The past is not dead

The past is not dead
Head of the Jesus statue in Swiebodzin,

The idea expressed by William Faulkner, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past” (from Requiem for a Nun) is richly explored by Karol Wojtyla in a homily delivered on New Year’s Eve (1966) when he took the opportunity to reflect upon the year marking the millennial anniversary of Poland’s embrace of Christianity. 

He said: “When we speak of the past, we are not referring to what is dead, although this could apply in the strictly material order, it definitely does not apply in the human sphere. The past is always the beginning, the basis, and the framework for the future.”

The role of Christianity in Polish illustrates his point, which is made in opposition to the communist officials who wished to deny the importance of Christ and Christianity in the life and future of Poland.The millenial year “has brought us to see the past” and “we have clearly seen the living presence of in the history of our ancestors.”

The presence of Christ is seen throughout the thousand years of Polish history from 966 to the present, December 31, 1966; his presence is seen in buildings, art, sacrament, and word. But most of all Wojtyla notes Christ is A living presence among living people.” He muses that it would be helpful to “call up all those who have been filled with this presence and have them among us now, since if we looked at their lives and saw into the mystery of their souls, we could see to what an extent Christ had been present in them.”

This is a striking idea to envision a thousand year vista of Christian souls raised up and present before the faithful living in the present; a cloud of witnesses to be sure. I reach out in historic imagination and try to envision a mere three hundred years of ancestors in this land, stretching back to ancestors who fled Archbishop Laud and sought religious freedom on these shores, and congregationalists who settled across the country settling in South Dakota, and Lutheran forebears in Washington, D.C., up to my Grandmother, a pioneer in Montana, who received the faith of Rome through the great work of Fr De Smet. I should like to see into the mystery of their souls. But alas, as Wojtyla rhetorically reminded his audience “it is not possible to bring the dead back to life,” so therefore “we must simply look into the depths of our owns souls, reflecting on the meaning of our lives, examining the joys and sorrows of our consciences. We must reflect on our own hopes and fears and on the tensions in our interior struggles to see that Christ is living his own life among and within us.”

So on New Year’s eve, this Bishop of Krakow prayed: “My dear ones, we have gathered here in this venerable old shrine of in order to render our final thanks in this millennial year, to sing one last Te Deum, and so to speak, the past to our future. Our eyes and hearts turn to Christ and to his mother who, by giving birth to him, united the past with the future in him. The whole of the past has its focus in Christ, and the whole of the future has its source in him.”

May every New Year’s Eve, in looking back and looking ahead, be as far sighted at Blessed ‘s vision of faithful Poland in 1966. Semper fidelis. For “Our trust is great, as our faith and confidence in Mary’s maternal closeness to our souls. Through this presence, may she unite our past and our future in Jesus Christ.”


Happy New Year.

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