Published October 28, 2003
The Catholic Difference
Shortly after Pope John Paul II’s difficult September pilgrimage to Slovakia, I received an e-mail from a Polish friend, a poet and longtime friend of the Pope’s. In language whose insight and sincerity of feeling more than compensated for its deficiencies in grammar, my friend described what he had witnessed: “Pope’s pilgrimage to Slovakia shown us that the simple presence of cripple and silence John Paul made hundred thousends of people joyful, and moved by invisible hope radiating from this man….I hope my English language is understandable for you.”
It was very understandable. And it told a great truth.
As the Pope’s physical burdens intensify, his life has become ever more unmistakably a living prayer of self-sacrifice. This is a man drinking to the last drop the cup the Lord promised to his disciples, a man pouring out his life in service to the truths on which he’s staked his life. This is a man walking the way of the cross in front of the whole world.
In recent weeks dozens of reporters have asked me why the Pope didn’t lay down the burden of his office – was he just hanging on to make it to his twenty-fifth anniversary? Nothing is farther from the truth, or farther from the character of the man. The Pope hasn’t continued his service to the Church out of personal willfulness. The Pope continues to serve because that’s what he believes he pledged to Christ and the Church when he accepted election on October 16, 1978.
As a young man in Nazi-occupied Poland, Karol Wojtyla read deeply in the literature of the great Carmelite mystics, St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila. And it strikes me that he’s been a Carmelite at heart ever since. Carmelite spirituality is a spirituality of abandonment, in which the truth about the world and about us is found on the cross, in the crucified Christ abandoning himself utterly to the will of the Father and being vindicated in that self-sacrifice by the resurrection. The truth of the world’s story is found on Calvary; and what Calvary teaches us is that we save our lives, not by self-assertion, but by radical self-giving.
That’s how Karol Wojtyla has understood himself since he was a young man – as someone called to empty himself of himself in order to be more completely attuned to the Holy Spirit working through his life. That’s been evident to anyone who has seen him at the altar, or immersed in prayer before the tabernacle, for twenty-five years. What the world and the Church now see is that self-emptying taking place every moment of every day.
And as my Polish poet friend observed, such radical self-sacrifice elicits joy – joy tinged with sadness, perhaps, but joy nonetheless. The Pope doesn’t complain; the Pope isn’t ashamed of his weakness. His uncomplaining acceptance of his physical condition as another way to configure his life to Christ bespeaks an inspiring, transcendent hope that brings joy to human hearts.
This pontificate will be, to the end, a great witness to the dignity of the human person. What the Pope has proclaimed through his extensive writings on the right-to-life, he now proclaims by continuing his service despite crippling difficulties: that there are no disposable human beings; that everyone counts because Christ died for all; that those men and women the world deems burdensome or useless are human beings possessed of a dignity that cannot be measured in the coin of worldly exchange. That is a tremendous witness at this time and in this culture.
Shortly after the Pope’s election, the French journalist and convert Andre Frossard wired back to his Paris newspaper, “This is not a Pope from Poland. This is a Pope from Galilee.” He was right. We have been living a kind of biblical epic with John Paul II for a quarter-century. We know that the story leads to Calvary, so we should not be surprised by suffering. But we also know that our hope has a secure foundation, because Christ is risen and suffering has been redeemed. And that, too, is a lesson that John Paul II teaches with his life as well as his words.
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.