Krakow, Poland

Welcome to all friends of Saint

This website grows out of a forty year devotion to the person and work of Pope John Paul II, now Saint John Paul II. In the summer of 1976, the year of the bi-centennial celebration for the founding of my country, the United States, I was a young, restless graduate student studying philosophy at the Catholic University of America, in Washington, D. C. At the end of the spring of that year I had completed all course work, language requirements and comprehensive exams for a Master’s Degree in the School of Philosophy. My horizons were expanded through spending a few weeks in Rome and Florence, my first trip abroad, a high point of which was seeing Pope Paul VI in a general audience and attending a Mass for the Ascension in St. Peter’s Basilica. In late July, after much of the hoopla for the bi-centential celebration in Washington had subsided, I was preparing to journey to Texas to begin study in a doctoral program. I happened to be at the Catholic University of America wrapping up some business when Jude Dougherty, Dean of the School of Philosophy, came out to tell me that Cardinal Karol Wojtyla, a important Polish prelate and accomplished philosopher, was to give a talk the next day at CUA. Apparently Dean Dougherty had convinced him make time for this event in between his visits to Polonia and his attendance at the World Eucharistic Congress in Philadelphia. Karol Wojtyla  was not well known in the United States, although he should’ve been. He was a major participant in the sessions of the 2nd Vatican Council. As Archbishop of Kraków he took many courageous stance against communist administration.  Soon after his visit to the United States he claimed a major victory when he consecrated church in the nova Huta, Cracow.

Cardinal Karol Wojtyla, Pope John Paul II, visit July 1976, on steps of McMahon Hall

Many of the graduate students attended to talk if not out of the novelty of hearing a Polish prelate, they came because of the intriguing title of the talk. The talk was entitled the “the transcendence of the person in action and man’s self teleology.” The paper was later published with other papers from a conference on phenomenology held in France that same month. The talk was held in the large auditorium in Caldwell Hall; the talk was fairly well attended. Those who attended were treated to a very sophisticated treatment of Kant and Aristotle’s account of morality and good. The Polish philosopher spoke with a strong and confident voice in a somewhat halting English, although he was well understood. We were very impressed by his knowledge of Aristotle in his creative working of the tradition to incorporate and overcome the philosophy of Kant. At a reception after the talk I was privileged to meet Cardinal Wojtyla. I was a young graduate student who had recently finished a semester long study of the philosophy of Karl Marx. I approached the Cardinal and introduced myself to this gracious man. I blurted out “Your Eminence, what do you think of the Marxist Christian dialogue?” He took a moment to respond as a smile formed on his face and he started to chuckle. He gently if not wearily said “ah, it is more like a monologue.” Everybody laughed. This response had all the features that we would come to know in the life of Pope John Paul II: it was diplomatic, it was humorous, but it packed a punch. So while all the Catholic colleges and social justice groups in the United States were buzzing about liberation theology and the prospects for the Marxist Christian dialogue, Cardinal Wojtyla spoke from his first-hand experience of Marxism, a close study of its philosophy, and expressed an extreme wariness of such rapprochement. The following day at lunch a fellow graduate student said “that man ought to be made Pope.” I responded with these words–“are you kidding, he is a philosopher and he is Polish.” Of course 2 years later the Polish philosopher was made Pope; but it took me years to really appreciate that he was called to be  pope because he was Polish and he was a philosopher.  It was actually some remarks by Cardinal Ratzinger at  the twentieth anniversary of his papacy in 1998. He said: “The crisis of post-conciliar theology is, to a large extent, the crisis of its philosophical foundations. The form of philosophy presented in the theological schools was lacking in perceptual richness; it lacked phenomenology, and the mystical dimension was missing. And when his basic philosophical principles are unclear, theology finds the ground beginning to give way beneath his feet. This is because it is no longer clear to what extent man truly understands reality, and on what basis he can think and speak. So it seems to me a disposition of Providence that, at this time, a ‘philosopher’ has risen to the see of Peter, a man who does not simply take his philosophy from a textbook, but exerts the effort necessary to meet the challenge of reality and of man’s quest in questioning.”

As for his Polishness Cardinal Ratzinger also said that Wojtyla’s struggle with the problems of existence were not in a private sphere but “surrounded by the flames of major historical events.” After all he worked in a factory because his university professors were arrested and sent to Auschwitz. Attending the seminary was in itself an act of resistance. The questions of freedom, human dignity, and rights, political responsibilities conferred by faith, did not enter the thoughts of the young theologian as merely theoretical problems. Facing these was the very real and concrete necessity of that historical moment. Once again the particular situation in Poland, at the intersection of East and West, had become that country’s destiny. . . . the pope needed precisely this Polish heritage to be able to take a variety of cultures into account. “Because Poland is a point of intersection for civilization–Germanic, Roman, Slavic, and Greco Byzantine–the question of intercultural dialogue is in many ways more pressing in Poland and elsewhere. In therefore this very pope is a truly ecumenical and missionary Pope, one providentially prepared even in this sense, to confront the questions of the period following the 2nd Vatican Council.”

The same year that Karol Wojtyla became Pope was the year that began my career teaching philosophy as I accepted a position at Benedictine College in Atchison Kansas. I followed the writings of the new Pope and would often use them in class, or in reading groups, or in adult faith formation class at my parish or in the diocese. Each time a new encyclical came out I would read it avidly and make outlines and copious notes so that I could share its content and message with colleagues, students and parishioners. As the years went by and I advanced in my career teaching at different institutions as diverse as the United States Air Force Academy and Sacred Heart Major Seminary, the appeal of John Paul II for students and colleagues was steady and enthusiastic. I compiled many files with notes (he ended up writing 14 encyclicals and numerous other writings)  and a long string of speaking engagements on the thought of John Paul II. By providence, John Paul II issued his last encyclical, Ecclesia de Eucharist, in 2003, a year when I was serving as Dean of Faculty at St. Mary’s College at Orchard Lake, Michigan, a place beloved to Polonia and known by many in Poland because of its long historic ties to the homeland, bringing generations of young Polish men to the United States to be educated and trained as priests to serve Polish Americans all across America. As Archbishop and as Cardinal, Karol Wojtyla visited Orchard Lake numerous times. Anytime we showed guests around the college we would go to the “Castle” and open the guest log to show the signature of Karol Wojtyla and point up the stairway to the guest room where he stayed. I guided a  curriculum  reform at St. Mary’s  Orchard Lake to include works of John Paul II and to include course on Poland history and heritage. I began a more formal program to educate students and colleagues on the thought of John Paul II with speakers and seminars on his works. Our speakers included George Weigel, Father James Schall, Janet Smith, my brother Russell Hittinger, Ralph Martin, and Father Matthew Lamb. Sadly St. Mary’s College was not able to survive a long standing financial deficit, and so the college was closed and many students and faulty were graciously accepted by another Polish American institution with close ties to Orchard Lake, Madonna University in Livonia, Michigan. I moved on to a position at Sacred Heart Major Seminary where I continued to work on courses that included the thought of John Paul II. Cardinal Archbishop Adam Maida and Cardinal Edmund Szoka, both Polish Americans, very close to John Paul II, and frequently came to the seminary to share their stories about John Paul II. When Pope John Paul II died in 2005  I remember well the outpouring of grief and love from the priests, seminarians and the professors at the seminary. Cardinal Archbishop Adam Maida later shared with us how the Cardinals when assembled for the funeral felt like sheep without a shepherd. But life moves along, and I also recall the afternoon that Cardinal Ratzinger was elected Pope. I could hear the seminarians’ shouts of joy from the TV room. Many of the young men admired Cardinal Ratzinger very much and were already devoted to his theological work. And it is right and proper for the faithful to move on and the listen to the voice of their shepherd, Pope Benedict XVI and now Pope Francis, and there will be more, as God in his mercy has established a line of apostolic succession. But it was then that I resolved to found the Pope John Paul II Forum for the Church in the Modern World in order to commemorate his life and work and to develop his legacy. As George Weigel, and many others have said, this was the most “consequential” Pope for centuries. A giant astride the centuries. Because of the great length of his papacy, the second longest after Pius XI, and because of his great productive output, the writings and documents are voluminous. It is my aim in founding the Forum, and in writing this book, to make that work better accessible and better understood. This needs to be done , not simply out of a regard for history or in order to revere the memory of life (no doubt important also), but in order to make his work accessible to people, especially as it may form and equip the faithful for the new evangelization. Ten years after  this work’s founding, there are a number of fruitful works, including summer workshops, numerous speakers, classes, blogs, and even the production of his play, The Jeweler’s Shop. Many of these items are available on this website.

I hope you enjoy the contents provided here. Please feel free to email me with any comments or suggestions. The John Paul II Forum  is  a non-profit organization and we are grateful for any donations to help keep its work going.


John Hittinger

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