A son of Poland is now Blessed John Paul II. What is Poland to do now?
If a friend might offer a suggestion: the Church in Poland should start looking forward rather than backward.
Ever since the late pope’s death in 2005, the Polish Church seems to have been looking over its shoulder at the colossal figure of John Paul II. Given the magnitude of John Paul’s accomplishment, and the widely shared sentiment that John Paul II was a God-given blessing to Poland in thanks for the country’s fidelity during decades of partition and totalitarian occupation, that nostalgia is understandable. But it is now time to look forward, which is what Blessed John Paul II would want.
I’m often asked about the human traits I saw in John Paul II. One answer I often give is that the late pope was the most intensely curious man I’ve ever known. He always wanted to know about the new books, the new articles, and the new arguments in my corner of the intellectual and cultural world. He even wanted to know the latest pope-jokes.
That intense curiosity was a matter of theology, not psychology. John Paul II truly believed that in the designs of Providence, there are no mere coincidences. What seems to us “coincidence” is actually an aspect of Providence we have not understood yet. So his curiosity was a matter of looking into “here” and “now” to see where the wind of the Holy Spirit might be blowing, and in what direction.
Polish Catholicism should adopt this future-oriented stance. Remembering the John Paul II years should now be a remembering in service to the future. The 21st century Church in Poland must take up John Paul’s challenge in the 1991 encyclical Redemptoris Missio and re-imagine itself as a Church that is a mission, not an institution for which mission is one among many activities. Or as John Paul put it in closing the Great Jubilee of 2000, the Church must leave the shallow water of institutional maintenance and put out “into the deep” of the New Evangelization.
The Polish Church must recognize that the faith can no longer be transmitted by the ambient culture; it has to be persuasively and courageously proposed. There is a compelling Catholic apologetic in the magisterium of Blessed John Paul II. Let Poland take the lead in translating this teaching into effective catechetical material.
Polish Catholicism has not fully developed its public voice, and when it speaks about public policy, it does not always speak in a vocabulary that everyone can understand. Developing a public voice that speaks to all is another important way for the Church in Poland to be a “John Paul II Church” looking forward, not backward.
Then there is Europe. John Paul II knew that “old Europe” was in serious trouble. In “new Europe,” in America, and in their willingness to take the social doctrine of the Church seriously he saw a chance for the entire West to recover its Christian roots: not as a matter of reconstructing the old altar-and-throne regimes but precisely in order to build the free and virtuous societies of the future. A Polish Church that helps Poland build a free and virtuous Europe for the future would be a Church living the legacy of John Paul II in public in a very important way.
Poland has to stop looking in the rear-view mirror. Strengthened by the great spiritual, moral, and intellectual patrimony left it by its noblest son, John Paul II, Polish Catholicism must now look boldly toward the future. Monuments will continue to be built throughout Poland to this man who changed the global Church and the course of 20th century history, and that is fine. Yet the most fitting Polish monument to Blessed John Paul II, the pope who called to world to courage our of the depths of Poland’s own courage, would be a courageous Polish Catholicism that maintained its own vibrant faith while helping re-evangelize Europe.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow and William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C.