CRACOW. With World Youth Day 2016 beginning here in less than three weeks, thoughts naturally turn to Pope St. John Paul II and his pilgrimages to his Polish homeland.
The first, the Nine Days of June 1979, in which the Pope ignited a revolution of conscience, was the pivot on which the history of the late twentieth century turned in a nobler direction. In 1983, as Poland suffered under martial law, John Paul reignited hope and gave a new jolt of life to the Solidarity movement, then struggling to survive underground. On his third pilgrimage, in 1987, John Paul began to lay the moral foundations of a renovated Polish civil society and democracy, speaking of solidarity-the-virtue while that distinctive, jumbly-red lettering, “SOLIDARNOSC,” was seen in public once again, on banners held high throughout the country.
1987 was also the first time John Paul was allowed to go to Solidarity’s birthplace in Gdansk—a concession from the communist regime, on which he insisted, against the advice of more cautious churchmen. While he was on Poland’s Baltic seacoast, he went to Westerplatte, the thin peninsula where World War II in Europe began on September 1, 1939. There, a small Polish force of fewer than 200 was shelled by German warships—and then held out against invading German marines and Stuka dive-bombers for six days. During a liturgy of the word at Westerplatte, John Paul had some things to say to a vast gathering of Polish young people—a kind of World Youth Day in miniature. And what he said bears very much on twenty-first-century Catholicism.
The Pope, who vividly remembered September 1, 1939, and Luftwaffe bombs crashing down on Cracow, used the image of those brave young Polish soldiers on Westerplatte as a metaphor for the moral life, in his challenge to the youth of Poland:
Even if others do not demand much from you, you must demand of yourselves. …
Each one of you … will find in your life your own Westerplatte. A task … you must assume and complete. Some just cause, in which it is impossible not to fight. Some duty, some obligation, from which [you] cannot escape, and from which it is impossible to desert. A certain order of truths and values you are obliged to maintain and defend. … In such a moment (and there are many of them, for they are not something exceptional), remember: Christ is passing by you and saying ‘Follow me.’ Do not abandon him. Do not run away. Hear that call. …
That summons to strive for heroic virtue—don’t settle for second-best; no matter what others ask of you, ask the best of yourself—was one facet of John Paul II’s remarkably magnetic appeal for young people. From his years as a university chaplain, he knew that young souls yearn for heroism, including religious and moral heroism. He also knew that striving often fails—that we are all less than we strive to be. But that didn’t seem to John Paul a reason to lower the bar.
The answer to failure was not resignation, settling for second- or third-best. The answer was to recognize that Christ was down there in the dust with you, as he had fallen along the Way of the Cross. So get up, seek forgiveness and reconciliation, and try again; with the help of grace, and answering the call, ‘”Follow me,” strive to be someone of character, compassion, and conviction.
Over the past several years, voices in the Church have sometimes described the Gospel and its demands as an “ideal.” The implication, however unintended, is that the “ideal” is impossible to achieve, so demands should be blunted and the bar lowered. Some might imagine this as a consoling message, given that we all fail.
But imagine if John Paul had turned the lesson of Westerplatte inside-out and said to those young people, “Look, enough Polish romanticism. Those young soldiers were outnumbered. They didn’t have a chance. They should have surrendered.” Would that message have stirred young hearts and souls to finish the job of finishing off communism, and to take up the task of building a free and virtuous society?
It seems unlikely. No, check that: it seems impossible.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington, D. C.’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.