‘He rightly believed that Europe could not be understood without an acknowledgement of its Christian roots’
In February 2020, the Polish Episcopal Conference called for St John Paul II to be recognised as a Doctor of the Church and co-patron of Europe. A century removed from his birth, the late pontiff remains one of the most remarkable figures of the 20th century.
Karol Wojtyła was born on May 18, 1920 in the town of Wadowice. His life runs parallel with one of the most harrowing centuries of the Polish national experience.
After the death of his father, Wojtyła began to discern his vocation to the priesthood. He received his priestly formation in an underground seminary, in the backdrop of the Nazi occupation of Poland.
He was ordained in 1946 and was appointed Auxiliary Bishop in 1958 and Archbishop of Krakow in 1964. Three years later, Paul VI raised him to the Sacred College of Cardinals.
His public ministry coincided with yet another difficult time for the Polish nation. The anti-religious Soviet-backed communist government wanted to create a ‘new man’ in the image and likeness of that destructive ideology.
Undeterred by religious restrictions, Wojtyła persevered in his ministry. When the regime banned religious manifestations, Wojtyła complied. The icon of the Blessed Mother remained in the church and the procession took place with just its frame!
In Nowa Huta, permission to construct a new church was repeatedly denied. Come rain or shine, Wojtyła made it a point to celebrate the Eucharist in a field on Christmas Eve. In 1967, permission was granted. He was never outwitted.
On October 16, 1978, Wojtyła was elected Pope. As Pope John Paul II, he delivered the customary speech from the loggia overlooking St Peter’s Square, there was a palpable sense of history in the making.
Later, he reflected on this important day: “I said that I came ‘from a far country’. The geographical distance is not great. By air, the journey takes barely two hours. In calling it a ‘far country’, I intended to allude to the presence of the ‘iron curtain’.”
The geographical centre of the European continent is on Polish soil. ‘Eastern’ and ‘Western’ Europe were artificial political categorisations. He believed that the countries behind the Iron Curtain had a significant contribution to make to Europe; these were the countries which cherished their identity despite political pressures to conform. Their resilience allowed them to go “through a process of spiritual maturation”.
By embracing, rather than rejecting the experience of his homeland, John Paul II became an even greater European
After experiencing the horrors of totalitarianism, John Paul II believed that democracy was central to European civilisation, particularly when this is understood “as an attitude of mind and a principle of conduct”. However, this democracy is not limitless; it remains subject “to God’s law and natural law”.
In his last book, Memory and Identity, John Paul II reflects on some of these themes. The overarching question of the 20th century revolves around the existence of evil and, for the believer, on how a benevolent God can allow so much suffering.
Following the footsteps of Augustine and Aquinas, John Paul II defines evil as the “absence of some good which ought to be present”. It is never the “total absence of good” but, rather, a privation. Good and evil are part of human nature.
The events of the 20th century show that good can still triumph. For the believer, “there is no evil from which God cannot draw forth a greater good. There is no suffering which he cannot transform into a path leading to him.”
The totalitarianism of the 20th century also initiated a debate on the nature of freedom. He rejects the definition of freedom as action without constraints. Instead, freedom is defined as a gift which allows man “to accept and to implement the truth regarding the good” within the family, economy, politics and the international arena.
This quest for freedom was very personal for John Paul II. During his first visit as Pope to his homeland, he was prevented from visiting the church he had worked hard for in Nowa Huta. In 1981, an attempt on his life failed. He attributed this near-miss to the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary. In 1984, a priest close to Solidarność, Fr Jerzy Popiełuszko, was assassinated by Security Service agents.
The tragedy befalling his homeland did not leave him indifferent. He was a patriot. Patriotism is “a love for everything to do with our native land: its history, its tradition, its language and its natural features”.
He argued that patriotism could be the antidote to unhealthy forms of nationalism since it “is a love of one’s native land that accords rights to all other nations equal to those claimed for one’s own”.
John Paul II’s patriotism was not insular. He understood that Poland’s harrowing national experience was intrinsically tied with Europe’s historical trajectory. By embracing rather than rejecting the experience of his homeland, John Paul II became an even greater European.
He rightly believed that Europe could not be understood without an acknowledgement of its Christian roots. Despite the various historical divisions, the “patrimony of common values derived from the Gospel” allowed for a “pluralism of national cultures” to develop “upon a platform of values shared throughout the continent”.
He understood that Europe was not merely an artificial bureaucratic construct but, rather, the sum of its political and historical experiences. To build its future, one had to comprehend it in its totality – without any historical whitewashing. Its future cannot be rooted in a level of abstraction but in the sense of place.
In constructing the future, he urged to “open wide the doors for Christ”. This openness should be extended to “the boundaries of states, economic and political systems, the vast fields of culture, civilisation and development”.
This was the leitmotif of his public life; this was the message he brought to the world on his 104 overseas trips.
When he died, on April 2, 2005, the world mourned a spiritual leader and an exceptional thinker. His reflections remain prophetic to this day.
André P. DeBattista is an independent researcher in politics and international relations
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