Ethics & Public Policy Center

Images of the Priest in the Life and Thought of John Paul II

Published in Homiletic & Pastoral Review on April 23, 2014



It has been nine years since the remarkable events that unfolded between February and April, 2005—and still our minds and imaginations, and perhaps our prayers as well, come back, time and again, to the last illness and death of Pope John Paul II. Those memories take on special resonance as his canonization draws near.

It was an extraordinary human drama—perhaps one of the few genuinely global dramas in history. An entire world gathered, metaphorically, around the bed in the papal apartment to help John Paul II through what he called, in his spiritual testament, his “Passover.” Yet, February, March, and early April 2005 unfolded as not just an extraordinary human drama, but as an extraordinary Christian drama and, indeed, an extraordinary priestly drama.  For what the world saw (whether it recognized it in these terms or not), and what the Church lived through (and hopefully recognized as such), was manifestly the death of a priest. For the last time, Karol Wojtyła led the Church and the world into an experience of the Paschal Mystery.  And that is the essence of the vocation of priests: to lead the Church, and the world, into an experience of the mystery of Jesus Christ, crucified and risen.

How did the late pope do that? As my mind’s eye turns back to those dramatic days, certain vignettes, etched in poignancy, stand out.

I remember the Pope returning to the Vatican from the Policlinico Gemelli hospital on February 10 and March 13, 2005, with throngs of Romans crowding the streets to welcome back the man they had once thought of as lo straniero  (“the stranger”) but whom they now thought of, quite literally, as il papa (“father”).

I think of the Pope with a palm branch in his hand at the window of the Apostolic Palace on Palm Sunday.

I remember the Pope in his chapel in the papal apartment on Good Friday evening, holding fast to a crucifix while watching the Via Crucis at the Roman Colosseum on television. On that occasion, the Pope was back-shot, the television camera behind him so that all that you saw were his back and his hands holding that cross. Why, some television commentators asked? It was not, I replied, in order to hide his tracheotomy and his suffering, but rather to underscore the message this most visible of men in history (who had been seen live by more human beings than anyone else, ever) had taken around the world: “Don’t look at me; look at Jesus Christ.”

Then, I see in my memory the Pope at the window of his apartment on Easter Sunday—the window from which he had led the Sunday Angelus, or Regina Coeli, for more than a quarter-century—unable to speak, but blessing the city and the world, over and over and over again, as if for the last time.

And then I remember John Paul II on Friday and Saturday, April 1 and 2, concelebrating Mass from his deathbed; making the Stations of the Cross Friday afternoon, as he had done every Friday of his life since he was a teenager; and struggling to articulate a last message his associates finally understood to be addressed to the thousands of young people gathered outside his window in St. Peter’s square: “I have sought you out. Now you have come to me.  I thank you.”

Finally, I remember the last words of the dying Pope on the afternoon of April 2, asking in his native Polish to be taken to the Father’s house.

The extraordinary dignity with which John Paul II bore his final illness, and his long suffering, was the last great paternal and priestly lesson he taught the Church and the world.  As news of his death cascaded around the globe, tens of millions of people, perhaps even hundreds of millions of people, suddenly felt a bit orphaned. In a world bereft of paternity, with its unique combination of strength and mercy, Karol Wojtyła had become a father to countless men and women living in an almost infinite variety of human circumstances and cultures.  As Time magazine’s Nancy Gibbs wrote in the online edition about the feelings of those in St. Peter’s Square, looking at that window with the small lit candle while the Pope was dying:

You feel smaller when your father dies because he was strong and lifted you, carried you, and taught you, and when he’s gone the room feels too big without him. So it was in St. Peter’s Square, where pilgrims kept vigil, their faces, traced in low light by candles, murmuring, “Don’t leave us.”  Among the believers there was almost disbelief that death still comes even to a man this strong.  The Holy Father who had carried the people so far, lifted them so high, taught them so much…

When a pope is buried, a legal document called the rogito, which summarizes his life and accomplishments, is buried with him. Sealed in a metal tube, and placed inside the cypress coffin of John Paul II on the morning of April 8, the rogito for the late Pope ended in these fitting terms: “John Paul II has left to all an admirable testament of piety, of a holy life, and of universal fatherhood.”

This “universal fatherhood” was not generic, however, but quite specific: it was a distinctlypriestly form of paternity, a form of paternity based on Christian fearlessness. “Be not afraid!” that familiar antiphon of the pontificate which first rang out at the Pope’s installation on October 22, 1978, is a paternal admonition, an expression of priestly encouragement.  John Paul II lived a form of paternity that took its strength from Jesus Christ, priest and victim: Jesus Christ, who carried all the world’s fear to the Cross, and by immolating that fear in the perfect sacrifice of the Son to the salvific plan of the Father, enabled all who are incorporated into him to live, not without fear, but beyond fear.

For 26 and a half years, that proclamation of Christian fearlessness, and the summons to renew cultures, societies, political communities, and economies on the basis of Christian humanism, was John Paul II’s program.  Its focal point was the Great Jubilee of 2000.  For John Paul, the Jubilee was not a kind of global birthday party for the Church’s Lord—although deepening the Church’s understanding of the mystery of the Incarnation was surely central to the Jubilee celebrations.  Rather, the strategic purpose of the Great Jubilee of 2000 was to launch the Church into the deep of the New Evangelization, as the Pope put it in Novo Millennio Ineunte, his apostolic letter closing the Great Jubilee. If the Church stayed in the shallows, minding the institutional shop, it wouldn’t be or do much. More grievously; it would fail its Lord.  But having reminded itself on the two thousandth anniversary of the Incarnation that all things are indeed possible with God, the Church had to get out of the shallows, and put out into the deep of the modern world, and the post-modern world, and whatever other worlds humanity found itself in. Why? Not so much to argue as to propose.  “The Church proposes, the Church imposes nothing,” John Paul wrote in the encyclical Redemptoris Missio. And to propose what? As the Pope said on so many occasions, to propose Jesus Christ as the answer to the question that is every human life.  That was the proposal John Paul was convinced the world was waiting for, out there in “the deep” of individual lives, as well as in cultures and societies.

And that is the proposal the Church’s priests have to make in order to inspire a renewed evangelical energy in the people of the Church, empowered by that priestly ministry to take the Christian proposal out into “the deep” of contemporary society.

What were the sources of this priestly paternity, this distinctively priestly form of fatherhood, in John Paul II?

The first inspiration came from his father.  There has been a lot of rubbish written about John Paul II and his mother, who died when he was a young boy; psychobabblers have long contended that the Pope’s Marian piety was displaced maternal affection, and so forth and so on. The fact of the matter is that Karol Wojtyła didn’t remember his mother terribly well. It was his father, Karol Wojtyła, Sr., who was the defining figure in his life as a boy, as an adolescent, and as a young man. A rather reserved gentleman, whose formal education ended in elementary school, a retired military officer of granite-like integrity, he was also, as his son later wrote, a man of “constant prayer” who taught his son by example that the Church is more than a visible institution of which one is a “member.” For, John Paul II put it in Gift and Mystery, his vocational memoir, Karol Wojtyła, Sr.’s ascetic and spiritual life taught the future pope that the mystery of the mystery of the Church, its invisible dimension, extends beyond the structure or organization of the Church—structures, as John Paul would later put it, are “at the service of the mystery.”

So it was Karol Wojtyła, Sr., the man everyone in the town of Wadowice called “The Captain,” who first planted in the future pope the idea that the life of faith first has to do with interior conversion—with letting the mystery enter into and begin to form one’s own life.  Perhaps just as most importantly, Karol Wojtyła, Sr., taught his son that prayerfulness and manliness are not antinomies. To be manly was, in fact, to go down on one’s knees before the mystery.  To be manly was to acknowledge one’s utter dependence upon the grace of God in one’s life.  As the son would later write of the father, “his example was in a way my first seminary… a kind of domestic seminary.”  For a priest in love with the gift of his priesthood when he wrote those lines, 50 years after his ordination, no finer filial tribute from son to father could be imagined.

The second inspiring source of a distinctly priestly form of paternity in John Paul II was the prince-archbishop of Cracow, Adam Stefan Sapieha, the man who would ordain him a priest. Until September 1, 1939, Archbishop Sapieha (who came from a noble Lithuanian family, hence “prince-archbishop”) was a rather conventional ecclesiastical careerist.  He had been one of the private secretaries of Pius X; the simple gold pectoral cross that John Paul II wore was a duplicate of the pectoral cross that Pius X had given Sapieha when consecrating him a bishop in the Sistine Chapel in 1911. A year later, Sapieha was sent back to Cracow as archbishop, where he might have expected to feel the red hat descend, and sooner rather than later.

Unfortunately for Sapieha, he had a run-in in 1920, or thereabouts, with the new apostolic nuncio to independent Poland, who had been named a bishop but had not yet been ordained—a mountain-climbing former librarian named Achille Ratti. When Ratti came to the annual meeting of the Polish bishops’ conference at the monastery of the Black Madonna in Częstochowa and tried to enter, Sapieha barred him at the door, saying. “This meeting is for bishops only.” It was not, as the personnel managers would say, a good career move, because two years later, Nuncio Ratti was elected as Pope Pius XI, and while he may have forgiven, he did not forget.

So Sapieha labored on in relative obscurity, absent the red hat that had marked his predecessors for centuries, until September 1, 1939. Then, in the wake of the Nazi invasion of Poland, and at the age of 72, this hitherto timid and rather conventional churchman became the visible symbol of Poland’s determination not to be crushed under the Nazi jackboot—or, to return to my theme, Archbishop Sapieha developed an extraordinary capacity for fatherhood, in service to a hard-oppressed people.

For four and a half years, after the Germans closed the Cracow seminary in 1939, Sapieha, at the risk of his own life and his seminarians’, ran a clandestine seminary out of his residence. Students came in and out of the residence in the early morning, or in the dark of night, for spiritual direction, for academic instruction, to serve the archbishop’s Mass, and so forth. Then, in early August 1944, when the Gestapo tried to arrest all the young men of Cracow in order to forestall a repetition of the Warsaw Uprising, Sapieha brought his seminarians in from the cold: he hid them in his house, his living room and dining room transformed into a dormitory and his drawing rooms into classrooms. There, in the archbishop’s house, he and they lived an underground seminary experience for the next six months.  Every night at 9 p.m., several dozen young men, including Karol Wojtyła, watched Adam Stefan Sapieha go into the chapel in his residence, where he laid the problems of the day—grave in the last extreme—before the Lord in prayer. From Sapieha, who embodied the ancient Cracovian tradition that the bishop is the final defensor civitatis (the “defender of the city”) its people, and their rights, Karol Wojtyła absorbed a heroic concept of the priesthood: those essential hours of prayer before the Blessed Sacrament led to an active public ministry in which the priest, following the example of Christ, the high priest, offers his life for the service of his people.

When he finally got his red hat in Pius XII’s first consistory in 1946, Cardinal Sapieha’s train was met, on his return to Cracow from Rome, by a huge crowd of well-wishers. The students present picked up the archbishop’s car and carried it, and the archbishop, from the train station to Sapieha’s residence. It was testimony to the reverence in which this old man was held—a reverence that can still be experienced today. Just across the street from the archbishop’s residence in Cracow is the Franciscan basilica. And on its lawn is an extraordinary, contemporary sculpture of Sapieha, commissioned by Cardinal Karol Wojtyła in the 1970’s: a man in a plain cassock, staring down as if looking into the very jaws of hell itself. The inscription reads, “Adam Stefan Sapieha, archbishop of the long dark night of occupation.”

That man, bearing that history, ordained Karol Wojtyła a priest on All Saints Day, 1946. John Paul II would later write, in Gift and Mystery, about the meaning of that experience of ordination for his understanding of the priesthood:

The one about to receive Holy Orders prostrates himself completely and rests his forehead on the church floor indicating in this way his complete willingness to undertake the ministry being entrusted to him.  That right has deeply marked my priestly life. Years later in St. Peter’s Basilica (in the very beginning of the Second Vatican Council), I was thinking back on that moment of ordination to priesthood and I wrote a poem.  I would like to share a few lines of that poem here:

Peter, you are the floor that others may walk over you … not knowing where they go you guide their steps … You want to serve their feet that pass as rock serves the hooves of sheep.  The rock is a gigantic temple floor, the cross a pasture.

When I wrote these words, I was thinking of Peter, and of the whole reality of the ministerial priesthood, and trying to bring out the profound significance of this liturgical prostration.  In lying prostrate on the floor in the form of a cross before one’s ordination, in accepting in one’s own life, like Peter, the cross of Christ, and becoming with the Apostle a floor for our brothers and sisters, one finds the ultimate meaning of all priestly spirituality.

Pope John Paul II, Karol Wojtyła, had many mentors in the spiritual life:  Jan Tyranowski, the lay mystic who, during the Second World War, introduced him to the classics of Carmelite spirituality, especially the works of St. John of the Cross; Columba Marmion, whom he later beatified; St. John Vianney, in light of whose example he vowed to become a “prisoner of the confessional.”  But in looking for the sources of Wojtyła’s experience of the priesthood as a form of paternity, one should also look—beyond his father and Cardinal Sapieha—to the network of lay friends he first met when they were university students in Cracow and he was their chaplain— men and women who remained among his closest friends up until the end of his life.

Asked about their critical, early years in the priesthood, the popes of the last few centuries would have talked about teaching in a seminary, or being posted abroad as a member of the diplomatic service of the Holy See.  When asked what was most important in those critical early years of his priesthood, John Paul II gave a very different kind of answer: he talked about working with college kids, and about the long-lasting influence his experience as a university chaplain had on his concept and exercise of the priesthood.  And he talked quite openly about the importance of those young lives in helping form him into the kind of priest he became.

It’s interesting to note that this most priestly of priests, Karol Wojtyła, was the first pope, in centuries, who had originally intended to live his Christian vocation as a layman.  Most of the other popes of recent centuries put on their first cassock in an Italian seminary at age 11 or 12, emerging at age 22, ordained. John Paul II was different.  This was a man who, until he was a young adult, intended to live his Christian vocation as a layman. And even as he was wrestling with the idea that he had been chosen for the priesthood, he intuitively understood what Vatican II would call, some 20 years later, “the universal call to holiness.”  He knew that sanctity was not limited to the sanctuary.  And so when, as a priest, he began forming young men and women into mature Christian disciples, he could see in this form of spiritual paternity, the paternity he may have imagined for himself in another context, prior to his understanding that he had been chosen for the ordained ministry of the Church.

With these young men and women—many of whom went on to distinguished professional and academic careers—Fr. Karol Wojtyła was a challenging and demanding friend.  But his challenge was always characterized by what one woman, who knew him well for 50 years, called his “permanent openness.” Or, as another lay member of this remarkable circle of friendship put it, Wojtyła “mastered the art of listening.”

And that capacity for listening was complimented by a deep respect for the freedom of others.  One of Karol Wojtyła’s old kayaking and hiking companions, a scientist, once told me, “I talked to him for hours and hours, but I never heard him say ‘I’d advise you to…’  He’d throw light on a problem, but then he’d always say, ‘you must decide.’”  Gently compelling decisions, gently bringing young lives into an encounter with their own capacity for spiritual and moral growth—that was the hallmark of Fr. Karol Wojtyła’s priestly form of spiritual paternity.

In this dialectic of intimacy and reserve, challenge and respect for freedom, which was characterized by a complete lack of clericalism, and a deep mutual respect, Karol Wojtyła developed the pastoral strategy he would later call “accompaniment.”  As he understood it, “accompaniment” was an attempt to get beyond the pattern of sporadic encounters between priests and young people, a pattern that frequently resulted in the priest being suspected of prying into the crevices of conscience.  “Accompaniment,” rather, was a way of walking with young adults, of helping them unveil their humanity by living through their problems with them. As a colleague would later describe the process, Fr. Wojtyła tried to accompany someone else in their problems, not simply as a safe shoulder on which to cry, but so as to help unveil the humanity of the other at a new depth. In Wojtyła’s view, this was the way a priest lived out his vocation to be an alter Christus  (“another Christ”).

The strategy of accompaniment was also an expression of Karol Wojtyła’s commitment to the spirituality of the Cross. Why? Because God himself had accompanied human beings into the most extreme situation resulting from bad human—death—through His own divine choice to be Redeemer as well as Creator.  That is what happened on the Cross.  In Karol Wojtyła’s view, the cross of Christ was the final justification for a pastoral strategy of accompaniment.

In his work as a university chaplain in Cracow, we also see the beginnings of that extraordinary magnetism for the young that was such a dramatic element in John Paul II’s exercise of the Office of Peter.  Times beyond counting, I have been asked how to account for John Paul II as pied piper of the young.  The conventional answer is that this was a kind of celebrity craziness to which young people were often susceptible. But that answer, which never made much sense, made absolutely no sense as John Paul II became old and crippled. And it didn’t makes sense because the Pope was asking things of young people that no “celebrity” would dream of asking.

My constant answer to the question “Why the magnetism?” is twofold. First, there was the transparent integrity of John Paul II.  Young people, particularly young people discerning what they are to do with their lives, have extremely acute baloney detectors. They can smell falseness several miles off—and there was not a whiff of that in John Paul II.  Here, transparently, was a man who lived what he proposed. He did not ask young people anything he hadn’t required of himself.  He was not asking them to take on any burden he had not borne.  He was simply asking them to let him, and to let the Church, accompany them in bearing those burdens, and in taking on the task of conforming their young lives to Christ. Transparent integrity was the first quality that young people found extraordinarily compelling about John Paul II.

The second element of his magnetism was his challenge. John Paul II didn’t pander to young people. Contemporary culture, on the other hand, constantly panders to the young—in advertising, in its accommodation of patterns of dress, in dumbing down academic requirements, in lowering behavioral expectations. Young people today grow up surrounded by a world that tells them that they’re wonderful, that there’s no real effort required to “be all that you can be,” that “if it itches, scratch it.” It’s all pander, all the time.

Then comes this man, this pope, this priest and bishop who doesn’t pander— who, in an infinity of variations on the same great theme, lays down this challenge:

Never, ever settle for less than the spiritual and moral greatness with which, by God’s grace, you are capable. Don’t ever settle for anything less than that. You will fail.  But that is no reason to lower the bar of expectation.  Get up, dust yourself off, seek reconciliation and forgiveness, and go forward, more attuned to the grace of God in your life. But don’t lower the bar.  Never settle for anything less than the spiritual and moral grandeur that is nascent in you, and that the cross of Christ makes available to you through the grace of the Holy Spirit.

That challenge struck home. In an age that is skeptical, even cynical, about the heroic, John Paul II knew, from his own pastoral experience, that young people want to be summoned to lives of heroism—even to lives of heroic sacrifice. How many young men began to discern some inclination to a vocation to the priesthood by hearing that challenge laid out in World Youth Days in Denver, or Paris, or Rome, or Toronto? A lot.

John Paul’s papal thinking on spiritual paternity was at its richest in the 1980 encyclical on God the Father, Dives in Misericordia. By the time he came to write “Rich in Mercy,” Karol Wojtyła had been thinking about fatherhood for a long time.  Life with his own father, and with the “unbroken prince,” Cardinal Sapieha, had given him a profound experience of both familial and spiritual paternity.  He had come to think of his own priesthood as a form of paternity.  And as his intuitions about fatherhood deepened, he had made a dramatic claim in a poetic essay called “Reflections on Fatherhood.”  There, Wojtyła wrote:

Everything else will turn out to be unimportant and inessential except for this, father, child, love.  And, then, looking at the simplest of things, all of us will say could we not have learned this long ago?  Has this not always been imbedded in the bottom of everything that is?

Fatherhood is at the bottom of everything that is—not electrons, protons, neutrons, and all the other apparatus of the atom. As John Paul II developed that intuition in Dives in Misericordia, he opened up new dimensions of familiar biblical texts.  Themes from the Hebrew Bible enriched John Paul’s reflection’s in Dives in Misericordia on Jesus’ preaching of a Gospel of mercy, and illustrated the late Pope’s conviction that Christianity could only be understood through Judaism, and its unique role in salvation history.  Thus, John Paul II wrote that, while God’s merciful love begins “in the very mystery of creation,” it was the experience of the people of Israel which revealed that “mercy signified a special power of love”—a love strong enough to prevail over “sin and infidelity.”  And while the Old Testament constantly teaches that God is a God of justice, it also reveals that “love is ‘greater than justice: greater in the sense that it is primary and fundamental.’”  For Christians, that Old Testament teaching is completed in the mystery of Christ’s passion, death, and resurrection, which is the revelatory icon of the Father’s mercy.  For here, mercy is shown to be, not only stronger than sin, but stronger than death itself.

For John Paul, the parable of the Prodigal Son was a synthesis of this biblical theology of mercy.  In John Paul’s analysis of this most poignant of New Testament parables, the Prodigal Son is a kind of everyman, burdened by the tragedy of the human condition, which the Pope describes as the awareness of a squandered sonship, the awareness of having lost one’s human dignity.  The forgiving father, by being faithful to his paternity and going beyond the strict norm of justice, restores to the wayward prodigal son the truth about himself, which is the lost dignity of his sonship.  True mercy does not weaken or humiliate its recipient; it confirms the recipient in his or her human dignity.  Thus, the priest—in the exercise of the Church’s mercy, which is the mercy of Christ—is both alter Christus and defensor hominis, the defender of the dignity of the human person.

John Paul’s theology of the priesthood was also displayed in the 1992 apostolic exhortation,Pastores Dabo Vobis, where the Pope underscored several key points.

First, he lifted up the distinctive vocation of the ordained priesthood, precisely so that the ordained priesthood would ennoble and empower the priestly character of all the baptized.

Secondly, he showed that the ground of the distinctiveness of the ordained ministry is biblical and theological, not sociological. As John Paul wrote in Pastores Dabo Vobis, when Jesus tells his fellow townsmen in the Nazareth synagogue that Isaiah’s messianic prophecy was being fulfilled in their midst because he had been consecrated by an anointing of the Holy Spirit, he was describing the essence of a new kind of priesthood—a priesthood of perfect mediation between God and humanity.  This was something new in salvation history, and according to John Paul II, it is “absolutely necessary for understanding the nature of the Church’s ordained ministry, which is a unique participation in this unique priesthood of Christ.”

Thus, in exploring the biblical roots of the priesthood of the new covenant, Pastores Dabo Vobis emphasized that to be a priest is not to perform a task or play a role, but to become analter Christus: a personal continuation of the mediating priesthood of Jesus himself.  Ordination, John Paul reminded the Church and the world, does not simply authorize the priest to conduct certain types of ecclesiastical business. Rather, priestly ordination configures a man to Christ in a unique way, and that configuration confers a solemn obligation to serve the Christian community.  Service, in other words, is the way the priest’s unique sacramental authority becomes an image of Christ the High Priest.

In Pastores Dabo Vobis, the image of Christ the Good Shepherd reveals the specific form of holiness that, in John Paul’s view, must inform the priesthood—what he called the holiness of “pastoral charity.”  The priest’s “headship” of a local Catholic community is a form of “headship,” or spiritual paternity, that is not defined by power.  Christian headship consists in being a servant, in being a priest suffused with pastoral charity—in being one who, as the late Pope put it, “makes a total gift of self to the Church, following the example of Christ.”

In all of this, John Paul II understood that we are dealing with a gift and a mystery.  Reflecting on the mystery of the priesthood as understood by John Paul the Great, however, and with specific reference to your responsibilities in vocations work, I’m often reminded of something a former seminary rector, Cardinal Edwin O’Brien, once said to me: “A man will give his life for a mystery, but not for a question mark.”  And if we are looking for the reasons why John Paul II was, as Cardinal William Baum once put it, “the greatest vocations director in the history of the Church,” I think the answer is here: John Paul II was the greatest of vocations directors because he had entered into the mystery, and let it transform him.  Rather than draining the priesthood of its mystery, he let himself be led ever more deeply into the mystery of priestly self-sacrifice, as we saw in those last nine weeks of his life, during which he let himself be led ever more deeply into the mystery of the priest as victim, who lays down his life, day in and day out, for his people.

How could he do this?  He could do it because he was a radically convinced Christian disciple whose discipleship was the foundation of his priesthood.  His living his priesthood as a life of spiritual paternity was rooted in that discipleship.

Thus, if there is one great truth to be learned from the 58 years, five months, and one day of the luminous, world-transforming priestly ministry that Karol Wojtyła, Pope John Paul II, gave to the Church, it is this: a true priestly vocation begins with a commitment to radical discipleship.  A true priestly vocation begins with, is nurtured by, and lives from a man’s commitment to the truth that Jesus Christ is the answer to the question that is every human life.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies. 

Comments are closed.