Bl. John Paul II: Shepherd on the Slopes of Mt. Carmel

It seems everyone has his own John Paul II. Even among highly committed Catholics there are many views on the lessons of his papacy. Indeed, he was pope for so long, and did so much in so many spheres, that a full account of his activities is perhaps nearly impossible, especially for those who were his contemporaries and have not the advantage of distance in perspective. I intend therefore not so much to describe the legacy of Bl. John Paul II in general, but to bring into focus just one aspect of the man: his formation in, and practice of the Carmelite way of Spirituality. Although officially never more than a member of the Carmelite Confraternity of the Brown Scapular, his attempts to enter Carmelite religious life, as well as his careful and long-lasting study of the masters of Carmelite spirituality, above all St. John of the Cross, are well known. These spiritual ties to the Carmelites began in his youth, when a pious tailor of mystical bent, Jan Tyranowski, introduced him to the masters of Carmel, and persisted throughout his life. It is worth therefore drawing up in order the ways in which this formation shaped his spiritual life, teaching, and view of the problems and prospects of the Church, especially in his activities as its chief shepherd.

It may seem that Bl. John Paul II was a strange candidate for special attachment to the ways of Carmel, given his outgoing nature, love of crowds, academic role as a philosopher rather than theologian, deep involvement in things of the world, and intense interest in social questions. It may therefore seem that Carmelite spirituality—with its emphasis on the internal life and contemplative prayer—must have had little relevance to his most significant activities, whatever intellectual interest it may have possessed for him. Such an impression however, would be mistaken.

pope-john-paul-IIIt is worth remembering that the first foundation of Bl. John Paul II’s public acts was always prayer, with which he was accustomed to start not only the day, but in a special way all the major stages of his life. The same man who presided over World Youth Day, slipped unobtrusively into the Ursuline convent in Warsaw to spend many hours prostrate before the Blessed Sacrament when he first learned he had been selected to be a bishop, “because he had many things to discuss with the Lord.”  Soon after being elected pope, he created temporary consternation for a member of his household staff unfamiliar with his ways, when it seemed he had inexplicably vanished. As it turns out, he was lying prostrate before the sacrament in his private chapel, out of sight of any who looked for him casually there without looking down. As ordinary of the diocese of Cracow, his efforts on behalf of the religious rights of his people in face of communist attempts to erode them had been centered first of all on encouraging his people to conduct a prayer campaign for religious freedom. Indeed, even as pope, on a day-to-day basis he took whatever time he could between his activities for prayer.  For all his successes in the politics of the World over the years, Bl. John Paul II tried to compress the time each day he spent on its affairs—or any administrative tasks—to certain set times, in order to leave the gaps that could be filled in by praying.

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Sign up to get Crisis articles delivered to your inbox daily

Email subscribe inline (#4)

Certainly Bl. John Paul II was not one of the “sullen saints” from whom St. Teresa of Avila prayed to God for deliverance. But his appreciation and practice of her spirit and teaching did not end at keeping a calm mien, free of resentment, regardless of the pressure of events. One of the interesting aspects of his devotion to the masters of Carmel was the ways he found lessons in them which were applicable to various aspects of the pastoral life of the Church as he saw it, and the needs of the times in which he lived.  He recommended especially to Catholics of the late twentieth and early twenty-first century the example of St. Theresa’s constant prayer “with and in the Church in its time of crisis,” brought about in her case by the religious turmoil of the sixteenth century, but relevant also to the crisis of faith of recent generations. Crisis, though, is also interpreted by Bl. John Paul II as a time of special grace for those who are open to it, since God never leaves his Church alone in its trials.

Pope John Paul II also invoked St. Teresa of Avila’s work of love as a contemplative as an inspiration to work for the Church in its troubles, and a reminder that there is no genuine love for the Lord apart from the Church: “there is no love for Christ which does not result in self-dedication to the Church—and in the Church—and where there is not a willingness to be obedient children; that does not show itself in works performed with fervor, with vigorous force them obtained by prayer.”  Indeed, he insists that to follow in the footsteps of St. Teresa, one must realize that to love the Church, and those who are members of it, is to love the body of the beloved: the Lord Jesus Christ himself.

Here we have the prayer, vigor, and personal dedication to the Church that were all major watchwords of his own way of conducting his pontificate. This is not to mention the simplicity in obedience to faith that so often characterized Bl. John Paul II, despite the strongly intellectual side of his nature. Finally, Bl. John Paul II sees St. Teresa of Avila as a beacon of understanding of the goodness and mercy of God, who speaks to the human heart and draws it to himself, dovetailing well with this pope’s own promotion of the Divine Mercy devotion.

Bl. John Paul II also saw the other great Carmelite Theresa, St. Thérèse of the Child Jesus, as an important guide to our age. To Bl. John Paul II, she teaches us especially today to lead a life of love in union with the Divine Love in the body of Christ. In this is to be discovered an antidote to the hedonism of our times. Likewise, the model of her contemplative’s fixation on Christ can counter our age’s fixation on passing things. In her also, in a special way, he finds the “convergence of doctrine and concrete experience.”  Concern for lived human experience, and the need for it to be “authentic” is something common in modern culture and thought, and of special philosophical interest to the late pope. To him, this is something potentially good in modern culture that needs to be put in relation to the philosophical heritage and faith of the Church, with St. Thérèse as a model. He praises St. Thérèse for her absorption in the hard work of prayer in support of missions as a special kind of union in love of both the active and contemplative lives, even if concretely the role of the missionary and contemplative are different.

But perhaps the Carmelite saint and doctor of the Church with which Bl. John Paul II had the longest and deepest intellectual and spiritual involvement was St. John of the Cross, about whose teaching on faith he wrote his theological doctorate. John Paul II’s own serious poetry was strongly influenced by St. John of the Cross’s verses, so it is suitable that the future pope’s own first published work was a poem that appeared in the Polish Carmelite magazine Głos Karmelu [Voice of Carmel].

It has been remarked by students of the thought of the late pope that his reading of St. John of the Cross left a strong mark on one of the landmarks of his pontificate: his cycle of catechesis known commonly as “The Theology of the Body.”  Christian conjugal life in this case is closely compared to the Love of God for the soul and vice versa, as well as the unreserved gift of self in love of the three persons of the Holy Trinity.  Now, St. John of the Cross sees the relationship of the devout human soul to its Creator as a kind of participation in God’s total self-love, for which the marriage bond is the most appropriate analogy, hence the Spanish saint’s language of “spiritual betrothal and marriage” to describe it. John Paul II sets out to apply this analogy “the other way around” to discover the meaning of the human body and sexuality in a deeper spiritual context. This spiritual root of human sexuality, of course, goes well beyond it, but at the same time in some sense animates its properly ordered dynamic of love. The unreserved giving of self in fertility is thus an integral part of a truthful relationship in a bodily sense, if its Trinitarian meaning is to be preserved. Likewise, the permanence of marriage in God’s original plan in the teaching of Jesus is closely proportionate to the constancy of love of the eternal God.

St. John of the Cross is perhaps best known for his doctrine concerning the “night of the soul.”  In fact, to St. John there are several kinds of night that a Christian soul can experience in its spiritual ascent to God.  Those who are attached to the senses must first purge their love of them through dark night of senses. As the future pope explains in his doctoral thesis, faith underlies this, but it is not necessarily in the leading place for the Christian soul at this stage of its spiritual journey, precisely because many faculties, including intellect, imagination, the ‘bright’ aspects of spirituality are of profit to it. Most spiritually inclined lay Christians can progress in this kind of abandonment of attachment-love for all passing things whatsoever, in order to pass over to a purer love God, for He cannot be possessed with anything else. This casts the all these things into a state of eclipse, or darkness, for the soul.  Following St. John, he first notes that faith leads the contemplative soul further toward God than even the night of the sense is capable, by helping it realize that he whom it loves, God, is beyond any form it can grasp in this life. Here faith leads alone. This can culminate in “the dark night of the soul,” that prepares the soul for the final union with God, as far it is possible in this life.

Bl. John Paul II suggests in some comments as pope on John of the Cross, that this spiritual theology of darkness is especially suited to modern people, since modern people experience an especial darkness, even at early stages of their spiritual journey.  This unique modern darkness is a result of the contemporary crisis of faith, aggravated by the totalitarian horrors of the modern age, from which Christians in St. John’s day were protected. This means modern Christians have potentially a paradoxical special means of faster spiritual advance. But they also have a special pressing need to be guided by an abandonment to faith, and its darkness, even at earlier stages of Christian life.

Bl. John Paul II will doubtless have a multifaceted and long-lasting influence in many spheres of the life of the Church, no doubt. But to people of our age this message may be most important: to doggedly let faith take the lead in our lives.


  • Paul Radzilowski

    Paul Radzilowski teaches history at Madonna University in Livonia, Michigan.

Join the Conversation

in our Telegram Chat

Or find us on

Editor's picks

Item added to cart.
0 items - $0.00

We must raise $60,000 to fund our work and continue offering the most incisive commentary in the culture wars.

Will you please make a donation today?

Share to...