In an address given during that 1976 Eucharistic Congress in Philadelphia for the bicentennial celebration of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, Cardinal Karol Wojtyla spoke some words which I believe were prophetic. – We are now standing in the face of the greatest historical confrontation humanity has ever experienced. I do not think that the wide circle of the American Society, or the whole wide circle of the Christian Community realize this fully. We are now facing the final confrontation between the Church and the anti-church, between the gospel and the anti-gospel, between Christ and the Antichrist. The confrontation lies within the plans of Divine Providence. It is, therefore, in God’s Plan, and it must be a trial which the Church must take up, and face courageously.
n 1976 Cardinal Karol Wojtyla attended the Eucharistic Congress held that year in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in the United States. It was a part of the national bicentennial celebration of the Declaration of Independence which was celebrated throughout the Nation. That document, the Declaration, was the Birth Certificate of the American experiment.
I remember the event well. I was still an undergraduate student at the then College of Steubenville (now Franciscan University of Steubenville), at the beginning of its profound resurgence under the leadership of a dear friend, Fr Michael Scanlan. I had written a song for the Bicentennial, putting to music the promise contained in the Old Testament Book of Second Chronicles as a prayer for the United States of America:
“If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land“. (2 Chron 7:14)
The Declaration of Independence not only affirmed the existence of a Creator but boldly proclaimed the immutable fact that there are fundamental human rights endowed upon all men and women by that Creator. Additionally, that there are self-evident truths which cannot be denied and whose recognition are essential to the formation of any truly just and human civil order and polity.
Both of those foundation stones of the American experiment, the conviction that human rights come from God – and that there are self evident truths – were not the invention of the American founders. They came from the patrimony of western civilization, with its deep roots in both the Jewish and Christian vision of the human person, marriage, the family, the social order and the role of government. They were rooted in the understanding that there is a Natural Moral Law which can be known by all men and women – and must govern our lives together.
Those foundation stones are being shaken on this day when the Catholic Church around the world celebrates the Liturgical Feast dedicated to this same Karol Wojtyla, whom the world now remembers as Saint John Paul II. In an address given during that 1976 Eucharistic Congress in Philadelphia for the bicentennial celebration of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, Cardinal Karol Wojtyla spoke some words which I believe were prophetic:
“We are now standing in the face of the greatest historical confrontation humanity has ever experienced. I do not think that the wide circle of the American Society, or the whole wide circle of the Christian Community realize this fully. We are now facing the final confrontation between the Church and the anti-church, between the gospel and the anti-gospel, between Christ and the antichrist. The confrontation lies within the plans of Divine Providence. It is, therefore, in God’s Plan, and it must be a trial which the Church must take up, and face courageously.”
Several years ago I wrote a tribute to the Pope who took the names of his predecessors, to show his own commitment to the continuity of the work of the Holy Spirit in this urgent hour in the history of the Church and the world. It is still offered by Catholic Online. In it, I considered his years on earth and his gift to the Church, the Body of Christ, and to the world into which she is still sent to continue the redemptive mission of her Head.
On October 16, 1978, the Cardinals of the Catholic Church gathered, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and chose Karol Cardinal Wojtyla as the 263rd successor to the Apostle Peter. He took the name John Paul II as his first teaching act, sending the signal of continuity with his predecessors in the chair of Peter. He stepped out on to the balcony in St. Peters Square and proclaimed:
“Be Not Afraid! Open up, no; swing wide the gates to Christ. Open up to his saving power the confines of the State, open up economic and political systems, the vast empires of culture, civilization and development… Be not afraid!”
Affirmed by many as one of the chief architects of the Second Vatican Council in the Catholic Church and its extraordinary document on the relationship of the Church to the modern world (entitled “Joy and Hope” or “Gaudium et Spes” in Latin), this strong, passionate, charismatic priest and Bishop was chosen to occupy the chair of Peter. At a critical time in the history of both the Church and the world, he stepped forward like a lion, with a prophetic roar. He strode onto that platform with strength and vitality. How well I remember the moment.
That mountain climbing Polish Pope was so filled with the love of God it was contagious. A talented and gifted “man of letters”, a playwright, a philosopher, an intellectual giant, a poet, but more importantly, a genuine human being with a heart that embraced the whole world, like the Heart of the One whom he represented on earth. He truly was the “Vicar of Christ”, representing the Lord, the King of Kings, for so many millions throughout the world.
Like a lion in Peter’s chair, he consistently and tirelessly lived what he boldly proclaimed with great courage. Unafraid, he traversed the globe, proclaiming freedom to the captives and truth to the victims of failed false ideologies that had ravaged the people of the twentieth century, the bloodiest in all of human history. He did not stop re-presenting the classical, unchanging, Christian message with a prophetic urgency, profound clarity and contemporary relevance.
Communism, atheism, secularism, false humanisms… were exposed in both their empty promises and the horrors that they unleashed in the wake of their false utopian claims. Pope St. John Paul II proclaimed that the “Redeemer of Man” (the title of his first encyclical letter), Jesus Christ, is the path to authentic personal, social and universal freedom!
He authored more encyclical letters, apostolic exhortations, constitutions and letters than any Pope in the two thousand year history of the Christian Church. In these writings and so many allocutions, this marvelous man has given us a treasury to unpack for centuries to come.
He meticulously and brilliantly developed themes during his service to the Church and the world. which have now become a standard in our lexicon. Among them; “The Culture of Life“, “The Civilization of Love“, “The New Evangelization”, “The New Springtime of world missions “, “The Universal Call to holiness“; “Christian Marriage and family life as a domestic church“; “A Spirituality of Communion“; “The Theology of the Body“; “The Common Good“; “The Unity of Life“; “The New Humanism“; “The New feminism and the Feminine Genius“; “The Two Lungs of East and West“; “New Catholic Action“, and a “New Advent” for all of humanity in Jesus Christ.
His writings were vast, 14 Encyclicals, 15 Apostolic Exhortations, 11 Apostolic Constitutions, 45 Apostolic Letters and five books, “Crossing the Threshold of Hope” (October 1994), “Gift and Mystery, on the fiftieth anniversary of my ordination as priest” (November 1996), “Roman Triptych” poetic meditations (March 2003), “Arise, Let us Be Going” (May 2004) and “Memory and Identity” (February 2005).
He promulgated the Catechism of the Catholic Church. He reformed the Eastern and Western Codes of Canon Law. He was an extraordinary Pope and Christian on every front. His teaching magisterium set a framework for what followed under his successors, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI and Pope Francis, a new missionary age. His teaching helped to bring about an authentic renewal and reform of the Church.
It also reasserted the mission of the Church to engage and transform human culture, including the arts, politics, the academy, and economic and political realm – because no area of human experience is “off-limits” to the influence of the Gospel and the Church. The Church is, in the words of the Fathers of the second Vatican Council, an “expert in humanity“.
Saint Pope John Paul II called all men and women to the Redeemer, Jesus Christ. He reminded us that only in Jesus Christ can we discover the purpose and fulfillment of human life. He proclaimed that human existence itself is an invitation to communion with God and with one another. He told an age bent of “self fulfillment” that true human fulfillment only comes from giving ourselves in love to God and to one another. He called us to live a unity of life, wherein the implications of the Christian faith inform the entirety of life with no contradiction or separation.
He confronted, exposed and opposed the “culture of death”, wherein the human person is treated as an instrument to be used rather than an unrepeatable gift to be received. He proposed a different way, building a new “culture of life” where every human person, at every age and stage, is recognized as having an inviolable dignity and right to life, freedom and love.
He charted a path to authentic peace and solidarity, proclaiming to the nations that we are all our brothers’ keeper and that we owe an obligation in solidarity to one another and, most especially, to the poor in all of their manifestations. He wrote of authentic freedom as a freedom “for” and not just a freedom “from”, a freedom that must be bounded by truth and lived in accordance with the moral understanding of our obligation to do always choose to do what is right.
He exposed what he called in his Encyclical “The Gospel of Life” (Evangelium Vitae) the “counterfeit notion of freedom” as a raw power over others. He countered the false notion of the autonomy of the individual as the measure of a “freedom” to do whatever one wants by insisting that the path to human flourishing is communion. He proclaimed a new and true humanism, reaffirming that we were created in the Image of God, made for communion. He insisted that through applying the treasury of the social teaching of the Catholic Church – in our relationships with one another, in our families, in our societies, our nations and in the global community – authentic justice and freedom can actually be achieved.
Entrusted for twenty six years with the most important role of service in the Church and the world, Saint Pope John Paul II was a prophetic Pope in both word and deed. From his first encyclical letter entitled “The Redeemer of Man” to his last, the “Church of the Eucharist”, he proclaimed that the truth is, as he wrote in his profound Encyclical Letter on the Moral Life entitled “The Splendor of Truth, not only knowable but offers to all the path to human freedom and flourishing.
He called for reconciliation among separated Christians in “May They Be One” (Ut Unum Sint) and a new model of full communion with the Church which began to be implemented under Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI with the creation of Anglican Ordinariates as an example, and continues with the courageous outreach of Pope Francis to Christians across the confessional spectrum.
With deep love for what he called in one of his beautiful writings the “Light of the East”,(Orientale Lumen) St. John Paul II called Eastern and Western Christianity to rediscover their dependence upon one another in order that the entire Body of Christ might once again breathe with “two lungs” and present the whole Jesus Christ to a world that needs to be liberated. Again, his successor continues the effort with extraordinary promise.
The oft-repeated paragraph 22 from “Joy and Hope” (Gaudium et Spes) , one of Saint Pope John Paul’s favorites, is a key to understanding his deep faith and understanding of the Incarnation: “In reality, it is only in the mystery of the word made flesh that the mystery of man truly becomes clear. For Adam, was a type of him who was to come, Christ the lord, Christ the new Adam, in the very revelation of the mystery of the Father and of His love, fully reveals man to himself and brings to light his most high calling.”
He began his pontificate like a lion roaring and ended it like a lamb. The once vibrant, strong Pope became frail, sick and physically weak. The giant of a man, who once climbed mountains, mounted the cross of human suffering and, in his frail frame, exercised the authority of his office from a unique chair, still the Chair of Peter, a wheel chair. How fitting for the champion of the weak, the disabled, the elderly, those who have no voice, was finally joined physically to them in order to show the world the truth of the beauty and dignity of every human life.
The Pope who revealed the love of God through years of emptying himself out for the Lord and His people showed us the beauty of a suffering endured in love and offered for others in his last days among us. With decreasing verbal eloquence because his lips stammered from the ravages of Parkinson’s disease, he achieved something beyond words; he demonstrated the truth of the Christian message of love by revealing the God who came to suffer for us all in his beautiful silence
Then he went home to the Father having become a seed of the Kingdom he proclaimed; a grain of wheat like the Savior he followed. The Lord Jesus proclaimed that “unless a grain of wheat fall to the ground…” and when this Pope’s prophetic mission on earth was over he joined the Lion of the Tribe of Judah and the Lamb who was slain for our sins. On April 2, at 9.37 p.m., the Octave of Easter and the Vigil of Divine Mercy Sunday, he died, falling to the ground as a grain of wheat in imitation of the Lord whom He loved and served so well.
Many years have passed since Saint John Paul II, then Cardinal Karol Wojtyla, attended that Eucharistic Congress in Philadelphia and prophetically proclaimed those prophetic words which I began with and offer once again in conclusion:
“We are now standing in the face of the greatest historical confrontation humanity has ever experienced. I do not think that the wide circle of the American Society, or the whole wide circle of the Christian Community realize this fully. We are now facing the final confrontation between the Church and the anti-church, between the gospel and the anti-gospel, between Christ and the antichrist. The confrontation lies within the plans of Divine Providence. It is, therefore, in God’s Plan, and it must be a trial which the Church must take up, and face courageously.“
Whenever we recall this great treasure of the Church, this great Saint, we should prayerfully consider his prophetic warning again. It is time to honestly consider how we will respond. These may be difficult times, but they are our times. We were born – and born again – for these times.
Deacon Keith A. Fournier is the Editor in Chief of Catholic Online, the founder and Chairman of Common Good Foundation and Common Good Alliance. A member of the clergy, a Roman Catholic Deacon, he is also a constitutional/ human rights lawyer and public policy advocate who served as the first and founding Executive Director of the American Center for Law and Justice in the nineteen nineties. Deacon Fournier is also a Senior Contributing Writer for THE STREAM