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Looking into the Future Through His Eyes: John Paul II, the Catholic Church, and the Crisis of the West

Editor’s note: For several years now, the many institutions of higher education in Kraków have jointly sponsored annual “John Paul II Days,” typically held in November: a series of lectures and symposia dedicated to a scholarly exploration of one or another facet of the Polish Pope’s thought. To honor John Paul II’s centenary, which was marked this past May 18, the 2020 “John Paul II Days” were organized around the theme, “The Next Hundred Years.” In light of the global pandemic, the 2020 “John Paul II Days” were held virtually, with pre-recorded lectures and online discussions. George Weigel, John Paul II’s biographer, gave the following lecture by pre-recorded video on November 5, 2020.

Thank you for the invitation to participate once again in this annual conference.

I appreciate the theme you have chosen for John Paul II’s centenary: looking into the next hundred years. For as a friend of Poland I have long been concerned that there is far too much looking back over one’s shoulder at John Paul II in Poland, and not enough looking forward through his eyes.

I understand the sentiments that cause so many Poles to look back at John Paul II with such affection and even nostalgia. The enormous place he holds in the Polish national imagination is entirely understandable. And yet I believe he would want us to do precisely what this conference intends to do, which is to look forward, through his eyes, into the future. So I hope the conversations generated by the 2020 John Paul II Days in Kraków accelerates the transition in Poland from looking backward at John Paul II to looking forward with a vision shaped by his example and teaching.

In this brief paper, I want to look forward through the eyes of John Paul II at two futures: the future of the Catholic Church, and the future of the Western civilizational project, or more narrowly, the future of Western democracy. These two futures intersect, as I will suggest at the end. For the moment, however, permit me to treat each future individually.

Let is begin with the future of the Church, seen through the eyes of John Paul II. How would he have us think about the Catholic Church of the next hundred years?

As a matter of fact, he told us quite clearly how he would have us think about the Catholicism of the future. He told us in the 1990 encyclical Redemptoris Missio; he told us again throughout the Great Jubilee of 2000; and he told us quite specifically in the apostolic letter closing the Great Jubilee, Novo Millennio Ineunte.

In Redemptoris Missio, throughout the Great Jubilee, and in Novo Millennio Ineunte, John Paul II summed up the teaching of his pontificate and his vision of the Catholic future under the rubric, “The Church of the New Evangelization.” As I tried to demonstrate in my book, The Irony of Modern Catholic Historythis central idea in John Paul II’s teaching is the culmination of a complex and often contentious development that began with Pope Leo XIII, who in 1878 took the bold, strategic decision that the Catholic Church would no longer simply resist the modern world, but would engage the modern world in order to convert the modern world.

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