Pope Saint John Paul II (JP2) is an obvious icon of holiness for our modern times. But until recently I did not realize just how relevant his messages were for the difficult times we now face. I have just finished reading Witness to Hope, George Weigel's 900-page biography on the pope saint and it is packed with critical insights. But for those who do not have time to read such a lengthy book, I have summarized five key takeaways that are so enlightening for our time:
We are all called to be saints
Family is the foundation of society
Culture drives politics
Religious freedom is the basis of all other freedoms
Freedom unhinged from truth becomes its own worst enemy
We are all called to be saints. During his papacy, JP2 beatified a staggering 1,340 people and and canonized 483 saints, more than any of his predecessors. But it was not just about the numbers. JP2 desired to expand the typical types of canonized saints:
"I have sought over the years to foster a wider recognition of holiness, in all the contexts where it has appeared, so that Christians can have many different models of holiness, and all can be reminded that they are personally called to this goal." (Letter to Priests, 2001).
Some notable canonizations are: Martyrs in totalitarian regimes in Korea, Japan, Indo-China, China, Spain, and Mexico. Guiseppe Moscati, an Italian physician and biochemist who lived out his faith by caring for patients, especially the poor, with great love. Gianna Berreta Molla, a pediatrician and mother, who when pregnant with her fourth child, was found to have a uterine tumor but refused an abortion or treatment that might harm her unborn baby. Edith Stein, an intellectual Jewish convert who explored true feminism in the faith and died in a concentration camp.
Sainthood is not reserved for priests and nuns, nor for ancient Catholics. Everyone of us, today, is challenged to be an excellent example of holiness and to strive for perfection, with the goal of living eternally with Christ Jesus. The trials of our times are opportunities to rise to the occasion and, by God's grace, be more than we ever dreamed we could be.
Family is the foundation of society.
During his papacy, the deterioration of the family unit was beginning to gain momentum. One clear example of that was leading up to the Cairo conference on Population and Development of 1994, during which time America led the charge in championing abortion as a legitimate means of family planning and removing marriage as a consideration in family matters. JP2 incessantly condemned this approach, as he once said:
"The home is the Church in miniature...the family is the domestic church, the first and vital cell of society...As the family goes, so goes the nation, and so goes the world in which we live" (Homily, Perth, Australia, 30 November 1986).
He also gave 129 audiences developing his Theology of the Body which explored the dignity of our female and male bodies as images of God and the nuptial union as an expression of the radical love of the Holy Trinity.
Fast forward 40 years and our society has increasingly elevated single-parent homes, co-habitating couples, and same-sex "marriages" with full rights to adoption. We even have popularly-supported organizations that explicitly call for the destruction of the nuclear family. Gender both does not exist and at the same time is a matter of choice. Transgender hormone therapy is even encouraged for prepubescent children. Meanwhile contraception is considered a staple of adult life and abortion an inherent right that ought to be funded by tax-payers. It is little wonder, then, that our nation and much of the world has become destabilized.
If the quality of family life drives the nation, then we have to take our vocations to marriage and family seriously. Within our homes we should be praying together, making ourselves open to life, setting good examples for children, and acting as the primary educators of virtue and values.
Culture drives politics.
JP2 saw early on in his life in Poland that culture directs politics. He firmly preached in his homeland that a commitment to traditional Polish culture, which in large part meant Polish Catholicism, would save them from Soviet rule. While it took many years, this eventually came to pass. During his papal visits to totalitarian nations in Eastern Europe, East Asia, and Latin America, he continued to preach this message.
Our new political situation today has many Americans feeling shocked and angry. How did this happen? How did we get here? For 60 years, however, enemies of objective truth, morality, and religious freedom have been corrupting our culture. By infiltrating key cultural-drivers such as media, entertainment, and education, the enemy has been able to shape America into the hedonistic, secular, and confused culture it is today. It was only a matter of time before the majority of our representatives would start to reflect this culture and to govern America similarly.
If we desire political change, we will have to first reform our culture, a task that can only be achieved over the long-term. Supporting alternative media and entertainment sources, while refusing to pay for or consume corrupt sources is one way to direct the culture. Another is to opt for home-schooling or send our children to schools that promote virtue and truth so that our children become the new agents of positive cultural change.
We must also foster communities of like-minded people to support one another during this trial. When people feel isolated and alone in their beliefs, they grow silent and are more prone to go along with the status quo. When we know other people who agree with us, we feel more comfortable and confident in our values and are more likely to speak up and evangelize.
Religious freedom is the basis of all other freedoms.
JP2 was a champion of authentic freedom, the principle of which was the freedom to seek truth, in other words, the freedom of religion. A society that claims to be free but prohibits or persecutes for the public and private expression of faith is only pretending. For this reason, JP2 saw "religious freedom [as] the nonnegotiable litmus test of a just society" (Witness to Hope, 268)
"The curtailment of the religious freedom of individuals and communities is not only a painful experience but is above all an attack on man's very dignity...[it is] a radical injustice with regard to what is particularly deep in man, what is authentically human" (Redemptor Hominis 17.8)
Secularism has taken hold in many western European countries and has been becoming more prominent in the United States. These countries are wont to say that freedom is the core principle of their nations but religion, particularly Christianity, is regularly attacked. We saw this in the case of the Little Sisters of the Poor when the federal government tried to force them to include contraception in their health insurance plans, despite their religious objection. Most recently, during the heights of the pandemic, religious gatherings were prohibited while shopping at The Home Depot or liquor stores was left untouched.
A society that discourages or prevents citizens from authentically practicing their faiths, is one that is trying to replace God with the government. This is the first step toward usurping other rights.
Freedom unhinged from truth becomes its own worst enemy.
As communism began to fall across the eastern and central European countries, a new problem began to take the forefront - the growth of license. While JP2 was still a Cardinal, he visited the US and reportedly was "'disappointed' by American culture and its tendency to dissipate freedom into shallow license" (Witness to Hope, 226). Over the years, this issue became increasingly prominent in Western Europe and the US, and eventually began to affect even recently liberated Poland.
As societies turn toward relativism, with each person having his own "truth", it becomes impossible to have consensus on what is inherently good or evil. This leads to conflict and power struggles as each side tries to establish their version of right and wrong as the national standard. Society becomes increasingly turbulent, putting its citizens in a state of constant stress. After a time, the people, fatigued from the constant drama, cry out for the government to rescue them from the disturbance.
"If there is no ultimate truth to guide and direct political activity, then ideas and convictions can easily be manipulated for reasons of power. As history demonstrates, a democracy without values easily turns into open or thinly disguised totalitarianism" Encyclical Letter (Centesimus Annus, 46: AAS 83 (1991), 850)
America was founded on the principle that its citizens were endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights. This America recognized that our freedoms came from God himself. We have since, as a culture, discarded the notion of God and objective morality. It is no surprise then, that we have political factions that are completely in disagreement about what is right and wrong leading to our current political turmoil. As each side vies for power, the dominant political force, supported by approximately 50% of Americans, is now in the process of crushing any dissent, in the name of peace. Censorship and control are becoming widely accepted as legitimate means of resolving differences. This is how a country built on the foundation of freedom becomes a totalitarian nation.
JP2 was able to see far ahead of his time and warned us of the dangers of godlessness to human freedom. Reading his biography made it so clear to me how we have ended up where we are today. While assessing this situation, it is easy to despair. However, JP2 was also very well known for the everlasting hope he maintained, no matter the circumstance (and he had seen some very dark circumstances). He always believed that, through prayer and God's grace, things could be improved. The difficulties of our time are real and they are serious. But through God all things are possible. Let us pray for the conversion of hearts, starting with our own, and for the salvation of our nation.