“As March gave way to April in the spring of 2005, and the world kept vigil outside the apostolic palace in Rome, the pontificate of John Paul II, then drawing to a poignant end, was already being described as one of the most consequential in two millennia of Christian history,” opens George Weigel in his new book on John Paul II, The End and the Beginning. Weigel, a Catholic theologian and distinguished senior fellow at the Washington, D.C.-based Ethics and Public Policy Center, discussed John Paul II’s’ pontifical legacy in his October lecture, “Pope John Paul II: An Assessment and Appreciation.” Weigel noted six main areas that John Paul II’s legacy has had a lasting impact: discipleship in Christ, reformation of seminaries, the collapse of communism, definition of a free and virtuous society, ecumenism, and culture and its relationship to history.
John Paul’s impact on the Catholic Church had been just as dramatic as his influence in world affairs. “Over two and half decades,” began Weigel, “[John Paul II] had reinvigorated the church spiritually and intellectually, restoring a sense of the adventure of discipleship for many Catholics and constantly reminding the entire Church that it did not exist for its own sake, but for its evangelical mission: to proclaim the Gospel of God’s saving love for humanity throughout the world.” Pope John Paul II reformed seminaries and instituted changes which remind those following Christ of their responsibilities. He also wanted Church leaders and those within the Church to be invited “to experience the Paschal Mystery.”
Weigel also reminded the audience of John Paul II’s commitment to youth. Don Briel, director for the Center for Catholic Studies, remarked in First Things, “Weigel stressed the importance of John Paul II’s consistent emphasis on the promise of the young and highlights the remarkable response to World Youth Day in Rome in 2000, when John Paul called the young to an unexpected heroism. The response of the John Paul II generation astounded both senior churchmen and those cultural critics who took note of it. This response was perhaps most poignantly displayed on the vigil of his death by the thousands of young people who gathered in St. Peter’s Square to mourn the imminent loss of the man who had become their spiritual father.” Yet it was not only the youth who were touched by John Paul II. The elderly and suffering also had a deep appreciation and respect for the man called John Paul II.
Briel commented, “In the last six years of John Paul’s life – as his physical condition deteriorated, and some called for his abdication, insisting that he was no longer capable of managing the bureaucracy of the Church – the mystery of the interconnection of life and suffering was dramatically realized on the world stage. His hand trembling, his facial features often frozen, his voice failing, barely able to walk, he became for billions of people the great moral witness of his age.”
Weigel believed that this nobility of the human person in any stage of life was the key to recovering a humanism gone astray for John Paul II. His “singular intuition into the central problem” of the last 200 years is, indeed, a faulty secular humanism. The world, “striving for freedom had not learned to live freedom nobly because it had lost touch with the nobility of the human person, which consists in our ability to know, choose and adhere to the truth. … Men and women had become alienated from their own interiority, having lost sight of a transcendent spiritual and moral horizon against which to live their lives.”
Weigel believed that John Paul’s influence reached far beyond the Church proper, establishing himself “as a universal moral witness to the dignity of the human person and the world’s principal exponent of the universality of human rights” in areas of the meaning of human freedom, the collapse of communism and his ability to engage both Judaism and Islam in intellectual ecumenism. “His understanding of the nature of truth and revelation was profound. If one lives in that [truth] and in communion with others, then one finds the weapons for social change.”
Weigel noted that amidst changing political and economic spheres unfriendly toward the poor, John Paul II reminded the audience that a free society is also a virtuous society. And a virtuous society is one that is tethered to the human person who is aimed toward the good. “Karol Wojtyla believed that the Catholic Church should bend its global mission toward the recovery, defense and promotion of the inalienable dignity and value of every human person. That conviction was at the center of everything he proposed to the world during the 26 1/2 years of his pontificate, both in his teaching and in his living. … It enlivened his thinking and teaching about the Church itself. It defined the way he lived, and it defined the way he died.”
In the final remarks of The End and the Beginning, Weigel noted that “For Karol Wojtyla, of course, the truth about the human person was ultimately revealed in Jesus Christ, in whom we discover the truth about the merciful Father and the truth about ourselves. What is so striking about the accomplishment of John Paul II was that this unshakable and distinctively Christian conviction set the platform on which he became a universal figure, a reference point for universal moral truths.” This speaking the truth of the human person gave rise to murmurings of John Paul II as a modern-day prophet. For Weigel, John Paul II was indeed a prophet, but “the nature of his prophetic charism, which included a penetrating insight into historical circumstances and possibilities, had to do, not with clairvoyance, but with faith: faith in the dignity of the human person; faith in the capacity to choose the good freely; faith, ultimately, in Christ.” John Paul II challenged the world because he was, first and foremost, a disciple of Christ, “a radically converted Christian whose unshakable faith in Christ gave birth to a world-changing hope for a new springtime of the human spirit.”
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