Pope John Paul II, Augustinian

Augustine, pondering (pulpit, Vienna)

As I ponder the legacy of Pope John Paul II I think about the core truths that he explored frequently and elaborated so well. These core truths set the intellectual agenda for the Pope John Paul II Forum:

1. The mutual support and influence of faith and reason.
2. The transcendence and dignity of the human person.
3. The ever present reality of God as the origin and end of creation.
4. The objectivity of morality, known through natural law and revelation.
5. The proper understanding of freedom and human rights.
6. The good of a culture of life, or civilization of love.

All of these truths are rooted in the philosophy and theology of St. Thomas Aquinas and significant 20th century Thomists admired by the Pope explored them and wrote about them (e.g., Jacques Maritain and Etienne Gilson). In a more radical way they are Augustinian truths. (Well yes, these are truths that emerge from the gospel and orthodox faith). One should read AUGUSTINUM  HIPPONENSEM (AUGUSTINE OF HIPPO), the Apostolic Letter of the Sovereign Pontiff John Paul II, on the Feast of St Augustine, August 28, 1986.

In this letter, after exploring the conversion story of St. Augustine, John Paul takes up these themes: i. reason and faith, ii. God and man, iii. Christ and the Church, iv. freedom and grace, v. Charity and the ascent of the spirit. He concludes with fundamental lessons Augustine has to offer modern man: not to despair of truth (we have faith and reason); seek to study God and man; love truth and freedom together, and appreciate the beauty of bodies, art, virtue and God. Too late have I loved thee – “O, Beauty, ever ancient ever new.” These five “word pairs,” as he calls them, set up the dialectical exploration of the full theology of Augustine. And as he takes us through an impressive summary and lays out the best quotes (there are 293 footnotes to this brief letter, each one containing a reference to some nugget in the work of Augustine) for his commentary, we are led to appreciate his expression of a “fervent desire that his teaching should be studied and widely known, and his pastoral zeal be imitated, so that the authoritative teaching of such a great doctor and pastor may flourish ever more happily in the Church and in the world, for the progress of the faith and of culture.”

The second word pair, God and man, opens up the distinctively Augustinian aspect of the pontiff’s project, as we see taking shape in Redemptor hominis and throughout his writings. Augustine, he points out, “always studied the two together: man thinking of God, God thinking of man who is his image.” The dignity of man is due to the ever present reality of God. “Above all in studying the presence of God in the human person that Augustine used his genius. This presence is both profound and mysterious. He finds God as “the eternal internal,” most secret and most present –man seeks him because he is absent, but knows him and finds him because he is present. God is present as “the creative substance of the world,” as the truth that gives light, as the love that attracts, more intimate than what is most intimate in man, and higher than what is highest in him.” It is to the inter-relationship of man and God that John Paul II returns again and again. It is the inspiration of Gaudium et spes §22. No doubt, St. Thomas helps him to articulate this truth, it is the Augustinian mode of self-reflection  and focus on the dimensions of personal existence that fuel his message. He does not start from out and plod through nature and cosmology to the soul and finally to the human; he rather plunges right in to the personal dimension to find God and the mystery of human existence. He circles back around to formulate basic truths about nature, human being, and God.

A brief remark made the following year, 1987, illustrates his method and his deepest insight:

The more one seeks to unravel the mystery of the human person, the more open one becomes to the mystery of transcendence.The more deeply one penetrates the divine mystery, the more one discovers the true greatness and dignity of human beings. (New Orleans, Sept 12 1987)

Augustine is his first mentor. Seek to understand personal existence and find the divine presence; seek to understand God, and find in Christ the elevation of the human..

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