From Cardinal to Chair of Peter to Grain of Wheat
Deacon Keith Fournier (www.catholiconline.org)
Karol Cardinal Wojtyla’s was selected as a Cardinal by Pope Paul VI in 1967. In March of 1976, he was invited to give a Lenten retreat to the aging Pope. The talks became a book of deep spiritual insights and reflections entitled “Sign of Contradiction.” He was chosen by the late Pope to be his representative to the International Eucharistic Congress held in the United States in July of 1976, the Nation’s bicentennial. It would be the beginning of a deep and enduring friendship with the American people.
Cardinal Wojtyla had a deep conviction of the importance of Pope Paul VI’s Encyclical Letter Humanae Vitae, On Human Life, published in 1968. It was about more than the regulation of birth and issues of contraception; it was about the dignity of the human person and human love in the Divine Plan. Sadly, the letter became a rallying point for some who chose to dissent. However, Karol Cardinal Wojtyla’s work in theological anthropology, his development of a theology of marriage and family, and his Wednesday Catechetical Instructions (later compiled as “Human Love in the Divine Plan” and popularly called the “Theology of the Body”) as Pope, clearly built upon this important Encyclical letter of Paul VI and have ensured its lasting effects.
The death of Pope Paul VI on August 6, 1978, the Feast of the Transfiguration, brought Cardinal Wojtyla to Rome where he participated in the Conclave which elected Cardinal Albino Luciani of Venice as Pope. The gentle smiling Pope took the name John Paul I to represent his commitment to continuity with the pontificates of both of his predecessors and the Council which they presided over. Sadly, 33 days later Pope John Paul I died in office. 1978 then became the year of three Popes. Karol Cardinal Wojtyla soon heard the Lord call him to an assignment he probably never expected when he studied for the priesthood in an underground seminary in Poland.
On October 16, 1978, the Cardinals 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. 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 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 now occupied 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.
This 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 represents on earth. He truly has been 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 has not stopped passionately re-presenting the classical, unchanging, Christian message with a prophetic urgency, profound clarity and contemporary relevance.
Communism, atheism, secularism, false humanisms… have now all been exposed in both their empty promises and the horrors that they unleashed in the wake of their false utopian claims. This Pope 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.
He meticulously and brilliantly developed themes during his service to the Church and the world. 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”; ” 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 on every front.
His magisterium set a framework for what is becoming under his successor, Pope Benedict XVI, a new missionary age. His teaching helped to bring about an authentic renewal 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”.
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 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 what is right.
He exposed what he called in his Encyclical “The Gospel of Life” 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, 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, a “splendor”.
He called for reconciliation among separated Christians in “May They Be One” and a new model of full communion with the Church which is beginning to be implemented under Pope Benedict XVI with the creation of Anglican Ordinariates as an example. With deep love for the “Light of the East” he 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”, one of Pope John Paul’s favorite, is a key to understanding his deep faith: “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 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 “New Springtime” he proclaimed. The Lord 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.