Founded in 1992 and run since 2000 by the Ethics and Public Policy Center, the Tertio Millennio Seminar on the Free Society brings two dozen young people from central and eastern Europe together with twelve or so of their American counterparts to explore the principles and prospects of building free and virtuous societies. Pope John Paul II’s social encyclical Centesimus Annus serves as the intellectual scaffolding for the seminar’s work. Late this June, less than two months after his beatification in Rome, we will gather once again in his city, Kraków, for the twentieth meeting of TMS.

The world stage has seen more drama in the last two decades than many anticipated. History has not been idle. The problems of two decades ago seem almost worthy of nostalgia, while the crises of today seem ever more daunting. Yet it would be a serious mistake to regard the Polish Pope’s 1991 encyclical as a relic of naïve, post-Cold War enthusiasm.

Centesimus Annus , like all Catholic social teaching, presents man in the light of the Incarnation; the only light, the Church insists, in which man really makes sense. In Centesimus Annus (and quoting from Gaudium et Spes ) John Paul II reminds us that “the guiding principle of . . . all of the Church’s social doctrine, is a correct view of the human person and of his unique value, inasmuch as ‘man . . . is the only creature on earth which God willed for itself.’”

As Gaudium et Spes puts it, Christ “fully reveals man to man himself and makes his supreme calling clear”: To bring Christ to the World. The Church’s social teaching is in no way secondary to this fundamental mission. The Church may claim no “expertise” in economics or politics. But the Church does claim to bear the fullness of the truth about man himself. Catholic social teaching presents this truth to all men and women of good will in terms accessible to reason.

The work of the Tertio Millennio Seminar is to equip our participants with the rich resources of Catholic social teaching, and to do so in a setting that underscores both how high the stakes are (one would be hard pressed to find anywhere a more poignant reminder of man’s horrific capacity to abuse himself than in the rubble of the Birkenau crematoria, which our students visit), and, more importantly, the realistic hope that mankind can, and must, do much better.

The heroic struggle of the Polish nation against totalitarianism, St. Faustina Kowalska’s remarkable message of Divine Mercy, and of course, the life of Pope John Paul II himself”reminders such as these fill the city of Kraków and its environs. This sense of place and of history, saturated by grace, gives the eighteen days of the seminar a distinctly sacramental context.

Take, for example, the house at 10 Tyniecka Street in Kraków. The three-storey building is a dirty grey color”the roof, the deep eaves, the grimy walls, the irregular chimney. Like almost everything its age in Poland, it bears the dreary stains of an exhausting century. But there is more to this place”this most ordinary house”than first meets the eye. It was to the basement apartment of this house that a young Karol Wojty?a ran when the skies over Kraków darkened with German warplanes.

It was while living here that he answered God’s call to the priesthood . Here he discovered the Carmelite spirituality that would form him so deeply. It was here that God moved in the heart of a young Pole”in this place, in this house, hidden from the rest of the world as though in the womb”and through him, changed the world dramatically. Standing before this house, one is compelled to wonder: Is there anything more astonishing? Or more ordinary?

A few hundred yards from the house at Tyniecka 10, stands the Royal Castle of Wawel”a much less ordinary looking place. Above the main gate to the palace, there is simple inscription which dates back to the glorious days of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, when Polish kings ruled almost a third of Europe. It reads: SI DEUS NOBISCUM QUIS CONTRANOS . If God is with us who can be against us?

What pain must those words have conveyed when, late in the eighteenth century, the Commonwealth crumbled, and Poland was partitioned by its neighbors, vanishing from the map of Europe for more than a century? What sneering irony must have been read in those words when the Nazi Governor-General, Hans Frank, took Wawel as his residence and began his ruthless program to eliminate Polish intellectuals and dismantle Polish culture?

How empty must those words have seemed when just a few years later, Poland slipped inexorably into the orbit of the atheist Soviet juggernaut? Yet those words were still there when a Polish Pope came home to this “far country,” and gave hope to the free-souled men and women who would topple the Empire of the Lie. If God is with us, who can be against? What could be more foolish? What could be more true?

Adjacent to the Castle is the Wawel Cathedral with its gothic arches and golden dome. There, in the small crypt chapel of St. Leonard, is the place where Karol Wojty?a celebrated his first Mass as a priest. At the back of that chapel, in a black and gold sarcophagus, lie the mortal remains of the great Polish king, Jan III Sobieski.

In 1683, having dedicated his army to the Blessed Virgin, Sobieski personally led what was perhaps the greatest cavalry charge in history, driving a vast Turkish army from the gates of a beleaguered Vienna. His decisive victory halted Ottoman expansion into Europe. Pope Innocent XI was so grateful to hear that Christian Europe had been spared that he declared a new universal feast: the Feast of the Holy Name of Mary.

After his beatification this May, the mortal remains of Karol Wojty?a will be moved to the St. Sebastian Chapel in St. Peter’s Basilica, and laid to rest in the spot where Pope Innocent XI (himself beatified) now lies. It seems fitting to us, that a great man be buried in place of honor, among other great men.

But standing in that crypt chapel in Kraków, one is reminded that the young priest saying his first Mass in that same dimly lit chapel back in November, 1946 was not Blessed John Paul II, the Pope who saved Poland and led the charge of human conscience that vanquished communism. He was a young priest called “Lolek” who came from a small town, and who would have seemed very out of place indeed in the company kings and pontiffs. What could be more ordinary? What could be more extraordinary?

Surrounded by such places, and steeped in the principles of Catholic social teaching, the participants of the Seminar grapple with the monumental questions of our day: How, after a half-century of degradation, can the institution of the family, the bedrock of civil society, possibly bear the weight it must bear if freedom is to serve the common good?

How best can a society dedicated to religious freedom address the rise of radicalized Islam? How can generations of men and women, malformed by the sexual revolution and the cult of “I,” find the kind of human solidarity without which new found freedom dissolves rapidly into self-canibalizing license?

How can a society devoted to strict secularism hope to ensure the conditions sufficient for the continuation of its own existence while offering citizens only two options: relativism or radicalization? How can a civilization that fails to make provision for the next generation”or even to bring about the next generation at all”hope to give a compelling account of itself before a world of competing visions of the human future?

How long can a society remain free when the lives of entire classes of human beings are, because of age or frailty, deemed by law to be Lebensunwertes Leben , just as they once were so deemed because of race or creed? What is true freedom? How can we spread real prosperity? These are no trivial questions. They are not asked in the abstract. Prosperity and freedom are better understood as human activities than as things, as verbs rather than nouns” prospering and being free , which always entails virtue.

Being free. Living virtuously. These are at the heart of Catholic social teaching. Together they constitute the sine qua non of any political and economic system worthy of man. Afterall, the Church and her teaching are for man. It reminds us who we really are.

George Weigel, who has been part of the TMS faculty since the very beginning and who has directed the seminar since 2000 , often says that the great message of Pope John Paul II to the Polish nation during his 1979 visit was, “You are not who they, the Communists, say you are.” In other words, the true horizon of human goods extends far, far beyond material concerns and worldly power. It is a message that resonates in every time and every place. This truth, revealed fully in the Incarnation, imbues every human activity”including political and economic activity”with profound new significance. Ours is a sacramental world, indeed.

Stephen White works for George Weigel at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, DC. He has been the coordinator of the Tertio Millennio Seminar on the Free Society since 2005. The 2011 Seminar will run from June 27th through July 14th. For more information, visit www.eppc.org/tms.

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