John Paul the Great

By Deal W. Hudson

The Catholic Church in 1978 was marked by confusion and conflict. In October of that year, the conclave voted and gave us Pope John Paul II. More than 26 years later there are two dominant views of his papacy. One argues that he renewed the Church and saved it from dissent and the encroachment of modern secularism. The other portrays him as a reactionary, a pope who ignored modernity and the vision of Vatican II. One commentator, Thomas Cahill, said that history may view John Paul II as having destroyed the Catholic Church.

John Paul II understood modernity from the inside out. He lived under the two great political movements of modernity—Nazism and Communism. He studied and wrote his dissertation on phenomenology—the major philosophical school of the 20th century. He employed the tools of modernity when they could be put to the service of the Church, exploiting the power of the media to communicate the truth about human life to millions around the world. But he never let “chronolatry,” to use a term coined by Jacques Maritain, dictate his point of view. For John Paul II, the truth about human existence had already been revealed, and everything else was simply commentary—whether the interpretive tools were modern or ancient was irrelevant.

In his funeral homily, then–Cardinal Ratzinger talked about the pope’s ability to portray the “beauty of the truth.” That comment, I think, gets to the heart of his universal appeal and effectiveness more than anything else, apart from his sanctity. When you read his writings or listened to his speeches you were not simply convinced intellectually, you were struck by his vision. The Christian life, as he described it, was something he made you desire to lead, not something you felt obliged to follow. He made you want to follow Christ out of love rather than fear of punishment or loss of eternal life. His ability to make visible the beauty of the Truth will be at least one part of his ongoing legacy.

I was privileged in 1997 to hand him a copy of Crisis with his picture on the cover and the inscription “John Paul the Great.” The issue was created to celebrate the 15th anniversary issue of the magazine. We thought that nothing less than a tribute to the Holy Father would be appropriate for the occasion. When I suggested to the staff that we put “John Paul the Great” on the cover, there was a moment of hesitation. Someone asked whether we should give such a name to the Holy Father. While I understood the concern, I replied that such titles are always bestowed by the laity and that one day John Paul II would surely be called by that name. All agreed.

It was clear even then that he would come to be known by this title. What I wrote then in “Sed Contra” became even more true over the next eight years: “He has taught Catholics once again to think beyond the headlines, to retain their confidence in the restless heart of mankind, and to serve the deepest needs of the human heart rather than the manipulators of popular opinion. In doing so, John Paul II has given us the agenda for the next century.”

Published in Crisis Magazine, January 1, 2005

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