St. Pope John Paul II: A Spiritual Father’s Legacy*
Dr. Mark S. Latkovic
Divine Mercy Sunday, April 27, 2014
On April 2, 2005, the Catholic Church lost its “Holy Father” and I had lost, if I may speak on a personal note, a “spiritual father,” one whose evangelical witness inspired my pursuit of theological studies and my vocation as a moral theologian. I had often thought over the years how I have a heavenly Father whom I love and worship, an earthly father (now deceased) whom I love and respect, and a spiritual father whom I love and follow. Pope John Paul II was my spiritual father, as well as my teacher and model of holiness. If only I could live up to his great example of sanctity! Now, on Divine Mercy Sunday, he, along with Pope John XXIII, has been declared a saint. During John Paul II’s lifetime, many remarked on the apparent “contradictions” of this pope. He was a man of “both/and.” He had both worldly knowledge and divine wisdom. He spoke both poetry and prayer. He combined spiritual contemplation and social action, and so on. The Holy Father had a remarkable ability to reconcile seemingly opposite things, as when, for example, he taught over and over again that freedom and law are not enemies, but rather, are made for each other. Or, similarly, when he taught that personal and societal happiness and respect for moral absolutes go hand in hand, since love for human persons, from their “entry” into the world to their “exit” from it, implies the rejection of certain kinds of acts (=intrinsically evil) that strike at their incomparable dignity and fundamental rights. If only the modern world would learn and live these truths!
Personally, I will be forever grateful for the gift that he gave me and the whole Church thirty-three years ago when he founded the Pontifical Pope John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family – a graduate institution of theological studies from which I was privileged to earn two higher degrees at its Washington, DC “session.” With branches around the world (the first established in Rome) devoted to the study of marriage and the family – two subjects very dear to the Pope’s heart and whose pontificate was devoted to their flourishing – the “JPII Institute,” as it is affectionately known, is contributing to the Pope’s call to renew marriage in the modern world. In conversations that I had after John Paul II’s death, many were surprised to learn that he had devoted so much of his ministry and writings to marriage and family life. Hopefully, his sainthood will stimulate further discussion of his many writings in these areas, both papal and pre-papal.
But what could a pope – one who was often portrayed as out of touch with much of the modern world, especially in the area of sex – possibly have to say of interest about those subjects, even if he is a saint? This pope left a body of teaching on these subjects so insightful that it probably will take years for the Church to fully appropriate it. Rooted in both countless hours experienced as a pastor listening to married couples, including while vacationing with them, and in his longstanding theological conviction that the only way to fully understand the human person is to know Jesus Christ, this pope showed us that a priest or bishop or pope does not have to be married in order to speak intelligently, and even at times poetically, about the nature of sexual love between man and woman.
I like to tell people that there are passages in the then-bishop Karol Wojtyla’s 1960 classic work, Love and Responsibility that could make some people blush. But they would blush only because they do not have that deep appreciation – indeed reverence – for the goodness of the human body, sexual pleasure, and spousal love that this pope had. For a culture consumed with a prurient obsession with sex, St. John Paul II provides a much needed guide for achieving sexual purity. His revolutionary way of thinking about sex is really an antidote to the “sexual revolution.” Deep down our secular culture’s fascination with all things sexual is, I believe, a deep cry for meaning. As G.K. Chesterton wrote, the young man knocking on the brothel door is in truth looking for God!
We have often heard, too, as we did with President Ronald Reagan, that people admired this pope, but did not always agree with his teachings. For example, many are said to have accepted his teachings on social justice, but to have rejected his doctrines on sex. Well, the same could have been said about Jesus Christ and what he preached (see Mt 19: 23-25 and Mt 19: 9-10, where the disciples reject both his teachings on money and sex!). But actually, as with Christ, many people, especially the young, were drawn to this pope precisely because of his “hard teachings,” even when, in the end, they, like many adults, might not always abide by them. Rejection of a teaching does not necessarily mean the falsity of the teaching. Truth is equivalent to a show of hands? To an opinion poll? What kind of standard is that for moral truth? It might be good enough for a politician, but it wasn’t good enough for this pope, who claimed, after all, to preach not this own doctrine, but Christ’s. The young desire “straight talk” – just what this saintly pope gave them – and they sense when their elders in authority are not speaking straight to them. Might these elders lack the courage of their convictions? In the encounter of the rich young man with Jesus, as related in chapter 19 of St. Matthew’s gospel, the young man senses something different about Jesus. Jesus speaks with authority, with “weight.” This nameless interlocutor is profoundly attracted to Jesus, even though in the end, he walks away from the Lord because of the difficulty of giving everything away and completely following the Master (see Mt 19: 21-22).
I would submit that this pope’s popularity lies in the same attractive and compelling way that he, like his Lord and Master, preached the truth both in season and out of season. The fact that some rejected it or would not live by it, does not call into question what the Holy Father preached. It simply reminds us of the Christian doctrine which speaks of how man’s fallen nature has both darkened his intellect and weakened his will. But, St. John Paul II reminds us, with God’s grace, we who are created as free “acting persons,” as he would say, are capable of living the truth in love – determining our lives for good or for ill by the choices we make – if we would only give everything away and commit our lives totally to the God we are, by nature, “restless” for.
This is why, for as long as I live, I will remember this Christian mystic and man of action as a “witness to hope.” Amidst the troubles of our world and the personal suffering he endured throughout his life up until the end, he remained resolute in his efforts to preach the gospel to as many people he could reach and to as many people who would listen, believing they were “capax Dei,” capable of God. In fact, his greatest legacy may be his call for a “new evangelization” – the effort to preach the gospel to the secular men and women of our day (both Christian and non-Christian) while being acutely aware of their deepest hopes and joys, their deepest sorrows and sufferings, and even their deepest trials and temptations. This was John Paul II’s message of hope in life and it remains so, paradoxically, almost a decade after his death. But what else would we expect from this lifelong “sign of contradiction”?
I loved this man as a son loves a father. And I still miss this man as a son misses a father who has passed on. But I take great comfort in the words of Jesus that he was so fond of quoting: “Be not afraid!” (cf. Mt 28:10) Well, all of us have further reason not to be afraid with the great intercessor we now have in Heaven!
*An earlier version of this was published in the Archdiocese of Detroit’s Michigan Catholic newspaper on April 15, 2005, p. 6.