Why He is a Saint: Wojtyla as Pope (c 2, pt 1)

Why He is a Saint: Wojtyla as Pope (c 2, pt 1)

Wojtyla as Pope (chap 2)

The middle chapter of Msgr. Oder’s book, , pertains to the papacy of Karol Wojtyla as . As a lead in to the chapter Msgr Oder quotes Cardinal Wyszynski, primate of Poland, prior to his election; “He is a mystic, a poet, a shepherd, a philosopher, a saint. . . . but he is a bad administrator.” (71) That does serve in a way to indicate the character of his life and papacy, although we can forget how much he did accomplish in the administrative field. He produced two codes of Canon Law (Western, 1983; Eastern, 1990), the new Catechism of the Catholic Church (1992) and the reorganization of the Roman Curia (1988). He appointed many great Bishops and curial directors.

His approach to administration was always personal and relational. He drew upon the aid of his Polish confreres and he made initial appointments of some great Churchmen: Macharski to replace him, Martini, Ratzinger, Ruini to other important posts. Like all the popes he had to rely upon the secretary of state and the Congregation for Bishops. He was sometimes disappointed. He once said after being criticized — “it is not that easy to find the right people.” (84)

To best get the feel for the spiritual quality of his papacy and its bearing on his sanctity one must look beyond the administrative decisions, the great historic events, and even the mound of writings to see the interior; he himself said “They try to understand me from without. But I can only be understood from within.”

Taking a look within, drawing upon the materials about John Paul II’s spirituality as described in chapter 3, Msgr. Oder divides the periods of the Wojtyla papacy, not along some strict chronology or by historic events, but in a very unusual and striking way:

1. the enthusiastic papacy, filled with travel and the opening of new paths
2. the assassination attempt, the slow recovery and the period of learning from suffering
3. The period when Wojtyla was immobilized and in a wheel chair
4. the time of his death, “which had a paschal dimension and was an integral part of his life.” (76)

What a striking idea, but so apt, that death is integral to life, and all the more for a saint, as it was for Christ!

Wojtyla began his pontificate with a visit to a Polish friend who was in the hospital in Rome; he constantly sought out the redemptive aspects of the suffering of his friends, as well as his own. Bishop Deskur, president of Pontifical Council for Social Communications, suffered a stroke on October 13, 1978. Wojtyla would say about the patients he met: “I count greatly, very greatly, on them — for their prayers and sufferings provide me with a special strength, so that I may perform in a less unworthy manner my serious duties.” (78) Dr Wanda Poltawska, a Catholic partisan fighter in Cracow was captured and tortured by the Nazis. She later became a psychiatrist and a friend of Wojtyla. He said he believed she suffered in part for him. These little stories frame the papacy in an interesting way and make clear that it was a spiritual journey, not a political, bureaucratic, or academic assignment.

Msgr Oder speaks little about the first phase of the papacy — in part because it has been so well chronicled (e.g., Weigel, Witness to Hope), but also for the reason mentioned above, the search for the “inner significance” of the role in the life of a saint. In response to the question — does the pope travel too much (he spent 822 days on the road), he responded “in human terms they are right. But it is Providence that guides us, and sometimes it suggests that we do something per excessum.” (103) It is sometimes not appreciated how many trips he took within Italy (see p 116). He made 146 apostolic journeys in Italy and 104 abroad; he visit 259 Italian localities and 131 nations. Per excessum? Undoubtedly. Providential? To be sure.

His name was John Paul. He saw himself as the successor to St Peter, but also the heir to St. Paul “who as we know very well, never stayed long in one place: he was always traveling.” He traveled as a teacher of the faith, but also as one setting out to learn about his people and the travail of the world. He frequently encountered the mysterium iniquitatis, the mystery of evil, and was a witness to the literal and figurative crushing of the human person. “Humanity crushed,” he said, “Humanity cannot be crushed because God was crushed in Christ. This is difficult to understand: God crushed! Not even Peter can understand it.” (112) He stood up for justice, he was a witness for hope, an example of forgiving reconciliation. His influence derived from “insisting on the central role of the human being and defending the value of the individual.” Gaudium et spes 22. Redemptor hominis.

Faith, forgiveness, reciprocity — these are the inner  lines of development that do much to explain things for which he is sometimes criticized — holding a prayer day at Assisi (Benedict continues the practice), kissing the Koran, reciting the creed sans filioque (the historic Creed of Constantinople), giving communion to Brother Roger of Taize. The actions are not always what they appear to be; the traditionalists pounced upon them and continue to fill the books, magazines and blogosphere with the most uncharitable interpretations; Msgr. Oder does much to illuminate them.

The assassination attempt deepened the principles of his Papacy. 1981 was a critical year. Cardinal Wyszynski, the great champion of the Church against the totalitarians, died; Pope John Paul II was near fatally shot; and General Jaruzelski declared martial law in Poland. John Paul would thank our Lady of Fatima for giving him a second life; he deepened his appreciation of the role of suffering and the providential hand of God in all events. He remonstrated with Jaruselski; he forgave his assassin (an unpublished letter to Ali Agca is here).

This Vicar of Christ still has much to teach us. And his legacy will best be understood when we rightly revere him as a saint and come to better understand the spiritual and mystical basis of his life, words, and deeds..

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