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PERSPECTIVE ON JOHN PAUL II : On the Threshold of Greatness : The Pope has redefined the relationship between the church and modern life by articulating a bold Christian humanism.

October 20, 1994|GEORGE WEIGEL | George Weigel is president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington. and

Only two of 264 popes have been honored with the title "the Great"--Leo, 440-461, and Gregory, 590-604. On the 16th anniversary of his installation as Bishop of Rome, I suggest that it is not too early to consider the possibility of John Paul the Great.

The very notion will strike some as bizarre: Why celebrate a misogynist Polish authoritarian who may have been useful during the collapse of communism, but who now has devolved into an impotent King Lear, raging against the modern world and all its works and pomps? But the myth of John Paul's political inconsequence should have been dispelled by last month's Cairo population conference, which made plain that the Pope remains a powerful voice for universal moral reason. And the myth of the authoritarian Polish misogynist ought to be buried once and for all by the publication today of "Crossing the Threshold of Hope," the first book in which a sitting Pope writes about his life and ministry in intimate, even familial terms.

"Threshold" is many things: a survey of world religions on the edge of the 21st Century, a glimpse into the mind of a religious leader who is also a distinguished philosopher, a miniature catechism of Christian doctrine. But above all, "Crossing the Threshold of Hope" is a deeply personal statement of faith--faith in God, to be sure, but also faith in the human capacity for greatness, under the influence of God's grace.

Perhaps the most compelling moment in the Pope's book comes when he reflects on his experience in Krakow, helping engaged couples prepare for marriage: "As a young priest, I learned to love human love." That human love, the Pope suggests, is an intimation of God's abiding love for the world; everyone desires a "beautiful and pure love," and that desire can be satisfied only in communion with God. Thus the antiphon of "Threshold," taken from the Gospel of Mark, is "Be not afraid." Be not afraid of "the truth about ourselves." Be not afraid of God. Be not afraid of Christ, the icon of the invisible God.

By exploding the caricature of John Paul the anti-modern misanthrope, "Crossing the Threshold of Hope" should compel a more serious exploration of the accomplishments of a singular pontificate.

* John Paul II has redefined the papacy for the third Christian millennium. For most of the second, the Pope was, essentially, the chief executive officer of Roman Catholic Church Inc. No more. Through his pastoral journeys, John Paul has revitalized the ministry of Peter, whom Luke reports as the apostle commissioned by Christ to "strengthen your brethren." The era of the Pope as chief bureaucrat has ended. The era of the Pope as chief evangelist and defender of human dignity on a world scale has begun.

* John Paul II has reversed Catholicism's 300-year-long contest with modernity. As "Threshold" and the new Catechism of the Catholic Church illustrate, John Paul II has boldly articulated a dynamic Christian humanism that embraces the scientific, social, political and cultural achievements of modernity without falling into the quicksand pits of skeptical relativism and political correctness. For 250 years, church and modernity were in conflict. In the 1960s and '70s, the call went out to open the church to the modern world. John Paul has answered that call, but he has also completed it, by challenging modernity to open itself to the world of transcendent truth and love.

* John Paul II has secured the legacy of the Second Vatican Council. He inherited a church bitterly divided between those who thought the council a dreadful mistake (the "conservatives") and those who thought Pope Paul VI had been laggardly in implementing the council's reforms (the "progressives.") By wholeheartedly welcoming the council as a gift of the Holy Spirit--while grounding the ongoing renewal of Catholicism in a deeper appropriation of its ancient tradition--John Paul II has transcended the sterile liberal-conservative dichotomies, challenged Catholics stuck in ecclesiastical power games and reminded the church that its mission is, as Luke's Gospel puts it, to be a "light for the nations."

The Roman press believes that John Paul's papacy is over. But those who have seen the Pope recently find him vigorously focused on the future and especially concerned about Christian unity. My impression is that the surprises of this extraordinary pontificate have yet to be exhausted.

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