Editor’s note: The following homily was preached at St. Cyril and Methodius Seminary, Orchard Lake, Michigan, on October 25, 2020, concluding the celebrations commemorating the centennial of the birth of St. John Paul II.
Not a few of you here today – like myself – grew up in a Church and society of great security, a security that was shattered by the revolutionary spirit of the 1960s. That rebellious spirit also invaded the Church. I entered the seminary just three weeks after Paul VI’s prophetic and bold encyclical, Humanae Vitae; I don’t think anyone was prepared for the dissent, disunity, and outright hatefulness that ensued. Those characteristics marred the rest of Pope Paul’s pontificate, so much so that he would speak of “the smoke of Satan” entering the Church.
Would we, could we ever escape that vicious cycle?
The God of Surprises – also known as the Holy Spirit – came crashing into the Church on October 16, 1978, with the election as Successor of Peter of the Cardinal-Archbishop of Krakow, Poland – Karol Woytyła. He was a man rarely found astride the world stage: polyglot, poet, actor, philosopher, theologian – endowed with a most compelling and uncommon charisma. All those gifts of nature that he possessed, for twenty-seven years he placed at the disposition of the Church he loved. From his very first appearance on the balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica, he exuded hope, confidence, and joy. A new mood was aborning.
What did he accomplish in the years he occupied the Chair of Peter? Pope John Paul II made 146 pastoral visits in Italy and, as the Bishop of Rome, he visited 317 of the 322 Roman parishes. His international apostolic journeys numbered 104 and were expressions of the constant pastoral solicitude of the Successor of Peter for all the Churches. His principal documents include: 14 Encyclicals, 15 Apostolic Exhortations, 11 Apostolic Constitutions and 45 Apostolic Letters. He also wrote five books: Crossing the Threshold of Hope (October 1994); Gift and Mystery: On the Fiftieth Anniversary of My Priestly Ordination (November 1996); Roman Triptych, Meditations in Poetry (March 2003); Rise, Let Us Be on Our Way (May 2004), and Memory and Identity (February 2005).
In the homily preached to inaugurate his Petrine ministry, the new Pope was eminently clear as he proclaimed:
‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.’ Yes, Brothers and sons and daughters, these words first of all. Their content reveals to our eyes the mystery of the living God, the mystery to which the Son has brought us close. Nobody, in fact, has brought the living God as close to men and revealed him as He alone did.
He went on: “Our time calls us, urges us, obliges us to gaze on the Lord and immerse ourselves in humble and devout meditation on the mystery of the supreme power of Christ Himself.”
And then, his concluding, impassioned plea:
Brothers and sisters, do not be afraid to welcome Christ and accept His power. Help the Pope and all those who wish to serve Christ and with Christ’s power to serve the human person and the whole of mankind. Do not be afraid. 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.
So often today man does not know what is within him, in the depths of his mind and heart. So often he is uncertain about the meaning of his life on this earth. He is assailed by doubt, a doubt which turns into despair. We ask you therefore, we beg you with humility and trust, let Christ speak to man. He alone has words of life, yes, of eternal life.
A little more than four months later, John Paul promulgated his first encyclical, Redemptor Hominis, on Christ the Redeemer of Humanity. It is often said that a pope’s first encyclical functions as a kind of programmatic statement for his pontificate, sharing his vision and hopes. It is all too common today for a new bishop to assure everyone at the outset of his episcopal ministry that he has no plan, no program of action; how disingenuous – and if it is true, how sad. No, John Paul knew exactly what his goals were, in fact, only one goal: To make Christ known and loved. In Crossing the Threshold of Hope, he says: “I was actually carrying its contents [of Redemptor Hominis] within me. I had only to ‘copy’ from memory and experience what I had already been living on the threshold of the papacy.”
I think we can summarize this text by having recourse to the early Father of the Church, Irenaeus, with his famous exclamation: Gloria Dei, homo vivens (The glory of God is man fully alive). This is not to be understood in some kind of “New Age” fashion; on the contrary, man’s full identity comes from his creation “in the image and likeness of God” and in his redemption by the God-Man, Jesus Christ. Therefore, the very first sentence proclaims: “The Redeemer of Man, Jesus Christ, is the centre of the universe and of history” (n. 1). The context for this encyclical should be duly noted at the outset: It is none other than the Pope’s laser-like focus on the coming third millennium of the Christ-event.
From whom does the human person gain his identity? “. . . it is his [Christ’s] life that speaks, his humanity, his fidelity to the truth, his all-embracing love” (n. 7), “this tremendous mystery of love in which creation is renewed” (n. 9). In other words, the disorder introduced into the human family through the sin of our first parents has been reversed, as we are reminded by the Exsultet of the Easter Vigil. And so, we behold “a fresh manifestation of the eternal fatherhood of God, who in him draws near again to humanity, to each human being, giving him the thrice holy ‘Spirit of truth’” (n. 9). The human person, then, approaches Christ through “the whole reality of the Incarnation and Redemption in order to find himself” (n. 10) – his true self, found only “in Christ” (n. 11).
Where does the Church fit into this whole picture?
The Church’s fundamental function in every age and particularly in ours is to direct man’s gaze, to point the awareness and experience of the whole of humanity towards the mystery of God, to help all men to be familiar with the profundity of the Redemption taking place in Christ Jesus. At the same time man’s deepest sphere is involved – we mean the sphere of human hearts, consciences and events. (n. 10)
Furthermore, through His Church, Christ “brings man freedom based on truth, frees man from what curtails, diminishes and as it were breaks off this freedom at its root, in man’s soul, his heart and his conscience” (n. 12). He goes further:
We have, in particular, a great sense of responsibility for this truth. By Christ’s institution the Church is its guardian and teacher, having been endowed with a unique assistance of the Holy Spirit in order to guard and teach it in its most exact integrity. In fulfilling this mission, we look towards Christ himself, the first evangelizer, and also towards his Apostles, martyrs and confessors. (n. 12)
What keeps modern man from experiencing this freedom? The Pope says that it is fear:
Man therefore lives increasingly in fear. He is afraid that what he produces – not all of it, of course, or even most of it, but part of it and precisely that part that contains a special share of his genius and initiative – can radically turn against himself; he is afraid that it can become the means and instrument for an unimaginable self-destruction, compared with which all the cataclysms and catastrophes of history known to us seem to fade away. (n. 15)
He asks again: “Does this progress, which has man for its author and promoter, make human life on earth ‘more human’ in every aspect of that life? Does it make it more ‘worthy of man’?” (n. 15). John Paul suspects that the honest answer is not a resounding “yes.” Why? Because the twentieth century “has so far been a century of great calamities for man, of great devastations, not only material ones but also moral ones, indeed perhaps above all moral ones.” (n. 17).
The Pontiff reminds us that the Church shares in Christ’s three-fold mission as prophet, priest and king. In her prophetic role, the Church is “responsible for truth” (n. 19). Her priestly mission is fulfilled through the sacraments, especially the Eucharist and Penance, “through which each Christian receives the saving power of the Redemption” (n. 20). He makes this more precise:
For by Christ’s will there is in this Sacrament [of the Eucharist] a continual renewing of the mystery of the Sacrifice of himself that Christ offered to the Father on the altar of the Cross, a Sacrifice that the Father accepted, giving, in return for this total self-giving by his Son, who “became obedient unto death,” his own paternal gift, that is to say the grant of new immortal life in the resurrection, since the Father is the first source and the giver of life from the beginning. T (n. 20)
The Eucharist is the Sacrament in which our new being is most completely expressed and in which Christ himself unceasingly and in an ever new manner “bears witness” in the Holy Spirit to our spirit that each of us, as a sharer in the mystery of the Redemption, has access to the fruits of the filial reconciliation with God that he himself actuated and continually actuates among us by means of the Church’s ministry. (n. 20)
The Church’s kingly role is made manifest in her service for “servire est regnare” (to serve is to reign); in truth, “Christ teaches us that the best use of freedom is charity, which takes concrete form in self-giving and in service” (n. 21). All of this occurs because “God entered the history of humanity and, as a man, became an actor in that history, one of the thousands of millions of human beings but at the same time Unique!” (n. 1). Likewise, he observes: “The essential meaning of this ‘kingship’ and ‘dominion’ of man over the visible world, which the Creator himself gave man for his task, consists in the priority of ethics over technology, in the primacy of the person over things, and in the superiority of spirit over matter” (n. 16).
Recalling the insight of St. Augustine, the Holy Father refers to a “holy restlessness” –
. . . this creative restlessness beats and pulsates what is most deeply human – the search for truth, the insatiable need for the good, hunger for freedom, nostalgia for the beautiful, and the voice of conscience. Seeking to see man as it were with “the eyes of Christ himself,” the Church becomes more and more aware that she is the guardian of a great treasure, which she may not waste but must continually increase. (n. 18)
It is the highest duty of the Church to assist man to realize this very fundamental fact of life: “Our spirit is set in one direction, the only direction for our intellect, will and heart is – towards Christ our Redeemer, towards Christ, the Redeemer of man. We wish to look towards him – because there is salvation in no one else but him” (n. 7).
The Psalmist asks the question: “What is man that thou art mindful of him, and the son of man that thou dost care for him?” And, under divine inspiration, he gives the answer: “. . . thou hast made him little less than God, and dost crown him with glory and honor” (Ps 8:4-5). This awareness would have Pope St. Leo the Great urge his hearers: “O Christian, recognize your dignity!” St. John Paul belonged to the very same school, and so we read:
In Christ and through Christ God has revealed himself fully to mankind and has definitively drawn close to it; at the same time, in Christ and through Christ man has acquired full awareness of his dignity, of the heights to which he is raised, of the surpassing worth of his own humanity, and of the meaning of his existence. (n. 11)
In light of this fundamental truth, we can see how Martin Luther’s basic problem was not theological; it was anthropological, that is, he did not comprehend the full scope of Christ’s redemptive activity, or else he never could have asserted that the Christian is no more than a “dung heap covered over by snow.” Similarly, that all-popular Protestant hymn could not have congregations sing of themselves as “wretches.” No, in and through Christ, we have been made “a new creation” (2 Cor 5:17) and truly are “filii in Filio” (“sons in the Son”). Knowing and celebrating that truth, man can live in love. Thus, the Pope underscores: “Man cannot live without love. He remains a being that is incomprehensible for 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 his own, if he does not participate intimately in it” (n. 10). However, we have experienced love, the love by which the Father sent His only Son as our Redeemer!
While we can gain a glimpse of someone’s agenda by what he says at the outset of assuming office, we can also say that what he says at the end is the best indicator of what he had hoped to accomplish. That is especially true with St. John Paul, whose last encyclical was Ecclesia de Eucharistia, on the Holy Eucharist. Indeed, the very last words bring us back to where we began our reflections in his first encyclical:
In the humble signs of bread and wine, changed into his body and blood, Christ walks beside us as our strength and our food for the journey, and he enables us to become, for everyone, witnesses of hope. If, in the presence of this mystery, reason experiences its limits, the heart, enlightened by the grace of the Holy Spirit, clearly sees the response that is demanded, and bows low in adoration and unbounded love.
Let us make our own the words of Saint Thomas Aquinas, an eminent theologian and an impassioned poet of Christ in the Eucharist, and turn in hope to the contemplation of that goal to which our hearts aspire in their thirst for joy and peace:
Bone pastor, panis vere,
Iesu, nostri miserere…
Come then, good Shepherd, bread divine,
Still show to us thy mercy sign;
Oh, feed us, still keep us thine;
So we may see thy glories shine
in fields of immortality.
O thou, the wisest, mightiest, best,
Our present food, our future rest,
Come, make us each thy chosen guest,
Co-heirs of thine, and comrades blest
With saints whose dwelling is with thee.
One final anecdote from this pontificate. As we got word of the Pope’s death, I went to the church to toll the bell. I tolled it once. I tolled it twice. Then the strangest thing happened: The rope broke, so that I was unable to continue. Upon arriving back at my office, I went to the internet and found a story from the morning’s New York Post, recounting an episode from the Holy Father’s final hours. It seems that his closest associates surrounding his deathbed had begun to cry when all hope of a recovery was gone. He reached for a pen and paper and wrote: “I am happy, and you should be as well. Let us pray together in joy.” I think I got my answer as to why the bell cord had snapped. I was tolling in sorrow when perhaps, from the perspective of Christian faith, I should have been rejoicing.
“I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end ” (Rev 22:13). Jesus Christ was truly “the Alpha and Omega” of the Petrine ministry of John Paul II. May this also be our focus for the whole of our Christian lives.
Yes, “open wide the doors for Christ!”
If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!