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Understanding the Spirit of John Paul II

Observers Try to Assess His Inner Life

ROME, APRIL 17, 2005 (Zenit) - In recent weeks innumerable commentaries and interviews have tried to analyze what John Paul II did for the Church and the world during his pontificate. Many pieces concentrated on his external actions, though some did try to understand the Pope's inner life.

Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor touched on this in an article published April 3 by the London Telegraph. The cardinal described the Holy Father as a "man of deep prayer" who "had a conviction of God's providence running through his life."

This prayer not only inspired and sustained John Paul II during the years of his pontificate, but when he was afflicted with the infirmities of recent years it gave him the strength to continue, according to the British cardinal. This intense inner life was also evident in his relationship with the crowds of pilgrims. While he often preached before a large mass of enthusiastic pilgrims "he also led them into silence and contemplation," noted Cardinal Murphy O'Connor. "He was always the still center, who radiated the serenity that comes from a life of prayer."

This aspect was examined in an interview with German philosopher and Protestant Rüdiger Safranski, published in the April 11 issue of the magazine Der Spiegel. Safranski observed: "The special thing about this pope, this media genius, is that he managed to create a connection between mysticism and the media, between a spiritual approach to life and the media's social packaging and globalization of this phenomenon. This is something new, even in the age of television."

An acknowledgment of the spiritual role of John Paul II also came from Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne Jr. In an April 5 column Dionne observed that "If John Paul stood for one large thing, it was primacy of the spiritual over the material." Commentators on the Pope, Dionne noted, "will inevitably debate the meaning of his legacy in the secular terms that so dominate our times. We should try to remember that these were not the terms on which he lived his life."

Henryk Wozniakowski, president of a Polish publishing company Znak, reflected on what motives underpinned John Paul II. Writing in the Financial Times on April 7, he noted that the genius of the Pope lay in "his ability to bring out people's virtues, their desire for goodness and truth -- sometimes deeply buried." This ability was accompanied by a tireless effort in journeys, writings and public appearances, which, by demonstrating the Pope's interest in others, gave credibility to his message.

Cardinal Francis George, writing in the Chicago Tribune of April 4, commented: "Karol Wojtyla was a person who held the office of the papacy in a way that transformed it." In trying to account for the impact that John Paul II had on so many people, Cardinal George explained: "He was a man steeped in the tradition that unites us to Christ; he was also a man of his own time, our time, who understood contemporary experience even as he subjected it to criticisms that echoed Jesus' own criticisms of his society 2,000 years ago."

Beyond labels

Understanding the Pope from within was also important to keep in mind when reading the contributions by those commentators who termed John Paul II as a "conservative." And conservative was just the mildest of adjectives used by those who were critical of his pontificate.

However, Christopher Caldwell, writing in the April 2 edition of the Financial Times, argued that the Pope defied this sort of ideological classification. While he upheld doctrine on matters of sexual morality, John Paul II was also active in opposing war. And, as well as recognizing the positive aspects of capitalism, he was also critical of its failings and called for greater attention to the needs of the poor. Instead of applying labels to John Paul II, Caldwell recommended trying to understand the philosophical and theological ideas that he proposed.

In this sense George Weigel, writing in the Wall Street Journal on April 4, said John Paul II was different from other "conservative critics" of contemporary culture. The Pope, Weigel observed, proposed "a truer, nobler humanism, built on the foundation of the biblical conviction that God had made the human creature in His image and likeness, with intelligence and free will, a creature capable of knowing the good and freely choosing it." The true measure of man, according to the Pope, is "the human capacity, in cooperation with God's grace, for heroic virtue."

Ecumenism and religious dialogue

A major concern of John Paul II, noted by many in their reflections on his pontificate, was the effort made to improve relations between the Catholic Church and other Christian churches. In an article published by the London-based Times on April 11, Rowan ...

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