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On the Feast of the Assumption 1993, Pope John Paul II spoke to hundreds of thousands of enthusiastic young people gathered for the Eighth World Youth Day at Cherry Creek State Park near Denver. It was a typical setting for the septuagenarian pope, an unlikely rock star to young Catholics. His message was typical too. Taking John 10:10 as his theme, he declared a “celebration of life” and encouraged those who “in ardent prayer . . . have opened your hearts to the truth of Christ's promise of new Life.” 

John Paul’s homily wasn’t a therapeutic pep talk but a call to action and to battle. New life in Christ is life on the cross. Death is always at war with Life: “a ‘culture of death’ seeks to impose itself on our desire to live, and live to the full.” In the twentieth century, the culture of death “assumed a social and institutional form of legality to justify the most horrible crimes against humanity: genocide, ‘final solutions,’ ‘ethnic cleansings’ and the massive taking of lives of human beings even before they are born, or before they reach the natural point of death.” Young Catholics, the pope observed, were becoming more aware that “this marvelous world—so loved by the Father that he sent his only Son for its salvation (cf. Jn. 3:17)—is the theater of a never-ending battle being waged for our dignity and identity as free, spiritual beings.”

The homily captures many facets of the life and teaching of Karol Wojtyła, born in Wadowice, Poland, on May 18, 1920, a century ago today.

Wojtyła lived his entire life in the shadow of death. By the age of twenty, his mother, brother, and father had died. He grew up under two successive totalitarian regimes. When the Nazis closed the Jagiellonian University, he left school to become a manual laborer and participate in an underground theater company. He attended an underground seminary and, after doctoral studies, served as a priest and taught at the University of Lublin in Soviet Poland. George Weigel wasn’t exaggerating when he wrote, in The Final Revolution and elsewhere, that the pope’s visit to Poland in June 1979 was the beginning of the end for the murderous Eastern bloc. John Paul exposed the lie of Soviet communism, and, by word and example, taught believers and unbelievers in Eastern Europe to live in truth and hope, without fear. 

“This marvelous world,” he said, is “the theater” for battle. No pope has ever taken to the world stage like John Paul. In the nearly twenty-seven years of his pontificate, he spoke to crowds that sometimes topped a million, while his words and actions were broadcast to millions more across the globe. A poet, he valued the power of a resonant phrase. An actor and playwright, he knew the right gesture at the right moment could shake the earth. Kissing the tarmac at Warsaw Chopin Airport in June 1979; slipping a prayer of penitence into a crack in the Wailing Wall in 2000; visiting and forgiving his assassin, Ali Agca; canonizing numerous twentieth-century martyrs; growing old and frail before the cameras—these were the public expressions of a pastoral flair for drama that manifested itself in innumerable private encounters throughout his long ministry. 

Vigorous, fearless, cultured, humble, and warm, John Paul hiked and skied in the mountains of Europe and kayaked on its rivers, spoke fluently in many languages, rebuked and comforted the powerful and the powerless alike. He lived the abundant life he preached; message and messenger merged. His unfeigned delight in “this marvelous world” wasn’t merely the vitality of a magnetic extrovert. John Paul was one of modernity’s great Christian humanists. Scripture, he taught, reveals the goodness of creation prior to our sad history of sin, and redemption promises the elevation of creation and humanity. In letters, homilies, and encyclicals, John Paul repeatedly quoted the Second Vatican Council’s claim that the incarnation demonstrates how much God values us and so “reveals the truth about man” (Gaudium et Spes). “Gospel,” he wrote, is “the name for . . . deep amazement at man’s worth and dignity” (Redemptor Hominis). In response to God’s call, man becomes aware of “his transcendent dignity” (Centesimus Annus). This dignity extends to the body. Sex is a “communion of persons” and an act of mutual self-giving, and thus can be a reflex of Triune Love (Theology of the Body). Through manual labor, “man not only transforms nature” but “becomes ‘more a human being’” (Laborens Exercens). 

The culture of death undermines the dignity of man by separating man from God. This produces political and civilizational chaos. “Atheism and contempt for the human person” are at the root of both militarism and the Marxist analysis of the class struggle (Centesimus Annus). Quoting the Second Vatican Council, John Paul railed against “whatever insults human dignity, such as subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, deportation, slavery, prostitution, the selling of women and children; as well as disgraceful working conditions, where people are treated as mere instruments of gain rather than as free and responsible persons.” As he told the youthful crowd in 1993, the battle of the twentieth century was a battle to restore “our dignity and identity as free, spiritual beings.”

For John Paul, the war between life and death was a spiritual war against principalities and powers, fought with prayer, humility, service, and unflinching proclamation of truth. God calls us to cultivate spiritual greatness and the inner strength to triumph over death. John Paul was a cheerful warrior in this apocalyptic conflict because he was, as Weigel says, a “radical” disciple of Jesus the Messiah who lived a life of intense prayer, contemplation, and communion with God. As he told Weigel, “I can only be understood from inside.”

In his response to the sex abuse scandal, though, John Paul faltered. Weigel is doubtless correct to blame seminaries, bishops, and practiced liars like Marcial Maciel, and he rightly highlights the pope’s efforts to improve priestly formation. John Paul never minimized the evil of abuse. “Sexual abuse within the church is a profound contradiction of the teaching and witness of Jesus Christ,” he wrote in a 2001 communication to Catholics in Oceania. Yet he promoted accused abusers, and the response of the Vatican he led was glacial. In 2018, Pope Francis said what should have been said much earlier: “We did not act in a timely manner, realizing the magnitude and the gravity of the damage done to so many lives. . . . The heart-wrenching pain of these victims, which cries out to heaven, was long ignored, kept quiet or silenced.” The abuse scandal is a blemish on John Paul’s monumental pontificate.

Even so, he deserves his honorific, “the Great.” He was far and away the greatest Christian leader of the last century. His imaginative moral leadership, guided by the Spirit who is the love of God, transformed the world. John Paul still inspires millions because he was, as Weigel’s biography has it, a “witness to hope.”

Peter J. Leithart is president of the Theopolis Institute.

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