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John Paul II’s Vision for Our Future

    Time to read: 12 min

    Speech delivered during "John Paul II. An Inspiration for the World" Congress organized by the Polska Wielki Projekt Foundation, October 1, 2023 Kraków, Poland.

    On his last trip to Poland in 2002, Pope John Paul II said, “I am grateful for the invitation to visit my Krakow and for the hospitality you have given me”. Then in 2006, when Benedict XVI visited Krakow, he made these words of his predecessor his own and then added, “Krakow has a special place in the hearts of countless Christians throughout the world who know that John Paul II came to the Vatican Hill from this city from Wawel Hill, ‘from a far country’, which thus became a country dear to all”[1].

    These words of Pope Benedict are especially meaningful to me today. I am honored to participate in this historic conference in this historic venue. I am grateful to Professor Michal Łuczewski for his vision in developing this meeting and to the President of the Republic of Poland, Andrzej Duda for his patronage and support of our meeting.

    This month marks the 45th anniversary of the election of Karol Wojtyła as successor of St. Peter and the beginning of what is perhaps the most remarkable pontificate since that of St. Peter himself.

    So where to begin in assessing the vision of this great pope?

    At the conclusion of The Four Quartets, T. S. Eliot writes,


    “We shall not cease from exploration

    And the end of all our exploring

    Will be to arrive where we started

    And know the place for the first time.”


    Let us take up Eliot’s method and consider this great exploring pope by returning to the beginning of his pontificate. After all these years let us return to where he started in order to know him, if not for the first time, at least to know him better.

    On the day of John Paul II’s inaugural Mass, the Scripture reading included the words of St. Peter, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Mt. 16:16).

    Nothing very surprising that the successor of St. Peter would begin his ministry repeating St. Peter’s proclamation of Christ as the Messiah. But he proclaims them with the angelic salutation addressed to the Blessed Virgin Mary and later to St. Joseph — “Do not be afraid.”

    After nearly 2,000 years of Christianity, the pope warns us, not to be afraid. But afraid of what These words of St. Peter which virtually every Catholic knows and has heard so often have become in a way routine and commonplace. After two thousand years of Christianity what reason could there be to be afraid of hearing again St. Peter’s declaration? John Paul II will explain the radical meaning he gives to this proclamation and its consequence for the entirety of his pontificate.

    John Paul II begins, “These words first of all”. Now 45 years later, we would say about him, “These words first, last, always, and everywhere — to the ends of the earth and to the end of his earthly ministry”.

    John Paul II begins his pontificate with the proclamation that Jesus is truly the Christ, the Son of the living God. And then the consequence of this proclamation: “Open wide the doors for Christ. To his saving power open the boundaries of States, economic and political systems, the vast fields of culture, civilization and development. Do not be afraid. Christ knows ‘what is in man’. He alone knows it”.

    Certainly, John Paul II was thinking of Poland. That would be made very clear, very soon. During the next 27 years it would be clear that he was also thinking of each of the 129 countries he would visit. He would exclude no one from his mission to “let Christ speak to man”. Christ “alone has words of life”. And it was the pope’s mission that “Christ’s words of life may reach all people”[2].

    In the West it was easy to see John Paul II’s statement to “Open wide the doors for Christ” as a call for religious freedom in countries where communist regimes had slammed shut the doors of society to Christianity.

    But he was not only thinking of liberty and religious liberty. He was thinking about liberty and its relation to truth, Christ alone knows what is the truth about man.

    With the angelic salutation: “Do not be afraid,” he announced a new evangelical engagement with societies around the world based upon a Christian anthropology in which anthropology and Christology are inseparable[3]. This Christological anthropology provides the coherent frame of reference for the pope’s mission and his inaugural homily is the foretaste of what would come throughout his pontificate.

    Two months after telling the world not to be afraid of Christ, John Paul II announced he would travel to Mexico. One month later, he was in Mexico City praying before the miraculous image of Our Lady of Guadalupe. 

    As the starting point for a new global evangelization, Mexico was an inspired choice.

    A devotedly Catholic country, Mexico had, earlier in the century, suffered a persecution of the Catholic Church that had resulted in thousands of refugees crossing into the United States, the destruction of churches and Catholic institutions and the killing of nearly 100 priests and countless laymen.

    In 1978, the Catholic Church continued to suffer serious deprivations of basic civil liberties.

    The pope’s challenge to open wide the doors to Christ could not be missed by the political leaders of the “revolutionary” party that had governed the country for more than half a century.

    Many observers considered the pope’s visit to Our Lady of Guadalupe as routine because of his devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary. But it was more than that. It was a key to understanding his entire global ministry in two important ways.

    First, the “mestiza face” of Our Lady of Guadalupe was, as John Paul II would later write, “an impressive example of a perfectly enculturated evangelization”[4]. John Paul II would not seek to evangelize solely from the outside, as if Christianity were some type of European import —his proposal for a new evangelization would be an “enculturated” evangelization.

    Second, for those who were paying attention, Our Lady of Guadalupe symbolized what John Paul II had meant when he spoke of opening wide the doors to Christ. He was not seeking to impose something from the outside, Christianity had already been formative of Mexican culture for nearly five centuries, Christ was already within this culture and it was the secularists who were seeking to drive Him out. It was a theme he would soon take up again in Warsaw’s Victory Square.

    The most dramatic demonstration of this came not in Mexico City, but among the indigenous tribes from the poorest regions of Mexico: Oaxaca and Chiapas. At the village of Cuilapan, John Paul declared he would be “the voice of those who cannot speak or who are silenced”.

    He insisted that, “The worker who with his sweat waters also his affliction, cannot wait any longer for full and effective recognition of his dignity, which is not inferior to that of any other social sector. He has the right to be respected... He has the right to … have access to the development that his dignity as a man and as a son of God deserves… It is necessary to carry out bold changes”[5].

    Opening wide the doors for Christ meant seeing Christ in the indigenous and in building a society that respects the dignity of those on the margins. 

    Four months to the day he departed Mexico, John Paul II arrived in Warsaw to begin nine days that would change the world.

    Much has been written about this pilgrimage. But I want to emphasize these words from his homily in Victory Square: “To Poland the Church brought Christ, the key to understanding that great and fundamental reality that is man. For man cannot be fully understood without Christ. He cannot understand who he is, nor what his true dignity is, nor what his vocation is, nor what his final end is. He cannot understand any of this without Christ”.

    “Therefore”, the pope continued, “Christ cannot be kept out of the history of man in any part of the globe, at any longitude or latitude or geography. The exclusion of Christ from the history of man is an act against man. Without Christ it is impossible to understand the history of Poland….”[6].

    For a Marxist regime based on exclusion of the false consciousness of Christianity as the precondition of progress, it is difficult to imagine a greater challenge than what John Paul II said in Warsaw. The pope had taken aim at the center of Marxist theory. But not in a theoretical or abstract way. It was a challenge arising from the actual historical experience of the Polish people.

    Many in the West were astounded the pope had declared a new Ostpolitik. But the mistake was to think that what he said was limited to Poland and those nations behind the Iron Curtain — that it was only Ostpolitik.

    His words apply with equal force to the secularized liberal democracies of the West that sought in one way or another to marginalize and privatize Christianity — democracies in which it has become normative to disregard Christianity.

    Four months after his triumphant visit to Poland, John Paul II would again cross the Atlantic for the first of his five pastoral visits to the United States.

    On the way he would stop in Ireland for a message that would change the course of history in that country.

    Throughout 1979, Northern Ireland had witnessed horrific sectarian violence.

    Just weeks before the pope’s arrival, the Provisional Irish Republican Army killed 18 British soldiers in Northern Ireland. On the same day a bomb killed 79-year-old Lord Louis Mountbatten and his grandson. The IRA claimed responsibility for his “execution” as well.

    British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher had warned that Northern Ireland was in danger of becoming another Balkans, “Distrust mounting to hatred and revenge is never far beneath the political surface,” she said. “And those who step onto it must do so gingerly”[7]. Pope John Paul II was about to do just that. But not gingerly. The pope had considered going to Northern Ireland, but the recent violence now made that impossible.  

    Instead, the pope chose the coastal town of Drogheda close to Northern Ireland. It was a site seared into the memory of Irish Catholics. There in 1649, Oliver Cromwell’s army had committed the bloodiest massacre of Catholics in Irish history.

    And there in 1979, John Paul II preached reconciliation and forgiveness.

    If his impassioned addresses in Cuilapan and Warsaw had been historic, his homily at Drogheda was equally so. It was followed by 14 minutes of uninterrupted applause.

    “Christianity does not command us to close our eyes to difficult human problems,” he declared. But “What Christianity does forbid is to seek solutions to these situations by the ways of hatred, by the murdering of defenseless people, by the methods of terrorism.”

    He continued, “the message I affirmed in Mexico and Poland. I reaffirm it here in Ireland. Every human being has inalienable rights that must be respected.… The moral law, guardian of human rights, protector of the dignity of man, cannot be set aside by any person or group, or by the State itself, for any cause, not even for security or in the interests of law and order. The law of God stands in judgment over all reasons of State”.

    Then he addressed what had become part of Irish national life.

    “I proclaim,” he said, “that violence is evil, that violence is unacceptable as a solution to problems, that violence is unworthy of man. Violence is a lie, for it goes against the truth of our faith, the truth of our humanity”.

    Then the pope pleaded, “On my knees I beg you to turn away from the paths of violence and to return to the ways of peace”.

    And to the youth of Ireland he said, “do not listen to voices which speak the language of hatred, revenge, retaliation…. Love life, respect life…. Give yourselves to the service of life, not the work of death”[8].

    It would still be years before the Downing Street Declaration and Good Friday Agreement. But John Paul II had set a tipping-point and altered the national consciousness — endless violence was no longer inevitable.   

    Protestants in Northern Ireland, hearing the pope’s passionate condemnation of violence, now knew suspicions that the Catholic Church was secretly supporting terrorism were unfounded.

    And the dramatic response of Catholics also sent a message. 

    Decades earlier, Mao Tse-Tung had said the guerrilla fighter moves through the civilian population like fish swim in the sea. By their applause, Catholics had announced that the sea was drying up for terrorists.

    In Poland, John Paul II promoted a new solidarity — what Jozef Tischner described as a solidarity of “awakened consciences”[9]. He had now done something similar in Ireland.

    Then he departed for Boston where later that same day he would celebrate Mass for more than two million Catholics — the largest religious gathering in the history of the United States. What awaited him in the United States was in some ways even more unexpected than what had happened in Mexico, Poland and Ireland.

    For generations, Catholics in the United States had been an unpopular minority caught between the cultural millstones of Protestantism and secularism.

    Like many Catholics in Western Europe, Catholics in the United States had been shocked by the reaction to Pope Paul VI’s Humanae Vitae. But in the United States, Protestants and secularists came together in their denunciation of the pope. Even today, it is difficult to imagine the tsunami of protest that greeted the encyclical.

    In the decade that followed, Pope Paul VI was seen increasingly as frail, isolated, and elderly — a shepherd out of touch with his flock and leading an institution in disarray.  

    The primary reason for the John Paul II’s trip to the United States was to address the United Nations.

    On October 2nd John Paul II flew to New York. There for approximately an hour he addressed the world’s diplomats, emphasizing their responsibility to safeguard the rights of the human person — including what he called “the objective rights of the spirit, of human conscience and of human creativity, including man’s relationship with God”[10].

    The pope’s last stop was Washington, D.C. where he met privately at the White House with President Jimmy Carter.

    Carter had been gracious, saying: “You have moved among us as a champion of dignity and decency for every human being, and as a pilgrim for peace among nations. You have offered us your love, and we as individuals are heartened by it. You can be sure, Pope John Paul, that the people of America return your love”[11].

    From the White House, the pope went to the Washington Mall to celebrate Mass.  

    Since the 17th century, Catholics in the United States had coexisted with a persistent form of anti-Catholicism which historian Philip Jenkins has described as the last acceptable prejudice in America[12]. What fueled that prejudice was a firm conviction held by both Protestants and secularists that Catholics, and especially the pope, should be denied political influence or power.

    John Paul II had just addressed the world’s governments at the United Nations.

    Now on the Mall in Washington, he would change how Americans viewed the pope and how Catholics viewed their responsibilities as citizens. He did so by entering the public debate on one of the nation’s most divisive issues — abortion.

    He said, “I do not hesitate to proclaim before you and the world that all human life — from the moment of conception and through all subsequent stages — is sacred, because human life is created in the image and likeness of God. Nothing surpasses the greatness or dignity of a human person…. And so”, he continued, “we will stand up every time that human life is threatened. When the sacredness of life before birth is attacked, we will stand up and proclaim that no one ever has the authority to destroy unborn life”[13].

    American Catholics had been charged to build what he would later describe as a culture of life and a civilization of love.

    If before John Paul came to the United States the papacy appeared in disarray, after his visit that was no longer the case. Time magazine placed a photograph of the pope on its cover with the headline, “John Paul, Superstar”[14].

    In less than a week, John Paul II had not only restored the image of the pope, he had brought a new unity among millions of Catholics with the pope and he had energized Catholics in the pro-life movement in America.

    Within a year of his election as pope, John Paul II had shown the world what he meant when he had said, “Open wide the doors for Christ” in the fields of economics, politics, and culture. He had championed social justice for the marginalized in the Third World, spoken of religious liberty and human rights for those suffering totalitarian oppression, sought a new reconciliation to overcome the divisions within Christianity, outlined a global human rights agenda among the world’s diplomats, and found a new voice for Catholicism within the public debate of secular, liberal democracies. All of this we might say deriving from that first homily repeating St. Peter’s proclamation, “You are the Christ”.

    In promulgating The Catechism of the Catholic Church, John Paul II wrote, “Vatican II has always been, and especially during these years of my pontificate, the constant reference point of my every pastoral action”[15]. 

    The most important reference point of the Council for pastoral action was the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et Spes and within that document specifically no. 22, “The truth is that only in the mystery of the incarnate Word does the mystery of man take on light…. Christ… fully reveals man to man himself and makes his supreme calling clear”. This Christocentric anthropology is foundational to both the pastoral approach of the Second Vatican Council and John Paul II.

    This Christocentric anthropology was most apparent during a stop during his first pilgrimage to Poland that is little discussed today — his visit to Auschwitz. This visit offers one of the most important ways of understanding his pontificate and his vision for the future. 

    On that occasion John Paul II said, “Can anyone on this earth be surprised that a pope who came from the archdiocese that contains this camp started his first encyclical with the words Redemptor Hominis, and that he devoted it in full to the cause of man, the dignity of man, the threats facing man, the rights of man?”[16] 

    The pope’s address at Auschwitz is exceptional even among the many exceptional addresses during the 1979 pilgrimage to his homeland. The homily is filled with emotion. In reading his words, at the place which has come to symbolize the crucifixion of man, we can see that the man Karol Wojtyla was a man of this crucifixion — not in an abstract way, but in a personal way. Day after day he lived in this crucible of suffering and then year after year he lived in the nightmare of communist totalitarianism. Looking at his visit to Auschwitz, we can see his words are more than a dramatic moment in a dramatic papacy. They reveal Karol Wojtyla the man, the philosopher, the priest and the pope.

    “I have come”, he says, “and I kneel at this Golgotha of the modern world”. He continued, “Six million Poles lost their lives during the Second World War: a fifth of the nation. Yet another stage in the centuries-old fight of this nation, my nation, for its fundamental rights among the peoples of Europe. Yet another painful reckoning with the conscience of mankind”.

    The recent Russian invasion of Ukraine recalls more than any other event in Europe since the Second World War the suffering that occurred throughout this region during the tyrannies of Hitler and Stalin. Between the end of the First World War and the end of the Second World War, the world experienced global warfare in which more than 70 million persons died. When we include those who died in Ukraine during the great Stalinist terror-famine of the Holodomor — there were more people killed in Poland and Ukraine than anywhere else in Europe during the Second World War, or for that matter, more than in any other place in the world at any of time in history.

    Historian Timothy Snyder has captured the history of this deliberate and appalling genocidal killing between Berlin and Moscow under the title, Bloodlands[17]. The details of this appalling mass murder of more than 14 million people is so wrenching that one keeps telling oneself that it could not possibly happen again. Yet the Russia invasion of Ukraine with its systematic targeting of civilians and destruction of non-military infrastructures powerfully demonstrates that the Bloodlands are no longer only a memory. They can again be a terrible reality.

    The war brings a new urgency to the message of John Paul II at Auschwitz.

    In his address, the pope references his first encyclical, Redemptor Hominis — for what redemption means — reconciliation through love. John Paul II’s anthropology of love radiates through the document and indeed throughout his entire pontificate: “Man cannot live without love. He remains a being that is incomprehensible to himself, his life is senseless, if love is not revealed to him, if he does not encounter love, if he does not experience it and make it is own, if he does not participate intimately in it”[18].

    How does one face the reality of Auschwitz and write those words? Or begin his second encyclical Dives in Misericordia with the words, “It is ‘God who is rich in mercy’ whom Jesus Christ has revealed to us as Father”[19]. Later in the encyclical John Paul II outlines how mercy becomes the foundation of the civilization of love and, if there is to be a ‘culture war’ how it is to be fought. “This authentically evangelical process is not just a spiritual transformation realized once and for all. It is a whole lifestyle, an essential and continuous characteristic of the Christian vocation. It consists in the constant discovery and persevering practice of love as a unifying and also elevating power despite all difficulties”[20].

    For John Paul II, what we should call his Christocentric anthropology of love is not proposed as some sort of inspirational theological ideal. It is proposed — especially in the context of Auschwitz as a Christian form of realpolitik — necessary to avoid a repeat of modernity’s great tragedy. What John Paul II would write later in Evangelium Vitae about the Gospel of Life is appropriate to recall in this context. This “is not simply a reflection, however new and profound, on human life. Nor is it merely a commandment aimed at raising awareness and binging about significant changes in society. Still less is it an illusory promise of a better future” (no. 29).

    John Paul II is proposing a culture of life and a civilization of love and the Christological anthropology foundational to it as a “persevering practice of love as a unifying and also elevating power” for the rebuilding of society.

    Is it not worth exploring whether the spiritual revival perceived in the lives of Maximilian Kolbe, Faustina Kowalska, Albert Chmielowski, John Paul II and countless martyrs and witnesses to the faith point us to a greater future — something that John Paul II called a civilization of love?

    Are Slavic Catholics capable of re-introducing into Europe a new discourse concerning Christianity, especially Christianity as a unifying and elevating influence in post-modern and perhaps even, post-liberal society?

    I would like to conclude with a quotation from Max Weber, not from his famous, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, but from a 1919 lecture. He said,

    “It is immensely moving when a mature man — no matter whether old or young in years — is aware of a responsibility for the consequences of his conduct and really feels such responsibility with heart and soul. He then acts by following an ethic of responsibility and somewhere he reaches the point where he says: ‘Here I stand; I can do no other’. That is something genuinely human and moving. And every one of us who is not spiritually dead must realize the possibility of finding himself at some time in that position. Insofar as this is true, an ethic of ultimate ends and an ethic of responsibility (when) in unison constitute a genuine man….”[21].

    John Paul II is this mature, genuine man. Not on one or two occasions but throughout his papacy and indeed his life.

    We are accustomed to describing John Paul II as one of the great leaders in the history of the Catholic Church.

    But perhaps we should think of him instead as one of the great world leaders of the twentieth century. A mature and genuine man who devoted his life to realizing the immense implications at every level of human existence of St. Peter’s proclamation: “You are the Christ, the son of the living God”.

    The historic opening words of his papal ministry, “Open Wide the Doors for Christ” was John Paul II’s way of beginning a dialogue with the world about how Peter’s declaration changes everything.

    “Do not be afraid. Open wide the doors for Christ”, had not been written a few days earlier for a homily in St. Peter’s Square. They had been written many years earlier in the quietness of Karol Wojtyla’s own heart — and the writing there had made all the difference.


    [1] Benedict XVI, Homily of His Holiness Benedict XVI in Blonie Park (May 28, 2006).

    [2] John Paul II, Homily of His Holiness John Paul II for the Inauguration of His Pontificate (October 22, 1978).

    [3] Joseph Ratzinger, “The Faith is Humanity’s Refuge: The Fourteen Encyclicals of John Paul II,” Communio, Italian edition (July-August, 2003), 8-16; reprinted in Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict XVI, John Paul II: My Beloved Predecessor, editor, Elio Guerriero (Boston: Pauline Books and Media, 2007), 33.

    [4] John Paul II, Ecclesia in America (January 22, 1999), no. 11.

    [5] George Weigel, Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II (New York: Cliff Street Books, 1999), 186.

    [6] John Paul II, Homily of His Holiness at Victory Square (June 2, 1979).

    [7] Margaret Thatcher, The Downing Street Years (New York: Harper Collins, 1993), 385.

    [8] John Paul II, Homily at the Holy Mass in Drogheda (September 29, 1979).

    [9] Cited in Timothy Garton Ash, The Polish Revolution (New York: Scribner, 1984), 280.

    [10] John Paul II, Address to the 34th General Assembly of the United Nations (October 2, 1979).

    [11] “The Pope in America,” op. cit.

    [12] Philip Jenkins, The New Anti-Catholicism: The Last Acceptable Prejudice (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003).

    [13] John Paul II, Homily at the Holy Mass at the Capital Mall (October 7, 1979).

    [14] “The Pope in America,” op. cit.

    [15] John Paul II, Apostolic Constitution Fidei Depositum on the Publication of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (October 11, 1992).

    [16] Paul Johnson, Pope John Paul II and the Catholic Restoration (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1981), p. 65; the translation quoted by Johnson varies somewhat from the official one posted on the Vatican website.

    [17] Timothy Snyder, Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin (New York: Basic Books, 2010), p. 20.

    [18] John Paul II, Redemptor Hominis (March 4, 1979), no. 10.

    [19] John Paul II, Dives in Misericordia (November 30, 1980), no. 1.

    [20] Ibid., no. 14.

    [21] H. H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills, ed., From Max Weber Essays on Sociology (New York: Oxford University Press, 1949), 127.

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