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Considering the legacy of Pope John Paul II
by Paul Crowley, S.J.
Pope John Paul II was a man of the 20th century —that darkest of centuries—a man who was a personal witness to one of history’s most horrific crimes: the Holocaust. He saw the falsehoods of political ideologies and wanted to cut through them.
In his first encyclical, “The Redeemer of Humankind” (Redemptor Hominis), the pope wrote that because God became fully human in Christ, human nature itself enjoys a dignity beyond compare. God is united in a special way with each human person, and this divine union with humanity has given rise to what the pope called a new humanism. Quoting Galatians, John Paul underscored that because of this divine esteem for humanity, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Human dignity is made universal.
And this has consequences: standing up to the powers that would destroy human life, rob people of human rights and dignity, or wage war against the innocent. For good reason did John Paul stand staunchly opposed to both Iraq wars, to the excesses not only of communism but also of unbridled capitalism, to unreflective use of biotechnologies, and to capital punishment, defending without reservation the dignity of human life from conception through a dignified death.
A pope even as great as John Paul left much unfinished business, matters that continue to vex us, among them the role of women and issues concerning of priestly ministry in the Church. But he also turned our horizons to worlds beyond these questions and issues to the worlds of the poor, of non-Christians, especially Jews and Muslims, and the forgotten of this earth.
The measure of this pope, of any pope, is not the positions he did or did not take, nor whether we agreed with him in every particular. The measure of a good pope is whether he led the people of God in witness to the Gospel. Perhaps the most fitting tribute we can make to the memory of John Paul is to make our own his deep response to God of Totus Tuus ego sum (I am totally yours) by discerning appropriate responses to our own anguished time.
May this response lead us, as it did for him, to a life of service to the world, of thoroughgoing integrity, of profound witness to the God for whom nothing is impossible.
Editor’s note: At press time, we received news of the election of John Paul’s successor, Benedict XVI. In our August issue, Santa Clara faculty will address dimensions of this historic transition in the leadership of the Catholic Church.