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Posted November 7, 2005

Book: John Paul II: The Encyclicals in Everyday Language
Editor: Joseph G. Donders
Orbis Books, Maryknoll, New York, pp. 373

The Epilogue by Joe Donders

“The human person is the primary and fundamental way for the church” (John Paul II)

It is a daunting task fully to understand the rich, complex thought of a person like Karol Wojtyla, Pope John Paul II. The temptation is to draw a general outline, to tell a “big” story, a reconstruction of thought and work, coming to a large and overarching view, with the risk of losing the person and his specific giftedness in such an approach.

That is why it might be better to stick to what John Paul II often did when explaining himself in the many autobiographic notes he wrote and in the information he gave to his biographers. It started where it begins in the lives of all of us, in some short stories, some little ones, some personal experiences — stories that according to him made him develop the way he did, when responding to the world around him and to the “signs of the times.”

Most readers will know that Karol Wojtyla had a disturbed and difficult youth, growing up during wartime in Poland with its smoke of concentration and extermination camps, exiled from a university closed by the occupying Nazis. His mother died when he was ten and his only brother when he was twelve. When he was twenty-one, on February 18, 1941, he found his father dead in his bed, when he came back from fetching some food for him form a neighbor. He wrote: “I never felt so alone.” No wonder that he, a very sensitive and artistic young man, felt lonely, depressed, and as counting for nothing.

In that predicament he profited greatly form his friendship with a layman, a tailor, he had met in February 1940, Jan Tyranowski (1901-47). When all but one priest in his parish had been arrested, Tyranowsky had been asked t guide the parish’s youth ministry. He had formed “Living Rosary” groups of fifteen youths each. Karol was a member of one of them. Noticing his depression, Tyranowsky advised him to read Teresa of Avila’s The Interior Castle and John of the Cross’s The Ascent of Mount Carmel, The Dark Night of the Soul, The Spiritual Canticle, and The Living Flame of Love.

Karol knew how to pray; Tyranowsky taught him to change his prayer into a means of becoming aware of God’s presence in every aspect of his life. Jan helped him to experience concretely what he knew from his religious instruction in a somewhat abstract way.

Describing what Tyranowsky did for him, John Paul II later wrote that the main thing was: “to work on our souls in the full meaning of this term. He wanted to bring out the resources he knew existed in our souls, to reveal grace that becomes participation in the life of God.” Jan Tyranowsky helped him to live the truths he knew from the catechism, form books, and from the sermons he had heard. Doctrine became flesh and blood, his flesh and his blood. It is in the light of this lived faith that Karol learned to read the signs of the times. Tyranowsky helped him discover the presence of God “in himself and in all others.”

When John Paul II later wrote that Jan Tyranowsky was the most important influence in his life, he seemed to indicate where to find the key to this person and his understanding of his mission. Speaking to the cardinals and the Roman Curia in a Christmas address on December 22, 1986, he repeated to them his conviction that the “Holy Spirit is mysteriously present in every human heart.”

It is a kind of seed-truth in the life of the church, though it has not always been remembered. It was in a sense rediscovered and stressed in a new way during the Second Vatican Council especially in the documents on the relations of the Church to non-Christian religions (Nostra Aetate, 1965) and religious freedom (Dignitatis Humanae, 1965).

God’s presence in each human being became a key theme for John Paul II. In his first encyclical, Redemptor Hominis (Redeemer of Humankind), of March 4, 1979, John Paul notes more than once, “the human person is the primary and fundamental way for the church,” a statement he repeats again and again in his other encyclicals. The human person is the primary route the church must travel in fulfilling its mission. The human person is a partaker in God’s life; we are “the children of God”. And quoting the Second Vatican Council’s document on the church in the modern world, John Paul II added that “through his incarnation the Son of God united himself to each one of us.”

There is another, related theme that he expresses several times in his encyclicals: it is Christ who fully discloses human beings to themselves, revealing the Father’s love. When we look at Jesus we see ourselves as in a mirror. He would add that — consequently — everyone has the right to hear about Jesus.

In his second encyclical, Dives in Misericordia (On the Mercy of God), commenting on the parable of the prodigal son, he explains that this loving presence of God cannot be taken away from us.

When the prodigal son is coming to himself in the midst of a pigsty, he decides to return to his father and tell him: “I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” He reasons that he has lost that dignity. But when he tries to say this, he cannot even finish because his father makes it very clear that he as father has remained faithful to the dignity of his son and to his life-giving presence. When we sin we might close ourselves off from God, but God will never give up on us.

In his fifth encyclical, Dominum et Vivificantem (Lord and Giver of Life), John Paul II attributes that divine “life-giving” to the Holy Spirit. He sees the reality of the “presence of God” in every human being as the axiom to respond to the concerns of our age. That is what he means when he writes that “the human person is the primary and fundamental way for the church.”

This presence of God in each one of us should not lead to a kind of transcendental individualism. The Spirit of God in all of us is at the same time binding the community together. It is this presence of the Spirit that makes the faithful live in fraternal communion of one heart and soul, “establishing fellowship from every point of view: human, spiritual, and material. Indeed, a true Christian community is also committed to distributing earthly goods, so that no one is in want and all can receive such goods “as they need.”

The different encyclicals explain in their respective fields of interest how this axiom of the presence of God’s Spirit should be our guide when deciding on moral and social issues like, for instance, the rights of the worker or our respect for human life. It is the realization of the indwelling of the Divine Breath in us that should help us to overcome the emptiness of the world’s materialism both in its communist and its capitalist forms. It is an approach that makes terms like “left” and “right,” along with “conservatism” and “liberalism,” out of date. It is an insight that should help us to respond to the spiritual/material concerns of our day, fostering personal sanctity, ecumenism and interreligious dialogue, peace, social justice, and the maintenance of the integrity of creation.

Under the influence of this new emphasis on God’s presence in every human being,things are going to change. The “structures of sin” — a term John Paul II uses frequently in his encyclical Sollicitudo Rei Socialis (On Social Concerns) — are going to alter. According to the pope, structures do not determine persons; persons determine structures. It is the church’s role to change the hearts of people. Individual persons created the structures that do not allow us to realize the justice and peace of God’s presence among us is asking for. He wrote: “. . .the indispensable transformation of the structures of economic life is a road on which it will not be easy to go forward without the intervention of a true conversion of mind, will, and heart.” It is the church’s role to change the hearts of people, as regards not only those global overall structures, but also the ones nearer to home. >From 1979 till 1984 he gave 130 fifteen-minute catechetical instructions on sexuality and marriage under the title “Theology of the Body.”

John Paul elucidates in his encyclical that this axiom of God’s presence in everyone is nothing new, though the church may not always have been sufficiently aware of it. Its reality was given to us as a seed, growing into a tree; as a pearl spotted, but still to be acquired; as a treasure found, but still to be dug up. In other words we are taken up in a process, in a development.

One of the great lessons of the Second Vatican Council was the renewed insight that the presence of the Holy Spirit works effectively even outside the visible church community: “The Spirit, therefore, is the very source of man’s existential and religious questioning, a questioning which is occasioned not only by contingent situations but also by the very structure of his being.”

Pope Paul VI had already pointed to one of the consequences of this insight when he wrote in his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Nuntiandi that we have to be faithful ‘both to a message whose servants we are and to the people to whom we must transmit it living and intact.” He called this “the central axis of evangelization.” In other words we have to be faithful to the work of the Holy Spirit in us, enlightened by our relationship with Jesus Christ, and at the same time to the Holy Spirit at work and alive in the other.

Wherever John Paul II went during his world pilgrimages he has been faithful to this double task, but it often moved him to the cutting edge of God’s reign in this world. All of us live under the same conditions according to the pope: we are alive thanks to tradition, and we are “framed by it. Yet at the same time we are “in process.”

Jesus himself pointed that out when he sent his disciples out on their mission, telling them, “I have much more to tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works that I do, and will do greater ones than these.”

The “framework” of our tradition, however, remains open. Listening to those who live with the Spirit outside our tradition will be enriching and fruitful. In our ever more multicultural or, better, diverse world, interreligious dialogue — and our witness to the Spirit of Jesus in us! — have become essential to assure peace and justice with all its ramifications. Taking up this theme the Federation of Asian Bishops Conferences stresses constantly that a serious interreligious dialogue can be carried out only through solidarity and sharing with the poor.

In the encyclical Redemptoris Missio (The Mission of the Redeemer), John Paul II reacts to the fact that some thought that he went too far in this interreligious approach to the other. We noted above how he told the cardinals and the Curia in Rome in his Christmas address of 1986 of his conviction that the Holy Spirit is present in every human heart: He did that referring to a prayer meeting he had had that year in Asia. Making it clear that he knew how he had been criticized, he wrote five years later: “Excluding any mistaken interpretation, the interreligious and multireligious prayer meeting held in Assisi was meant to confirm my conviction that ‘every authentic prayer is prompted by the Holy Spirit, who is mysteriously present in every human heart. Such a meeting had never taken place before. Each participant prayed in her or his own way. For some it had been too great a step.

Many wonder why the pope does not draw further conclusions from that same conviction. Again, the answer seems to be that we are in process, we are not at the end of God’s story with us. Saint Paul illustrates this dialectic when he wrote: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free person., there is not male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus”, while also relegating women to a subordinate role and telling slaves to be submissive to their masters in other sections of writings attributed to him.

In his short novel The Actual Saul Bellow describes how the hero of the story, Harry Trellman, rediscovers an old love of his, Amy. He looks in her face and in a moment of sublime revelation he sees her as a kind of miracle, “I stood back from myself, and looked into Amy’s face. No one else on this earth had such features. This was the most amazing thing in the life of the world.”

He discovered her personhood. How much more astounding should be the mutual discovery of God’s presence in each other. And how decisive would be the consequences of this discovery, if actualized in our world, not only for someone like a pope, but for each one of us.