Donate now

St. John Paul the Great

John Paul has been singled out to ascend with Leo and Gregory to that rare designation: ‘the Great’

By Michael Novak

This is the second of a three-part series from Corriere della Sera written by Michael Novak on the occasion of Sunday’s canonizations.

* * *

            In accepting his election as pope, Karol Wojtyla of Poland chose for himself the papal names of the two popes who presided over Vatican II, John and Paul. Together, John Paul II and John and Paul made possible the rising up of Eastern and Central Europe to bring down the greatest enemy of humankind in our age, atheistic Communism – and to bring it down in a Christian way, peacefully.

            If John XXIII had not abruptly called into being Ecumenical Council Vatican II, the world would never have seen some 2,500 Roman Catholic bishops assemble in bleachers inside St. Peter’s in 1962. In 1870, there had been only 700 bishops at Vatican I. In just 90 years, the growth of the Catholic Church – in Latin America, North America, Africa, and Asia – had been prodigious. Now its worldwide strength was visible in one photograph.

            If Paul VI himself had not heeded the urgent plea of Karol Wojtyla that the bishops from behind the Iron Curtain had to go home with a Declaration on Religious Freedom (Dignitatis Humanae), they would not have had the battle cry that shook the cynical rulers of Communist Europe: “RELIGIOUS LIBERTY!” The thriving underground churches of the East, the stirrings of Solidarnosc (Lech Walesa’s free labor union), the alliance of atheistic intellectuals and Catholic churchmen meeting regularly in Catholic church buildings – none of this would have come to pass. We need to go back centuries to find a precedent for the immense changes here so suddenly set loose.

            Leo the Great threw back the barbarian hordes from Rome in 452 A.D., as did Gregory the Great in 593 A.D. John Paul the Great in 1989 (Berlin) and 1991 (Moscow) brought down the greatest persecutors of the Church in human history. None of this would have come to pass without the two popes, John XXIII and Paul VI, from whom John Paul II took his name.

            That is how John XXIII, Paul VI, and John Paul II will be forever linked in history.

            Leo the Great and Gregory the Great were models for John Paul II in other ways. They were extraordinarily brave in facing down fearsome enemies, but also enormously inventive in reforming the Church, in renewing early discipline, in music, canon law, catechesis, and magisterial teaching. Both of the first two Greats called back into vigor the substance and backbone and direction of a confident faith.

            For those reasons, too, and for his new Catechism and his majestic development of age-old doctrines through his fourteen unusually penetrating encyclicals, John Paul has been singled out to ascend with Leo and Gregory to that rare designation: “the Great.” There are but three “Greats” among the first 263 popes.

2. In Person: A New Humanism

            Yet, doubtlessly, the greatest contribution of John Paul II is that he introduced into the world, on a planetary scale, a new Christian humanism. He singled out Jesus Christ as the new form of humanism: the person, the Divine Person in the flesh, the new model for humans by which to become what we were made to be.

            John Paul II wore his humanity gracefully – the young and fit new pope skiing and hiking in the Alps, the ready smile and quick wit of an artist accustomed to large crowds and in love with people, in love with all people, speaking directly to the hearts of each.

            I remember taking my mother to hear him when he first visited Washington, D.C. We had a very good spot on Rhode Island Avenue in front of the rectory next to St. Mathew’s Cathedral. No appearance was scheduled, but a large and loving crowd had gathered beneath the second floor window of the rectory with its small balcony. When the French doors were swung open, a wave of excitement surged through the crowd as the beloved figure in white appeared – all young and vital, bursting with energy.

            The crowd instantly began to shout, “John Paul Two – We love you!” “John Paul Two – We love you!” He let the chant go on for another minute, then he waved for a pause. As silence slowly was attained, abruptly, the pope began pointing at the crowd, to everyone from left to right, and shouted: “John Paul II – he loves you! John Paul II” – jabbing with his finger at the crowd – “he loves you!” The chants from the people began again. A lovefest was underway.

            The world also saw John Paul II’s humanity not only in his vigorous youth, but also in his pale and weak condition when the botched assassination almost killed him – and again in his ageing, in his physical weakness (pulling himself up into an airplane by tightly grasping its railing). Whether young or old, his eyes flashed, visibly showing that “the glory of God is man fully alive!” (St. Irenaeus)

            In person, John Paul II was warm, witty, quick to seize the irony and humor in every circumstance, and he was very fond of good jokes – especially those with a dose of Central European irony. For instance, he once laughed out loud at table, on hearing the story of the Polish soldier and the Russian soldier on joint winter maneuvers. It was during the weeks of martial law in Poland, and both young men were cold and hungry. Neither had had any food that day.

            In a last desperate effort, the Polish soldier rummaged deep in his rucksack, and to the surprise of both brought forth a slightly moldy bread roll. When he saw the bread, the eager Soviet soldier said: “Let’s divide it, in the true spirit of Socialist equality.” Knowing the Soviet history of “equality” and “solidarity”—“What’s mine is mine, and what’s yours is mine” – the Polish soldier said no: “Absolutely not! Half and half. Not a crumb more!”

            On another occasion, friends told the pope of a joke going around about him and the Polish election, two election terms after the ascent of the Solidarity government. Even in that short a time, the Polish electorate had divided itself into thirty-eight political parties. One of them called itself the Beer Drinkers Party.

            Reminded of this division, the pope shook his head sadly: “There are only two solutions to the Polish crisis: the realistic solution and the miraculous solution. The realistic solution is if Our Lady of Czestochowa should suddenly appear, with Jesus and all the saints on her one side, and Moses and all the prophets on her other – and solve the Polish crisis. The miraculous solution will be if the Poles learn to compromise and cooperate.”

            When guests came to see him, John Paul II was insatiably curious. He much enjoyed a combination of reflection on large cultural themes and informative concrete stories. Occasionally, it seemed, he needed friends around for a little relaxation, to step back from the daily grind, to cherish an hour of pure enjoyment. Even then, he probed for new reflections, opinions, suggestions, bits of information – if possible, briefly and wittily put.

            “If you had seen the poverty that we just saw in Peru” – he would grimace and nod toward his secretary, Msgr. Dziwisz – “what would you do?” He wanted a practical answer, but seemed unconvinced by hesitant attempts.

            Another time, someone thanked the pope for helping bring about the “miracle” of bringing down Communism so shortly after his election – not yet eleven years. At that, the pope winced. “That was no miracle. That Mickey-Mouse system was collapsing of its own weight.”

            And in Poland, he had the on-the-spot brilliance to turn the tables on Communist propaganda in face-to-face debates: “They say that Communism is here for the worker. But they know nothing about the subjectivity of the worker, what he is thinking, what he is feeling, where his pride is. They do not honor his soul. Those are the important parts of work. Not just producing endless piles of I-beams to rust in the rain, and rusting for what reason? Because there is no market, no one wants them.

            “Work is not just drawing heavy nets of fish from the Baltic Sea, only to find that there are no freezers working, so one’s catch simply rots. What a mockery for the spirit and sweat of workers. Such things do not honor workers. They disgust them. They destroy the souls of workers.” Systematically, theme by theme, the young pope turned Communist ideology back upon itself.

            His humanism was broader and deeper than theirs. So were his powers of analysis. And so was his smiling, wicked wit.

3. The Advantage of Loving Theater

            It is often forgotten that this pope was the author of successful plays and poems. This pope understood the power of drama. Under the Nazis he had risked death to keep the Polish drama of literature, humanity, and hope alive. As pope, he did not forget his dramatic skills.

            For example, one of the truly great achievements of the Second Vatican Council was the passage of the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium). Its purpose was to complement the teaching of Vatican I, which had done all it could do, just after the fall of the papal states, to clarify the spiritual role of future popes. Thus, Vatican II concentrated on the role of all the bishops of the world in unity, around the Bishop of Rome. Not a pyramidal relationship, exactly, but a concentric one.

            With his sure sense of teaching by dramatic acts, John Paul II almost immediately embarked on pastoral visits to half the nations of the world. He soon became the one human person to be present in person to hundreds of millions of human beings, more than any other man in history.

            But much less noticed was that everywhere the pope appeared, he was surrounded by scores of the bishops of that region (and other regions). There, physically present on stage and on television sets were the concentric rings of the violet-robed bishops of the world surrounding him, all speaking as one. It was perfectly visible: The Bishop of Rome turned and “strengthened his brothers.” Their planetary unity was made manifest through him.

4. His Holiness

            With Pope John Paul II, “His Holiness” was not simply an honorary title. It was a way of life. Part way through his papacy, a cardinal was being interviewed who was not known to be a supporter of John Paul II. Yet this cardinal expressed wonderment at how deep and “mystical” this pope was. He mentioned how deep in prayer the pope often seemed – as if he were then in a world apart from the rest of us.

            Later, three or four times I had a chance to see this for myself in the time before his morning mass. He would huddle on the prie-dieu, absorbed into God. It seemed that he was not praying – saying words – but swept into another Presence. Yet, when after mass he went round the circle of his visitors, as he always did, he seemed immediately present to each of us. It was as if he slipped into another Presence and back into the world without effort. As if his presence with God made him more present to everyone else, not less.

            On one occasion my wife, a sculptor and painter, brought him as a gift her bronze corpusof the dying Jesus on the cross. She had cast it for a processional cross. The instant he saw the corpus, the pope placed his finger on the sagging figure who could no longer hold himself erect, and was dying of suffocation. “At the exact moment of dying,” John Paul II said. Immediately my wife softly shot back, “Crossing the Threshold of Hope.”That was the name of the pope’s recently published bestseller, and he smiled appreciatively at her quick riposte.

            On this occasion as on many others, John Paul II was as down-to-earth as he could be, while just minutes before having been rapt in the Presence of God, as if in another world.

            Karen and I had been in the presence of Mother Teresa, Dorothy Day, and other especially holy persons. You could sense their holiness, too. But John Paul II’s holiness was different. A powerful presence enveloped him. His light blue eyes flashed a merriment worthy of St. Nicholas. Of fun and gentle love for others, he seemed as full as of determination.

            In his deep Christian humanism – strong as steel, courageous, bold – John Paul II proved worthy of these much-loved words of Shakespeare: “His life was gentle; and the elements so mix’d in him that Nature might stand up, and say to all the world, This was a man!”

About ZENIT Staff

Share this Entry

Support ZENIT

If you liked this article, support ZENIT now with a donation