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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 RĂ¼diger 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 Williams, Anglican archbishop of Canterbury, explained that even though there continue to be differences between the two faiths, "there had been an irreversible reconciliation between Anglicans and Catholics during the reign of John Paul II for his successor to build on."

To which, Bishop John Flack, the archbishop of Canterbury's representative in Rome, added that the Pope had been "a figurehead for all Christians, a parish priest to the whole world."

Mark Noll, a historian at Wheaton College in Illinois, pondered the Pope's role in improving relations between Catholic and evangelicals, in an article published April 10 by the Boston Globe. In the 1960 presidential campaign evangelical leaders in the United States warned people of the danger in electing a Catholic president who would carry out orders from Rome.

Today the situation is radically different. Noll cited evangelical Gary Bauer, who last year commented that "today evangelicals and Southern Baptists are hoping that the Vatican will tell Catholic politicians what to do."

But politics is only a part of the reconciliation. Under John Paul II, contacts between the Catholic Church and evangelical groups multiplied. Noll cited the case of a 2003 meeting in the Vatican, when the Pope hosted a reception for leaders of the Alpha Course, established by Anglican evangelicals in Britain. The purpose of the meeting, Noll explained, was to spur cooperation between Alpha leaders and Vatican personnel to enable use of Alpha materials for Catholics.

John Paul II was also noted for improving relations between the Church and Jews. Silvan Shalom, Israeli minister of foreign affairs, observed that John Paul II guided the Catholic Church into a closer relationship with the Jewish people. Interviewed in the Italian daily Corriere della Sera of April 4, the minister noted that not only did the Pope call the Jews "our elder brothers during the first visit by a Pope to a synagogue, but it was also in his pontificate that the Holy See and Israel established diplomatic relations."

Shalom also reflected on how John Paul II also asked forgiveness for the errors committed by the Church and its members in its relations with Jews and in his historic visit to Israel left a manuscript in the Western Wall of the Temple of Jerusalem to that effect. "He dared to do what no other Pope before him had done," said Shalom.

A number of commentators pointed out that the Church had started the process of reconciliation with Jews some time before John Paul II arrived as Pope, especially with the Second Vatican Council declaration "Nostra Aetate." But, Dow Marmur, rabbi emeritus of Toronto's Holy Blossom Temple, writing in Canada's Globe and Mail newspaper on April 5, noted that "What the Church had decreed on paper, however, Pope John Paul II translated into action."

And regarding relations with the Islamic world, Mohamed Sayed Tantawi, imam of the Al-Azhar mosque in Cairo, commented that John Paul II was notable for his patience and ability to comprehend problems. In an interview published April 4 by Avvenire, Tantawi, considered the most authoritative figure in the Sunni school of Islam, added that the legacy left by John Paul II was one of constructive dialogue. Tantawi expressed the hope that both Christians and Muslims would continue to make a serious effort to know each other better and to overcome the prejudices that are only too common.


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