That I have remained a Catholic as a teenager is in large part thanks to Pope John Paul II, who was elected when I was 4, whose papacy has lead me into my 30s, and who is now only days away from being declared a saint by the Catholic Church.
At a time when the vast majority of sermons I heard in church were confused, banal and/or plain wrong, and the behavior of certain bishops scandalous (some spouting nationalist idiocy, others visiting casinos and boxing fights),1 John Paul II was an unfailing source of razor-sharp reason, profound compassion, universal openness and a discipleship of Jesus worthy of the apostles. While listening to the drivel that passed as a sermon (or even more offensively as a homily), I had recourse not only to reflecting on the Gospel and the preceding readings, but - and crucially for my Catholicity - also on the brilliant words and actions of my Pope.
Thankfully, there were many others too who gave me great hope in the Church - priests, religious and lay people alike - but it was John Paul II who made any thought of doing a runner unthinkable. That Catholicism made sense even in the 20th century and that it involved the whole person - with an alert and questioning mind and with a body made of flesh and bones - was not only theory, but was lived by it’s head on Earth. The Servant of the Servants of God was a philosophy professor of epic intellect, a brother to the world’s population and an avid skier. The ultimate proof points for my teenage self :). This guy certainly put into practice what he preached and what he preached was as satisfying - both intellectually and emotionally - as anything could be. Being a Catholic wasn’t (and isn’t) some compromise, some ovine brainlessness, some flavorless routine, some wager or safety-net. Instead it was (and is!) an invitation to love, closeness, truth and beauty.
To make the above a bit more specific, let me share some of my favorite thoughts by Pope John Paul II (in the order they come to mind):
- “God is one, but not alone.”
(My favorite explanation of the Trinity and of communion as its - and our - inner life.)
- “Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth.”
(The foundation of the need for dialogue between faith and reason and the opening line of one of my favorite encyclicals ever - Fides et Ratio.)
- “[W]e all hold conscience and obedience to the voice of conscience to be an essential element in the road towards a better and peaceful world. Could it be otherwise, since all men and women in this world have a common nature, a common origin and a common destiny? If there are many and important differences among us, there is also a common ground, whence to operate together in the solution of this dramatic challenge of our age: true peace or catastrophic war?”
(His words during the conclusion of the 1986 World Day of Prayer for Peace, where he called together representatives of all Christian denominations and other religions for a first-ever joint prayer.)
- “Every genuine artistic intuition goes beyond what the senses perceive and, reaching beneath reality’s surface, strives to interpret its hidden mystery. The intuition itself springs from the depths of the human soul, where the desire to give meaning to one’s own life is joined by the fleeting vision of beauty and of the mysterious unity of things. All artists experience the unbridgeable gap which lies between the work of their hands, however successful it may be, and the dazzling perfection of the beauty glimpsed in the ardour of the creative moment: what they manage to express in their painting, their sculpting, their creating is no more than a glimmer of the splendour which flared for a moment before the eyes of their spirit. [...] Even when they explore the darkest depths of the soul or the most unsettling aspects of evil, artists give voice in a way to the universal desire for redemption.”
(His letter to artists from 1999 has, in my opinion, been the foundation for more recent improvements in the relationship between the Church and contemporary art, as championed by Cardinal Ravasi.)
- “[S]ex expresses an ever-new surpassing of the limit of [one’s] solitude [… and] always implies that in a certain way one takes upon oneself the solitude of the body of the second “I” as one’s own.”
(Just a snippet, but a beautiful example of his analysis of human anthropology, psychology and sexuality in another exceptional piece of thinking - his “Man and Woman He Created Them,” originally delivered as a series of General Audience catecheses(!).)
- “[I]n Joseph, the apparent tension between the active and the contemplative life finds an ideal harmony [... W]e can say that Joseph experienced both love of the truth-that pure contemplative love of the divine Truth which radiated from the humanity of Christ-and the demands of love-that equally pure and selfless love required for his vocation to safeguard and develop the humanity of Jesus.”
(One of my favorite passages from another masterpiece of an encyclical - Redemptoris Custos - where John Paul II emphasizes Jesus’ humanity by reflecting on the instrumental role St. Joseph played in its development.)
- “[W]e cannot fail to recognize the infidelities to the Gospel committed by some of our brethren, especially during the second millennium. Let us ask pardon for the divisions which have occurred among Christians, for the violence some have used in the service of the truth and for the distrustful and hostile attitudes sometimes taken towards the followers of other religions. Let us confess, even more, our responsibilities as Christians for the evils of today. [...] We humbly ask forgiveness for the part which each of us has had in these evils by our own actions, thus helping to disfigure the face of the Church.”
(A key passage from his powerful apology for the wrongs committed by the Church over past centuries, made during the Jubilee Year 2000)
- “The Jewish religion is not ‘extrinsic’ to us, but in a certain way is ‘intrinsic’ to our own religion. [...] With Judaism, therefore, we have a relationship which we do not have with any other religion. You are our dearly beloved brothers, and, in a certain way, it could be said that you are our elder brothers.”
(A fundamental repositioning of the relationship between Christianity and Judaism, as initiated during Vatican II and then further carried forward by his successors, made during an unprecedented visit to a synagogue in 1986.)
1 I have also met very many holy priests and bishops, both at that time and since, but my teenage years were marked by some of the worst preaching in exegetical, moral, ecclesiological and eschatological terms - to the point where I ended up popping outside during sermons and rejoining the mass once enough time had passed for them to be over. Something I am not proud of, but it had to be done to keep my sanity at the time.