of contemporary culture. We also hope to deepen themes of Pope St. John Paul II’s heritage. For example, solidarity is one of the topics we want to treat at the beginning, as it has been so deeply inscribed in the message of John Paul II, connected to the political situation in Eastern Europe. It is so, so important for today to discuss solidarity, and how we can live and experience just now, communion, communion together.
ZENIT: What legacy does the Angelicum keep of its former student Karol Wojtyła?
Father Michal Paluch, O.P: I think his pontificate was focused first of all on the anthropological discussion. He wanted on the one hand, to present Christianity to the modern world as the accomplishment of all anthropological research. “It is impossible to understand man without Christ”. These are perhaps the most famous words of his pontificate. So this way of thinking gave him an opportunity to be a witness of Christ on one hand, and on the other hand, to invite all the people, all who wanted to enter into discussions with Christians about what it means to be human today, or what it means to be truly men and women in the contemporary world. This institute wants to create the necessary space for discussing this openness of his legacy.
ZENIT: What reception or acknowledgment do you expect or has there been from the Pope?
Father Michal Paluch, O.P: Our Holy Father; Pope Francis, has presented us with an excellent letter to commemorate the event and recall the legacy of one of his predecessors… I am grateful to be concelebrating the Mass at the tomb of St. Pope John Paul II with him, on Monday morning, to commemorate the centenary of JP2’s birth.
Here is the full Vatican-provided text of the Pope’s letter:
To the Reverend Michał Paluch, O.P.
Rector of the Pontifical University of Saint Thomas Aquinas
On the centenary of the birth of Saint John Paul II, the most illustrious alumnus of your university, the Institute of Culture named after him is being inaugurated at the Angelicum, within the Faculty of Philosophy. In expressing my appreciation for this initiative, I cordially greet the entire academic community and all those present for the event, especially the representatives of the two Polish Foundations, Futura Iuventa and Saint Nicholas, which support the new Institute.
The principal aim of the Institute is to reflect on contemporary culture. To do so, the organizers intend to seek the collaboration of eminent philosophers, theologians and men and women of culture in its broadest sense. Saint John Paul II is at once both the inspiration behind this project and its first and most important architect. This is thanks to the rich and multifaceted heritage that he left to us, and even more so by the example of his open and contemplative spirit, his passion for God and man, for creation, history and art.
The range of experiences that marked his life, especially the momentous historical events and the personal sufferings that he sought to interpret in the light of the Spirit, led Saint John Paul II to an even deeper reflection on man and his cultural roots as an essential reference point for every proclamation of the Gospel. Indeed, in his first Encyclical he wrote: “We approach all cultures, all ideological concepts, all people of good will. We approach them with the esteem, respect and discernment that since the time of the Apostles has marked the missionary attitude, the attitude of the missionary. Suffice it to mention Saint Paul and, for instance, his address in the Areopagus at Athens. The missionary attitude always begins with a feeling of deep esteem for ‘what is in man’, for what man has himself worked out in the depths of his spirit concerning the most profound and important problems. It is a question of respecting everything that has been brought about in him by the Spirit, which ‘blows where it wills’” (Redemptor Hominis, 12; cf. Address to UNESCO, 2 June 1980).
We need to keep this approach alive if we wish to be an outward-looking Church, not satisfied with preserving and administering what already exists but seeking to be faithful to our mission.
I am pleased that this initiative has found a home in the University of Saint Thomas Aquinas. The Angelicum in fact houses an academic community comprising professors and students from throughout the world and is a fitting place for interpreting the important challenges of today’s cultures. The tradition of the Dominican Order, with the important role given to rational reflection on faith and its content, articulated in a magisterial way by the Angelic Doctor, will certainly favour this project, so that it will be characterized by the courage of the truth, freedom of spirit and intellectual honesty (cf. SAINT PAUL VI, Apostolic Letter Lumen Ecclesiae, 20 November 1974, 8; SAINT JOHN PAUL II, Encyclical Letter Fides et Ratio, 43).
With these sentiments, I renew my encouragement and gratitude to you, dear brother, and to all those who have established the new Institute. To the professors, students and staff I send my best wishes for their work, and to all I cordially impart my Apostolic Blessing.
Rome, Saint John Lateran, 18 May 2020
FRANCIS[Original text: Italian]
ZENIT: Do you expect the Holy See to be participating in the Institute, in its work or events. I see that at the launch you have Polish Cardinal Stanislaw Rylko, who led for years the Pontifical Council for Laity, partaking…
Father Michal Paluch, O.P: Well at the launch of this new Institute, we are only at the beginning. We are open to all possible collaboration. We have already presented our project to Cardinal [Gianfranco] Ravasi [President of the Pontifical Council for Culture], as well as to the Congregation of Catholic Education. As you probably know, we will start with Pope Francis’ letter. Pope Francis wrote to us, to encourage us to develop this project, and he understands its importance for the Church and the world. I believe we are open to cooperating and collaborating as much as possible.
ZENIT: Being Polish, how has Pope St. John Paul II impacted and influenced your own life?
Father Michal Paluch, O.P: Well, for me he was very important, for my generation, really for my whole generation in Poland. As you know, we have quite a discussion about the ‘JPII generation.’ Perhaps we might ask: Is there something like this, or not? So, I belong to those who are convinced there is something like this, but not everybody would agree to identify himself/herself with JP2. I think the following idea: living our humanity well – a flourishing humanity – this is what leads us to God. That is the main message for me personally of his pontificate. I believe that after the crisis of , in the Western World (which means something very different in the Eastern world, but without entering into the intricacies of the differences), I would say there was something similar: there was a need for a strong example in the family – for family figures. The breakdown of the family led to the killing [metaphorically] of the ‘father’…. A generation of [figurative] ‘father killers,’ needed an example of what it means to be a father. If we are speaking about ‘fathers,’ we understand that we are speaking about authority, or how to live in relationships of authority and so on. I would say that John Paul II gave to the world this image of an “accomplished fatherhood,” so to speak. And for me, it is very important.
ZENIT: It also makes you think about the loss he experienced of his loved ones, losing his parents, his sibling, and being orphaned rather young, as a young man, if you will…
Father Michal Paluch, O.P: Yes…and I would say this ‘accomplished fatherhood’ is perhaps his most important legacy. And we can see that you cannot have this ‘accomplished fatherhood,’ taking into account as well, this authority, without God, without this openness to transcendence, to send us towards something which leads us out of this world, which is much more than this world.
ZENIT: Is there an anecdote that touches your own heart as you remember him?
Father Michal Paluch, O.P: Well it was always great to see that he really looked, and was so attentive to his listeners, to everyone. I would say that what I appreciate so greatly was that he was not a slave to discourses or texts. His first intention was to enter into communication, and to communicate. Communication did not mean for him, just present some clear ideas, it was about participation. Sorry, I see I have not given you an anecdote… This trait of his really showed him as someone who…well is a ‘communications guy’ [smiling].
ZENIT: When did you first see him?
Father Michal Paluch, O.P: In 1979, it was his first pilgrimage, I was twelve. It was a huge event and a long journey, for something that was not entirely clear for me, at the time. But we understood that we were taking part in something much bigger than ourselves and what we live every day, that this was some sort of special feast, in which we are participating.
ZENIT: This was among your most special memories?
Father Michal Paluch, O.P: One of the moments I remember most was the ceremony which started the Great Jubilee Year in 2000, and what was so impressive for me was the weakness of John Paul II. You had a wonderful event, very full… You could see how great of a job Vatican Television had done. They really did beautiful work in making the most beautiful ceremony you could imagine, and then, in the middle of that, you had an old and frail man whom you could visibly see deteriorating. At the same time, it was true and representative of Christianity. So, for me, it meant, the message was: beauty won’t save this world. If we want to save this world, we won’t be able to achieve it with beauty. True humanity should be able to take into account our weaknesses, our fragility, and the Pope became a sign of this. And if you think about the last years of the pontificate of John Paul II, they were entirely marked with his visible weakness. He was dying of [Parkinson’s], before the whole world, to some extent. It had an unexpected effect.
ZENIT: What was that effect?
Father Michal Paluch, O.P: Well, in Poland, in 2005, the year John Paul II died, when I was a priest, hearing confessions in a large church in Warsaw, we could really see and experience true miracles of faith from people coming to confession – a number of them, after many, many years, and from various levels of society. That year, the death of John Paul II, had a strong impact on Poland and the whole world.
ZENIT: Did John Paul II have a role in you finding your vocation? You mentioned when you had seen him in 1979 at age 12. Did this experience leave this thought in your mind?
Father Michal Paluch, O.P: Yes, certainly at the time that was the case. After that he traveled to Poland several times. I followed all of his pilgrimages. Yes, absolutely! He changed my life… [emotionally expressed].
ZENIT: I know that at the beginning of our conversation, you said it is not just about recognizing JPII’s achievements, but also it is impossible to ignore them. How can we recognize the achievements of Karol Wojtyła in contemporary Christian thought and culture?
Father Michal Paluch, O.P: Well it is very common to count them, although I would imagine someone who is much more familiar with the writings of John Paul II, would have a much more precise answer to your question. I would say that from my point of view, the main achievement of John Paul II is putting us in the right position within the contemporary world, giving us the right position. If you’d like an image, it is somewhat analogous to someone who is weight lift training. It is very important what you are exercising with your back, because you are putting so much pressure on it, that if you are not properly prepared to place that intense weight on your back, it could be severely injured. I think this is true of John Paul II. He helped us find the right approach to live our Christian lives in an extremely complicated world, which is managing to put upon our shoulders more and more weight.
ZENIT: That image does seem rather appropriate…
Father Michal Paluch, O.P: Right, and what do I mean to say with this image? I think that JP2 truly possessed this intellectual and spiritual strategy needed in today’s world: “You cannot understand man without Christ”. This gave him a tool to show that on the one hand, we should be courageous witnesses of Christ, and on the other hand, we should listen to all those who do not share our understanding of the world, and learn from them. What is important here, is that he tried to show that we should do both things because of our identity. I mean we should be witnesses of Christ because our identity as Christians, and we should be in dialogue with the others, creating space for them to engage them, all because of our strong identity. We do not need to diminish our identity in order to enter into discussion with others, so to speak. It is because of our Christian identity that we are creating the space for the other, and this is what I believe is the right position which we need for the contemporary world and contemporary culture. We should do both, because of (and not in spite of) our identity in Christ.
ZENIT: How do you think his successors are carrying out his legacy… Benedict XVI sent a letter May 15 that praised his predecessor, and dear friend, and Pope Francis, who early in his pontificate canonized JPII in 2014, will be celebrating his morning Mass at the tomb of John Paul II …
Father Michal Paluch, O.P: If we want to compare the Popes, I think that both of them, despite any differences, see JP2 in the same way, only with different accents. This is normal and it’s what the Church needs. We need to be able to articulate our Christian Catholic faith with different, how to say, flavors, because it is richer than us, and richer than any Pope. I would say that there is nothing dangerous or difficult for me to accept that not all the Popes are the same. I think perhaps we can see the situation like this: both Benedict and Francis have their roots in the pontificate of John Paul II, to some extent, which lasted many years was quite comprehensive, especially if we think about his encyclicals, writings and gestures.
Both are developing his heritage, the heritage of the [Second Vatican] Council as well other councils… but I think through the legacy of their great predecessor.
ZENIT: The Church in Poland is, some would say, the most Catholic Church in Europe at this time. I have observed that during my trip there for the recent World Youth Day, other travels, and when presenting the Polish version of my book recently in Warsaw. What can the rest of Europe and the world learn from them?
Father Michal Paluch, O.P: I would say that perhaps my view is a bit more complex. I see not only the strengths but also the weaknesses.
ZENIT: Right of course. There are always both.
Father Michal Paluch, O.P: Well if you are saying that our Church is the most Catholic Church in Europe, I would like that it be true, but I am not sure it would be that easy to confirm.
ZENIT: Well you would know better than I would.
Father Michal Paluch, O.P: I think it is difficult to measure catholicity or real faith. It is true that we still have the blessing of many people who identify themselves with the Catholic faith or Catholic tradition. It’s true, and it’s a treasure. It’s a treasure for any society to be in such a position. But it’s very, very difficult to repeat elsewhere, because it depends on so many social differences, and historical, spiritual actors, that you cannot just repeat with the same methods, and produce the same situation elsewhere.
ZENIT: How has coronavirus affected these events and the Angelicum, and how does it go forward, prudently, in spite of these obstacles?
Father Michal Paluch, O.P: We switched to online teaching quite quickly and it was well organized by our administration and professors. I am quite proud of all of it. Right now, we are preparing for the next academic year. Our plans are to keep moving forward with our work in our university, even though we are facing economic challenges, and looking for assistance to continue our mission in these difficult times. Our main priority and our firm plan is to move ahead and absolutely not to abandon our students.
We hope that with online opportunities, the Angelicum will be discovered in other parts of the world than from where our current students come. We hope to draw more students and to expand our efforts.
ZENIT: Can you explain a bit about the actual dynamics of the teaching online versus on campus right now?
Father Michal Paluch, O.P: Just to be clear, the classes next semester are going to be mixed, also because of visa issues. As you know, some parts of the world will not be able to come back to Italy, and then you also have students who are already here. We will have some normal classes, as usual, always practicing social distancing and the appropriate safety measures. For our students not here in Rome, it does not mean their academic lives will stop. They will be plugging in. We are looking to optimize the experience of studying online. I have heard positive feedback from some of our students who have done both, being here in person as well as being a student online, who were pleased with how quickly the Angelicum was able to move to this other platform. Technology has significantly improved, so one can even participate LIVE. Some are saying that it was very helpful to be able to engage and interact with the professor and students. We are working to surpass technical challenges that naturally happen when systems are overwhelmed, but we are quickly learning. For the most part, it has gone quite smoothly. A lot of students note that their professors checked in very often with their students, personally, even if not in Rome, and there was frequent communication between students and professors, and between students and their fellow classmates, through various technological tools.
Our professors understood the challenges and also wanted to see how students were doing psychologically, well aware that many are preparing for ordinations, and so on. So we put various mechanisms in place, to make sure ‘our family,’ is being taken care of. There is room for improvement, but we are making progress. An important part of our Dominican identity is this family atmosphere. It is among the elements that have drawn many to the Angelicum. Our community: friars, sisters, professors & students and our employees – we all try to support each other, and to pray for each other. We will continue our prayers, even virtually for now, to keep some normalcy, even if the way we now must live has changed.
ZENIT: Thanks so much for your time and I look forward to the launch.
On ZENIT’s Web page:
ANNIVERSARY SPECIAL: 100 Ways Pope Saint John Paul II Changed the World: https://zenit.org/articles/anniversary-special-100-ways-pope-saint-john-paul-ii-changed-the-world/