Past and Future

Published March 29, 2001

The Catholic Difference

From the moment the Great Jubilee of 2000 was announced in the 1994 apostolic letter, Tertio Millennio Adveniente [The Coming Third Millennium], it was clear that, for Pope John Paul II, the jubilee year was not so much about the past as about the future. The Pope reaffirmed his bold vision of Christian possibility in a January letter concluding the jubilee year, Novo Millennio Ineunte [At the Beginning of the Third Millennium].

Two images frame this lyrical papal reflection. The first is taken from Luke 5:4, where Jesus invites Simon Peter to “put out into the deep” for a catch. That, the Pope suggests, is what Christ is calling the Church of 2001 to do—to cast off from the comfortable shores of institutional complacency and forge out into the “deep” of a post-modern world yearning to hear a word of saving grace. That gospel phrase in fact neatly sums up both the pontificate of John Paul II and his reading of the Second Vatican Council

For almost forty years now, Karol Wojtyla has insisted that Vatican II must be understood as an epic spiritual event: a Spirit-led “new Pentecost” in which the Holy Spirit challenged the Church to re-imagine itself as a dynamic evangelical movement in history. In more than twenty-two years of a pontificate aimed at securing the legacy of Vatican II in its fullness, John Paul II has tried to get the people and the pastoral leaders of the Church to think of themselves and their mission in robust and unapologetically evangelical terms. He will try again with the College of Cardinals at a special consistory in May. He will try once more with the Synod of Bishops in October.

The media is already framing both these events as great debates over “power-sharing” in the Church. That is to miss the central point, at least as the Holy Father thinks about these things. No doubt there are always issues of internal Church management to be sorted out. But before that, there is a great evangelical task to be embraced. The institution, after all, exists for the sake of proclaiming the Gospel. That is the one standard by which structural issues should be judged. The second image the recurs throughout Novo Millennio Ineunte is that of the face of Christ, the Church’s “Bridegroom and Lord.” That face is not an abstraction, a pious idea. As the Holy Father notes, the men and women of today “ask believers not only to ‘speak’ of Christ but…to ‘show’ him to them.” That is what the Church is for: “to reflect the light of Christ in every historical period,” and thus “to make his face shine…before the generations of the new millennium.”

Mother Teresa used to say that every destitute person she lifted from the hard streets of Calcutta was “Jesus in a particularly disturbing disguise.” A similar intuition marks Novo Millennio Ineunte, in which the Pope tells of looking out his window “at the long queues of pilgrims waiting patiently to go through the Holy Door” of St. Peter’s. “In each of them,” he writes, “I tried to imagine the story of a life, made up of joys, worries, sufferings; the story of someone whom Christ had met and who, in dialogue with him, was setting out again on a journey of hope.” Here, tangibly, was the “pilgrim Church” of which Vatican II spoke, a Church “putting out into the deep” with renewed confidence that the story it tells is the truth of the world.

“We wish to see Jesus,” a group of Greeks come to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover Jews asked the apostle Philip (John 12.21). That desire, John Paul suggests, is the desire of everyone today who seeks the fulfillment of Passover freedom—in the goodness we are able to experience now, and in the beatitude that is, by God’s grace, our human destiny. Enabling the world to meet the truth about itself is what the Church is for; the Church does that by bringing all those yearning to see his face into a personal encounter with Jesus Christ.

The Church’s future is evangelical. The Great Jubilee of 2000 was a powerful reminder of that perennial truth.

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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