Tag Archives: Karol Wojtyła

John Paul II, Youth Minister – George Weigel

John Paul II, Youth Minister

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Pole that he was, Karol Wojtyła had a well developed sense of historical irony. So from his present position in the Communion of Saints, he might be struck by the ironic fact that the Synod on “Youth, Faith, and Vocational Discernment,” currently underway in Rome, coincides with the fortieth anniversary of his election as Pope John Paul II on October 16, 1978. What’s the irony? The irony is that the most successful papal youth minister in modern history, and perhaps all history, was largely ignored in Synod-2018’s working document. And the Synod leadership under Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri seems strangely reluctant to invoke either his teaching or his example.

But let’s get beyond irony. What are some lessons the Synod might draw from John Paul II on this ruby anniversary of his election?

1. The big questions remain the same.

Several bishops at Synod-2018 have remarked that today’s young people are living in a completely different world than when the bishops in question grew up. There’s obviously an element of truth here, but there’s also a confusion between ephemera and the permanent things.

When Cardinal Adam Sapieha assigned young Fr. Wojtyła to St. Florian’s parish in 1948, in order to start a ministry to the university students who lived nearby, things in Cracow were certainly different than they were when Wojtyła was a student at the Jagiellonian University in 1938-39. In 1948, Poland was in the deep freeze of Stalinism, and organized Catholic youth work was banned. The freewheeling social and cultural life in which Wojtyła had reveled before the Nazis shut down the Jagiellonian was no more, and atheistic propaganda was on tap in many classrooms. But Wojtyła knew that the Big Questions that engage young adults—What’s my purpose in life? How do I form lasting friendships? What is noble and what is base? How do I navigate the rocks and shoals of life without making fatal compromises? What makes for true happiness?—are always the same. They always have been, and they always will be.

To tell today’s young adults that they’re completely different is pandering, and it’s a form of disrespect. To help maturing adults ask the big questions and wrestle with the permanent things is to pay them the compliment of taking them seriously. Wojtyła knew that, and so should the bishops of Synod-2018.

2. Walking with young adults should lead somewhere.

Some of the Wojtyła kids from that university ministry at St. Florian’s have become friends of mine, and when I ask them what he was like as a companion, spiritual director, and confessor, they always stress two points: masterful listening that led to penetrating conversations, and an insistence on personal responsibility. As one of them once put it to me, “We’d talk for hours and he’d shed light on a question, but I never heard him say, ‘You should do this.’ What he’d always say was, ‘You must choose.’” For Karol Wojtyła, youth minister, gently but persistently compelling serious moral decisions was the real meaning of “accompaniment” (a Synod-2018 buzzword).

3. Heroism is never out of fashion.

When, as pope, John Paul II proposed launching what became World Youth Day, most of the Roman Curia thought he had taken leave of his senses: young adults in the late-twentieth century just weren’t interested in an international festival involving catechesis, the Way of the Cross, confession, and the Eucharist. John Paul, by contrast, understood that the adventure of leading a life of heroic virtue was just as compelling in late modernity as it had been in his day, and he had confidence that future leaders of the third millennium of Christian history would answer that call to adventure.

That didn’t mean they’d be perfect. But as he said to young people on so many occasions, “Never, ever settle for anything less than the spiritual and moral grandeur that God’s grace makes possible in your life. You’ll fail; we all do. But don’t lower the bar of expectation. Get up, dust yourself off, seek reconciliation. But never, ever settle for anything less than the heroism for which you were born.”

That challenge—that confidence that young adults really yearn to live with an undivided heart—began a renaissance in young adult and campus ministry in the living parts of the world Church. Synod-2018 should ponder this experience and take it very, very seriously.

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.

Photo by Sporki via Creative Commons. Image cropped. 

Wanted: A New Height of Vision – The Catholic Thing

This year marks the 40thanniversary of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s famous Harvard commencement address, “A World Split Apart.”  Five months after he delivered it, Karol Wojtyła was elected pope. Both men, from Communist lands, gave warnings to the West. How was Solzhenitsyn’s diagnosis different? How has it stood up over time?

 We are used to commencement addresses that are left-wing stand-up comedy. But Solzhenitsyn did not go to Harvard to tell jokes. He promised bitterness. “Truth eludes us,” he began, “if we do not concentrate with total attention on its pursuit. And even while it eludes us, the illusion still lingers of knowing it and leads to many misunderstandings. Also, truth is seldom pleasant; it is almost invariably bitter.”

Likewise, Solzhenitsyn rejected social self-righteousness. The horrors of Nazism and Communism had taught him sober self-knowledge: “There is nothing that so assists the awakening of omniscience within us as insistent thoughts about one’s own transgressions, errors, mistakes,” he wrote in The Gulag Archipelago. “I remember myself in my Captain’s shoulder boards and the forward march of my battery through East Prussia, enshrouded in fire, and I say: ‘So were we any better?’”

What would you have said was the main problem in the West in 1978?  For Solzhenitsyn, “the most striking feature which an outside observer notices in the West in our days is a decline in courage.” But before you think of Jordan Peterson, consider that he means not so much personal manliness but strength of will in public life: “The Western world has lost its civil courage, both as a whole and separately, in each country, each government, each political party and of course in the United Nations. Such a decline in courage is particularly noticeable among the ruling groups and the intellectual elite, causing an impression of loss of courage by the entire society.”

Clearly, Solzhenitsyn judges societies based on the character traits that they form. He effectively runs through the cardinal virtues, arguing that our successes have led to moral decline. He decries the “welfare state,” by which he means, interestingly, not the habilitation of dependents by government, but a society devoted solely to material prosperity: “It has become possible to raise young people according to these ideals, leading them to physical splendor, happiness, possession of material goods, money and leisure, to an almost unlimited freedom of enjoyment.” So why should someone like that risk his life for any higher good?

Veritas: Solzhenitsyn at Harvard (6/8/78)

Moderation suffers, too, because freedoms are exploited to the full without self-restraint. We enjoy much freedom for evil, he says, but freedom for good hardly exists, as those who want to accomplish good get tripped up on every side. “Destructive and irresponsible freedom has been granted boundless space. Society appears to have little defense against the abyss of human decadence, such as, for example, misuse of liberty for moral violence against young people, motion pictures full of pornography, crime and horror.”

As for justice, it gets replaced by legalism: “Any conflict is solved according to the letter of the law and this is considered to be the supreme solution. . . .Nobody may mention that one could still not be entirely right, and urge self-restraint, a willingness to renounce such legal rights, sacrifice and selfless risk: it would sound simply absurd. One almost never sees voluntary self-restraint.”

The “culture of death” plays no role in the speech. But a criticism of abortion might, by friendly amendment, be placed here. We tend to think of the putative abortion right as “substantive due process,” the opposite of legalism. Someone who accepted Solzhenitsyn’s analysis, however, might say, “Of course it’s wrong and should be forbidden. It is claimed that it must be allowed only on a legalistic pretext, ‘what the constitution says.’  So let’s be clear and say: that is not its true basis at all.”

We can hardly believe it now, but it was true, that incipient “political correctness” then involved ignoring the evils of Communism: “There is a self-deluding interpretation of the contemporary world situation, which works as a sort of petrified armor around people’s minds. Human voices from seventeen countries of Eastern Europe and Eastern Asia cannot pierce it.” Without any censorship, he says, the media was marching in lockstep to preserve this viewpoint.

It is not that liberalism failed, but that it abandoned the medieval heritage that it had always required. Thus it failed to realize the synthesis of material and spiritual goods which was its original promise:

In American democracy at the time of its birth, all individual human rights were granted because man is God’s creature. That is, freedom was given to the individual conditionally, in the assumption of his constant religious responsibility. Such was the heritage of the preceding thousand years. Two hundred or even fifty years ago, it would have seemed quite impossible, in America, that an individual could be granted boundless freedom simply for the satisfaction of his instincts or whims.

Both the West and Communism reveal the failure of materialism.  The path forward for the West, however, is not a reform, but something completely new. The only truths it is willing publicly to affirm are “ossified formulas of the Enlightenment,” a “social dogmatism” inadequate to the trials we must face. Solzhenitsyn seems to agree with Marx on one point: that liberalism is on an inevitable path to, first, radicalism, then socialism, then Communism.  “Only voluntary, inspired self-restraint can raise man above the world stream of materialism,” but the West as currently constituted seems to lack the resources to do this.

“The world has approached a major turn in history, equal in importance to the turn from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance. It will exact from us a spiritual upsurge, we shall have to rise to a new height of vision, to a new level of life where our physical nature will not be cursed as in the Middle Ages, but, even more importantly, our spiritual being will not be trampled upon as in the Modern era.”

Michael Pakaluk

Michael Pakaluk

Michael Pakaluk, an Aristotle scholar and Ordinarius of the Pontifical Academy of St. Thomas Aquinas, is professor at the Busch School of Business and Economics at The Catholic University of America. He lives in Hyattsville, MD, with his wife Catherine, also a professor at the Busch School, and their eight children.