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St. John Paul II: A Centenary Reflection

On May 18, 1920, a third child and second son was born to a retired Polish army officer, Captain Karol Wojtyła, and his wife, Emilia, in Wadowice, a provincial town some fifty kilometers west of Kraków. At his baptism on June 20, the child was named for his father. To what would have been the stunned surprise of those present that day, the child grew up to be the emblematic figure of the second half of the twentieth century—as Henry Kissinger put it a few minutes after the death of Pope John Paul II on April 2, 2005. But perhaps not the stunned surprise of everyone: When the little boy’s mother pushed him in a pram through the streets of Wadowice, she would sometimes say to her neighbors, “My Lolek will be a great man someday.”

In characterizing John Paul’s greatness, Kissinger likely had in mind the Polish pope’s pivotal role in the collapse of European communism. That was no mean accomplishment. Yet John Paul’s enduring greatness may owe still more to his analysis of the human condition in late modernity and postmodernity. His insights arose from his faith, which gave him a remarkable capacity to see the world through a biblical lens; from his intellectual life, through which he understood what he had seen; and from his pastoral experience, which helped him grasp the effects of what he saw and heard in people’s lives. The salience of his analysis has increased over time. In the third decade of the twenty-first century, John Paul’s reading of the signs of the times remains a template for understanding our civilization’s distempers and rebuilding its moral-cultural foundations.

Some seeds of John Paul’s analysis of the late-­modern and postmodern West can be found in a series of catechetical meditations in which then-­Archbishop Karol Wojtyła, writing in the mid-1960s, pondered St. Paul’s encounter with the bien-pensants of first-century Athens on the Areopagus, as described in Acts 17:16–34. The encounter held a special place in Wojtyła’s religious imagination, for it struck him as an apt metaphor for the Church’s situation in post-Christian Europe and throughout the postmodern West. The Apostle to the Gentiles had introduced the Athenians to the “unknown God”—the one, true God—through an appeal to their experience. Wojtyła’s pastoral work in creating zones of freedom in communist-dominated Poland convinced him that the Church of the late-twentieth century and the third millennium likewise had to meet men and women where it found them, in all their confusions and strivings. Like St. Paul on the Areopagus, the Church had to work from the material at hand (the semina verbi) in trying to open hearts and minds to the liberating truth of the gospel.

St. Paul’s efforts on the Areopagus met with resistance and little immediate success. That hard fact may also help explain the vignette’s attraction for Wojtyła, who likely foresaw that great effort would be necessary, over many years, to reconvert a post-Christian West to the truths of biblical religion. As in Athens, so today, the inculturation of the gospel in smugly self-satisfied societies and cultures is not easy.

Wojtyła’s Athenian meditations preview several themes he would develop in his papal magisterium. Nine of these themes merit special attention in the year of his centenary.

Read more at First Things

Check out George’s writings on JPII Here

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