How foolish would be any attempt to condense in one little article, in a blog which ranks not even as a footnote in the vastness of the Catholic blogosphere, the breadth of accomplishments of John Paul II’s pontificate. His heroic virtues are known to all: his pious devotion to the Eucharist, his fervent attachment to the Blessed Mother, his ecumenical outreach, his tireless pursuit of peace, his development of philosophical personalism, his intellectual contributions to the Second Vatican Council, his forgiveness of his would-be assassin, his role in ending the Cold War– all these make him not only a monumental ecclesiastical figure but a true giant of history. No biography, no matter how detailed or exhaustive, will ever do justice to the immensity of
this man this Saint.
Instead of chronicling the life and accomplishments of John Paul II, as has been done by many other people far more capable than me, I will focus on one theme, namely, that he was a pastor par excellence. Building on our previous reflections on the nature of true pastoral care and the combative character of episcopal office, I mean that Papa Wojtyla exemplified that delicate balance between tender care for the flock on the one hand, and uncompromising fidelity to the truth of the faith on the other hand. The unity of these two approaches become evident when one examines his vigorous support for the anti-Soviet movements in his native Poland compared with his vigorous opposition to Marxist-heavy liberation theology in Latin America. To help illustrate this point, what follows is an extended quotation from a theological paper of mine published in 2009. The thesis of the paper concerns John Paul II’s place in Polish history.
In the debates concerning the predominantly Latin American phenomenon of liberation theology, the ambassadors of doctrinal orthodoxy (to include John Paul II and Benedict XVI [and now, Francis!]) have frequently warned against an over-secularized approach symbolized by the preference of sociological methods over theological ones. From [John Paul II’s] allocution to the assembly of Latin American bishops at Puebla in 1979, we can infer his sentiment that the term “liberation” had been “hijacked” by popular liberation theologians who seemed to leave the eschatological dimension behind, limiting the concept of liberation to empirically observable, purely political (and often partisan) success, even if it means betraying the traditional tenets of Christian morality through recourse to violence. 09The impressiveness of John Paul’s contribution to the liberation of Poland is a product of the homogeneous fusion of political objectives and religious purpose in a manner consonant with the constant moral teaching of the Church. This philosophical consistency, embedded in the spirit of the Solidarity movement, is what allowed the anti-Communist resistance to function as an almost united front, remaining formidable and influential despite open repression. It is the same force which preserved Polish identity and culture despite centuries of intermittent prosperity and subjugation.
Yet in the age of John Paul II, something new occurred. The Church, as a maternal protectress, had always been sufficient in simply maintaining Polish identity without guaranteeing a political stability with feasible longevity. It would seem that under Wojtyla’s pontificate, Poland finally came of age, for in the image of the Polish pope, we find a novel icon which eloquently symbolizes what it means to be Polish and Catholic. As Archbishop of Krakow, he was successor of St. Stanislaus, the primordial patron of Poland; as Bishop of Rome, he was successor of St. Peter, the point of reference for ecclesiastical union. Through both titles, he personified an unprecedented development of the unity between Poland and the Church. When Wojtyla ascended to the papacy, it was almost as if Poland was raised up with him, revitalized, resurgent, and resurrected in a way never before seen. The collapse of Soviet communism can thus be considered the culminating political-eschatological moment of Polish history wherein that nation at last found its “proper place among the nations of Europe, East and West.” Poland’s transfiguration from serial victim to emerging world power is ultimately a product of and a tribute to John Paul’s fundamental insight that it is “not possible to understand the history of the Polish nation without Christ.”
Full citation for the paper quoted above is as follows:
Belleza, Joey. “Karol Wojtyla in the Trajectory of Polish History.” Writing for a Real World 2008-2009 (2009): pp. 108-120.