This spring we’ve had the chance to reflect on the life and death of John Paul II, his pontificate and his personal witness. Many have wondered about his legacy and the impact his life has had on the Church.
While such reflections are understandable, there does seem to be something not quite right in speaking about how his pontificate will be remembered.
There is the immediate challenge of its sheer vastness. It was a papacy of superlatives: most traveled, most widely known, producing the most written materials, canonizing the most saints.
Where does one stand in order to consider the extraordinary accomplishments of this historical figure? Who has at hand the adequate categories of history, of politics, of ecclesial and doctrinal matters? Who has the sufficient depth of experience, the grasp of the interior life, the understanding of spiritual growth and physical suffering in order to venture a judgment on such accomplishments?
To comment on his legacy is like commenting on the ocean while standing on the shore. It is to remark on a mountain range while standing in the valley. Words fail eventually and all one is left to do is simply point and say: Look!
And the world did look. It is reported that some 2 billion people watched his funeral, the single most-televised event in history. As pope, he was seen in person by more people than any other living figure, drawing in a single event (Manila, 1995) the largest gathering of human beings the world has ever known — some 4 million people.
For many years, we did not measure the efforts of John Paul II against the tradition of the faith — John Paul II himself was the faith. He embodied virtually everything that we had come to understand of Catholicism. The mark of one’s orthodoxy was measured by one’s fidelity to the magisterium, indeed this magisterium, finally, this pope.
To comment on the legacy of John Paul II, then, is in some strange way to venture an answer to the question: What do you think about Catholicism? It’s best to remain silent and simply point and say: Look!
At the same time all of this seems wrong. John Paul II is not the faith; he is not Catholicism. While it may require the distance of several generations to consider the scope of his papacy, it would be an extraordinary failure if we were to mistake this pontificate with Catholicism. John Paul II was pontiff, not king; servant, not master; disciple, not Lord. His historic papacy was due entirely to the fact that he had given himself over to something greater than history, more accurately, someone greater than history. John Paul II did not leave a legacy because Christ did not leave a legacy. Christ left himself.
John Paul II was an ordinary man alive with the extraordinary grace of one living in Christ. From the vantage point of “below,” his impact on world culture is unprecedented, yet from the vantage point of “above” — of one living in Christ — his impact is simply one more instance of what is capable when grace begins to perfect nature. There were grace-filled figures in the past; there will be others to come.
We only will begin to understand this pope when we consider him in light of the mystery of Jesus Christ, for it is only in the mystery of Christ that one not simply sees but comprehends the life of John Paul II. No one will adequately comprehend any legacy of John Paul II who does not know and love the person of Jesus the Christ who dwelt in him.
The Catholics Studies program will be forever grateful to God for the graces bestowed on us in that total gift of self we came to know in the person of Pope John Paul II.
Christopher Thompson is chair of the Catholic Studies department.