John Paul II Set the Barque Back on Course

Why was Pope John Paul canonized this past Sunday not alone but together with Pope John? There is a very good answer to this question: but it is not the one generally being touted by the liberal press, Catholic or secular. Here, for instance, is the often sensible John L Allen, writing in the National Catholic Reporter: “With the canonizations,” he writes, “Francis is speaking not just to the outside world but to rival camps within the Catholic fold who see John XXIII and John Paul II as their heroes—meaning liberals and conservatives, respectively. The message seems to be, ‘You both belong here’.”

It is, of course true that both popes “belong here”: the canonizations belong together, but not for the reason John Allen gives here, the easy, glib explanation picked up by all the liberal commentators, from the BBC (“The decision to canonize the two at the same time appears designed to unify Catholics…. John Paul II is a favorite of conservative Catholics, while John XXIII is widely admired by the Church’s progressive wing”), to the Guardian and the New York Times (“a highly unusual move that was taken as an effort to promote unity within the Roman Catholic Church”). The message is that it’s all Church politics.

The fact is that the two popes had far more in common than ever separated them: they were, contrary to common belief, on exactly the same page: both were popes of the Council—the Council, that is, that Pope John intended. He opened it, remember, with these words: “The Councils—both the 20 ecumenical ones and the numberless others … all prove clearly the vigor of the Catholic Church and are recorded as shining lights in her annals. In calling this vast assembly of bishops, [I] intended to assert once again the magisterium [teaching authority], which is unfailing and endures until the end of time, in order that this magisterium … might be presented in exceptional form to all men throughout the world.” His intention was the very opposite, in other words, of a Council whose deliberations were to be interpreted according to a “hermeneutic of rupture and discontinuity.”

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This was, as we all now know to our infinite cost, an intention that was cynically hijacked and betrayed. As Cardinal Avery Dulles reminded us, the Jesuit Henri de Lubac—appointed as a peritus by Pope John, to advise him personally—was to perceive in post-conciliar Catholicism “a self-destructive tendency to separate the spirit of the Council from its letter … The turmoil of the post-conciliar period seemed to de Lubac to emanate from a spirit of worldly contention quite opposed to the Gospel.” The unhappy Pope Paul, in 1972, said, now famously, that he had “believed that after the Council would come a day of sunshine in the history of the Church. But instead there has come a day of clouds and storms…. It is as if from some mysterious crack … the smoke of Satan has entered the temple of God.”

Pope John Paul’s major achievement for the Church was to recover Pope John’s original purpose: to “guard” and to teach more efficaciously “the sacred deposit of Christian doctrine.” Nothing, therefore, could be more fitting than that they should be canonized together: the pope who convened the Council, and the pope who rescued it from its abductors.

In that desperate reference to the smoke of Satan, Pope Paul was speaking particularly about the liturgy, but just as disastrous was the unchallenged rise during his pontificate of the so-called “alternative magisterium” of Küng, Schillebeeckx and the rest of those who challenged any notion of a “sacred deposit of Christian doctrine” to be guarded and passed on. It was a time of vast destruction; and to destroy is always easier than to rebuild. Recovering from the aftermath of the Council will take many years yet. But Pope John Paul began the fight back: he set the Barque of St Peter, and the Church with it, firmly back on course.

His greatest achievement was that he did more than any pope of the last century to defend and reassert beyond any doubt the stable and objective character of Catholic teaching. He discredited the “alternative magisterium,” not by suppressing individuals (though Küng, for instance, had his license to teach Catholic doctrine removed) but by clear and unequivocal teaching. As a result, he made it possible once more for hundreds of thousands of non-Catholics like myself, tired of the uncertainties of secularized versions of Christianity, to come into full communion with the Holy See.

The old indiscriminate ecumenism was allowed quietly to sink into the quicksand of its own internal contradictions; the mists of uncertainty obscuring the Catholic faith were blown away, and the Magisterium was revealed, still standing, firm on the rock of Peter. Quite simply, he had re-established—by the publication of such documents as Veritatis Splendor and Dominus Iesus, and in particular by the massively successful launch of the Catechism of the Catholic Church—what had become uncertain: the simple fact of the Church’s authority to declare the objective truth, and the content, of Catholic doctrine. I and many others had been enabled at last to come home, to escape finally from ecclesial communities in which there was no means of coming to a clear mind about anything, in which it was deemed more important to ask questions than to find answers to them.

It wasn’t just that Pope John Paul recalled the Church to herself: he showed the whole world the power of the Catholic faith in the world, most strikingly perhaps by his astonishing geopolitical achievement in finally giving the answer to Stalin’s contemptuous question “how many divisions has the pope?” This is how George Weigel summed up this part of his achievement:

In 1978, no one expected that the defining figure of the last quarter of the twentieth century would be a Polish priest and bishop. Christianity was finished as a world-shaping force, according to the opinion-leaders of the time; it might endure as a vehicle of personal piety, but Christian conviction would play no role in shaping the twenty-first-century world. Yet within six months of his election, John Paul II had demonstrated the dramatic capacity of Christian conviction to create a revolution of conscience that, in turn, created a new and powerful form of politics—the politics that eventually led to the revolutions of 1989 and the liberation of Central and Eastern Europe.

That explains why many said he was a Great Pope who stood in a particular tradition—the two popes generally thought of as bearing the title “the Great,” Leo and Gregory, both re-established the teaching authority of the Roman Church after a period of uncertainty as well as exercising a geopolitical influence over the events of their own times. But none of that explains why there has been an even stronger feeling that he was not merely great and forceful in historical and doctrinal terms but also that he was a powerful exemplar of holiness, a holiness the Catholic Church needed to recognize. His huge geopolitical and dogmatic impact does not explain the spontaneous demand of the tens of thousands who had poured into Rome to be with the Pope as he died, and who, his earthly sufferings at last at an end, chanted—again and again—those extraordinary and compelling words “santo subito” (“Sainthood now” in Italian).

They had all prayed, those multitudes, with him and for him, as he lay dying; and on hearing they were there, in the piazza outside and far beyond, he said: “I have searched for you, and now you have come to me….” Even as he lay there, said one priest afterwards, he continued to teach us; dying himself, he taught us how to die.

It had been an extraordinary life. His funeral was the single largest gathering of heads of state in history, surpassing the funeral of Winston Churchill in 1965. Four kings, five queens, at least 70 presidents and prime ministers, and more than 14 leaders of other religions attended alongside the faithful. It is thought to have been the largest single pilgrimage of Christianity ever, with numbers estimated in excess of four million mourners gathering in Rome.

“Be not afraid,” John Paul had declared, in Christ’s words, in his inaugural sermon as pope. It was a sermon that powerfully established not only the tone of his pontificate but also the breadth of his own mind and the vast scale on which he assessed the possibilities for the Church in the modern world:

Be not afraid to welcome Christ and accept his power. Help the Pope and all those who wish to serve Christ and with Christ’s power to serve the human person and the whole of mankind.

Be not afraid. Open wide the doors for Christ. To his saving power open the boundaries of states, economic and political systems, the vast fields of culture, civilization and development. Be not afraid. Christ knows ‘what is in man.’ He alone knows it.

Be not afraid: it became, almost, the watchword for his papacy: not because he obsessively repeated it for others to follow, but because he lived it out himself. He was for many long years in constant pain; his hands shook from Parkinson’s disease; and still he did not spare himself. The older and more frail he became, the more his courage shone out, and the nearer his papal service came to being a kind of living martyrdom.

This was indeed the life of one of her saints. But there is more to be said. By any human measure, his qualities amounted to greatness of the highest order: it is surely very hard to believe that that will not be the verdict of history. Those closest to him certainly saw him as a truly great man. In his first address from the loggia of St Peter’s Basilica, Benedict XVI referred to him, from the perspective of intimate personal knowledge, as “the great Pope, John Paul II.” And with or without the title, that is what, surely, he was: John Paul the Great.

Editor’s note: This column first appeared April 24, 2014 in the print edition of Catholic Herald (London) and is reprinted with permission.


  • Dr. William Oddie

    Dr. William Oddie is a leading English Catholic writer and broadcaster. He edited The Catholic Herald from 1998 to 2004 and is the author of The Roman Option and Chesterton and the Romance of Orthodoxy.

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