Ethics & Public Policy Center

The Spiritual Fatherhood of John Paul II



The annual men’s pilgrimage to the Marian shrine of Piekary Slaskie is one of the premier religious events in the Polish industrial region of Upper Silesia. Held every year in on the last Sunday of May and dedicated to Mary, Mother of Social Justice, it was an occasion on which Cardinal Karol Wojtyla, later Pope John Paul II, regularly and forcefully defended the religious freedom and other basic human rights of Polish workers. On May 25, 2008, at the invitation of Archbishop Damien Zimon of Katowice, EPPC Distinguished Senior Fellow George Weigel addressed the pilgrimage congregation of some 100,000 men. His remarks follow.

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Drodzy bracia w solidarnosci katolickiej wiary! [Dear brothers in the solidarity of Catholic faith]:
Thank you for inviting me to join you on this historic pilgrimage. Thank you for your witness, as grandfathers and fathers, as sons and brothers, as uncles and cousins, to the truth that sets us free: the truth that Jesus Christ is Lord.

Niech bedzie pochwolony Jezus Chrystus, terz i na wieki! [Praised be Jesus Christ, now and forever!]
Why is an American theologian and writer speaking to you today? The short answer is that our beloved archbishop, Damian Zimon, invited me — many times! And I finally said “Yes.” But that only raises another question: why did Archbishop Zimon invite me to be with you today? I have spent, all told, more than two years in your beautiful country and I am proud to be a friend of Poland — but as you can tell, I am still less than an infant when it comes to speaking your language. So why did the good archbishop invite me? I think it was because my life — as a man, a Christian, a father, and now a grandfather –  was touched by the spiritual fatherhood of Pope John Paul II.

During the many years this son of Poland walked the world’s stage, he became a spiritual father to tens of millions, perhaps hundreds of millions, of people. He became a father in a world looking for fatherhood, and often failing to find it. He became a spiritual father to men and women who do not share our Christian faith, as he had been a father to his archdiocese of Cracow during his years as its bishop. How did he do this? How does it happen that so many millions of people, in very different situations, come to experience one man as a father? And what does that tell us about our own responsibilities and opportunities as fathers?
Perhaps the answer will begin to come into focus if I tell you a bit about my experience in writing the biography of John Paul II.

When I began work in 1996 on what would become Witness to Hope, I had known John Paul II personally for some five years — and I had been writing about him since 1979. As my conversation with the Holy Father grew deeper over the next three years, I was asked, many times, what new things I was learning about the pope. And of course the answer was, I was learning many new things.

I learned how his personality and his vocation had been shaped by his experience of World War II. I learned about his unique ministry with students and young people, a ministry that often took him on pilgrimages throughout Poland. I learned about his contributions to the Second Vatican Council; I learned about his work as a philosopher, a literary man, and a bishop. And I learned how his life and his own witness to Christ had been shaped by two remarkable fathers.

The first was his natural father, Captain Karol Wojtyla. I believe “the captain,”as everyone in Wadowice called him, was the most important influence on the first twenty years of  young Karol’s life. From his father, young Karol Wojtyla learned to be a man of integrity: a man honest with himself and honest with others. His father gave him his first sustained lessons in Polish history; and in those lessons, the father taught the son an idea of Poland as free, faithful, open, generous, and tolerant. One day, the son would turn that idea of Poland into a powerful instrument of liberation that would change the course of history.

Above all, however, the father taught the son that prayerfulness and manliness go together. Being a man means being a man of prayer. Being a true man means living in conversation with the God whom Jesus calls “Father.” And, in his memoir, Gift and Mystery, Pope John Paul II pays his father the high tribute of writing that his father’s example of prayer was his “first seminary.” The son’s priesthood, which would ultimately touch the entire world, was shaped by the father’s example.

The second of Pope John Paul II’s remarkable fathers was his spiritual father, Cardinal Adam Stefan Sapieha. The “Prince-Archbishop,” the “archbishop of the long, dark night of Occupation,” taught the future pope that the fatherhood of priests and bishops means defending the rights of their spiritual sons and daughters, when those rights are being violated. In addition, Archbishop Sapieha’s example of prayerfulness reinforced the example that had been set for young Karol Wojtyla by Captain Karol Wojtyla, who died in 1942. Every night during his year as an underground seminarian, while he was living in hiding in the archbishop’s residence in Cracow, young Karol Wojtyla saw Archbishop Sapieha bring the day’s grave problems before the Lord in prayer. That was the source of the archbishop’s courage and strength: his constant life of prayer. That same practice of constant prayer would shape the life of Karol Wojtyla, priest, bishop, and pope.

In his plays and poems, Cardinal Wojtyla thought about the experience of fatherhood he had known from his own father, from Cardinal Sapieha, and in his own ministry as priest and bishop. He once reflected on what he had learned in a poetic essay, “Reflections on Fatherhood.” There he wrote, “…everything else will turn out to be unimportant and inessential except for this: father, child, love. And then, looking at the simplest things, all of us will say: ‘could we not have learned this long ago? Has this not always been embedded at the bottom of everything that is?’”

What is the Pope saying here? I think he is saying this: that at the bottom of everything that is, we do not find only protons and electrons and neutrons and all the other apparatus of the atom; at the bottom of everything there is, we find fatherhood. Because at the source of everything is the God who shows himself within the Trinity and to the creation as “Father.” The fatherhood of God is imprinted on everything that is. The fatherhood of God is imprinted on us.

And so, my brothers in Christ, if we are to be good fathers, as John Paul II was a good father and as Captain Karol Wojtyla and Cardinal Sapieha were good fathers, we must turn to God the Father. All fatherhood begins with Him. In the merciful Father, who comes out to greet the prodigal son and restores to that son the dignity he had wasted, we find the meaning and model of being a father: strength so deeply rooted in love that it can express itself in life-giving compassion.

Our families need this fatherhood. So do our nations. And so does our world. The loneliness that so many people experience in the world today is a loneliness that can be healed by men who live their fatherhood with strength and compassion. By bringing the world the strength and compassion of fatherhood, we bring the world a little closer to God — to the Father who is, as John Paul II wrote, “at the bottom of everything that is.”  Poland’s men can best give thanks for the gift that was Pope John Paul II by being the fathers your families, your country, and the world need.

Thank you for the fathers you are, and for the fathers you will be. Thank you for the gift of fatherhood you will transmit to your sons and grandsons. And let us thank God the Father for the great gift of the fatherhood of John Paul II. Through his intercession, may all of us live more fully our vocations as fathers and sons.

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

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