On Sunday, May 1 the Catholic Church declares Pope John Paul II to be “Blessed,” a step on the way to being declared a saint. This is done not as a judgment on the effectiveness or influence of his pontificate, nor on the depth of his knowledge of theology, but rather on his fidelity in living the Christian virtues.
The Church says, in other words, “If you want to follow Christ, look to John Paul II as an example.”
Each person whom the Church beatifies or canonizes, moreover, has his or her special theme, some aspect of discipleship that marks his or her life. For Pope John Paul II, it is the theme of pro-life. Not only was this a theme he spoke and acted upon continuously, but he gave the Church and the world a new way of understanding and practicing it.
At a recent conference, Dr. Joaquin Navarro-Valls, who served as Vatican spokesman under Pope John Paul, said that the key to his effectiveness was his conviction that each person was created in God's image and likeness. "He was a man profoundly convinced of the truth of those words in Genesis, 'God made man and woman in his image and likeness.' This gave him optimism even when he could no longer walk, and then even when he could no longer speak," Navarro-Valls said. "I think this was what attracted people even more than the way he spoke." (April 1, 2011, Pontifical University of the Holy Cross, Rome).
I was privileged to see this dynamic up close, as I served under Pope John Paul II at the Pontifical Council for the Family, an agency of the Vatican that he created in 1981 specifically to sustain and coordinate initiatives for the protection of human life from its conception.
This pope did not simply repeat the longstanding teaching of the Church that abortion is wrong. He did not simply hand down dogmas about what we can and cannot do, and how we are supposed to live up to the principles and the commandments, such as “Thou shalt not kill.”
Traditionally, these and other teachings of the Church have been communicated in a philosophical context that is objective, deductive, and principled. There is a truth to which we have to adhere, and from which we deduce moral imperatives that are the same for everyone.
Now John Paul II never denied that. But he also realized that people today don’t think that way anymore. Modern thought is more subjective, experiential, and inductive. It relies more on personal insights and viewpoints. “What’s true for me may not be true for you” is one of its favorite positions.
John Paul II was able to join traditional, objective thought with the patterns of modern thought in what came to be known as his “personalism.” He focused on the dignity, the uniqueness, of each individual human person and affirmed their subjective insights and experiences. He taught that in each person we have a unique and unrepeatable being. And that uniqueness is precisely a reflection, or image, of God himself. Here is where the two worlds merge. Individual experience is not crushed, lost, or absorbed by the recognition that there is a God who has revealed universal moral norms. On the contrary, when God reveals himself to us in Jesus Christ, he reveals us to ourselves.
This is a key teaching of John Paul II. Precisely by accepting, not rejecting, our individual uniqueness, we connect with a truth that surpasses it and leads us, as individuals and a community, to fulfillment.
That’s what he meant by the exhortation with which he began his pontificate and which he repeated so often: “Be not afraid!”
In other words, don’t fear what you will lose if you welcome Christ into your life. You will in fact find your best self!
One of the most powerful expressions of this teaching is in “The Gospel of Life” (Evangelium Vitae) the 1995 encyclical that John Paul II considered central to his entire pontificate.
Newsweek devoted a cover story to the Encyclical when it came out. Religion editor Kenneth Woodward praised it as John Paul II’s “signature statement” in history.
The encyclical calls us to “proclaim, celebrate, and serve” the gift of life, which is the foundation of society and of all the rights and goods we enjoy as individuals. He speaks in that document of how both the Church and state need to serve the human person in every circumstance, and identifies abortion and euthanasia as the fundamental and most serious moral problems of our day.
But they are not presented just as “issues.” They are presented as contradictions to a deeper call to serve the person.
The pope wrote often about women, and one of many points he made is that we need to provide them alternatives to abortion, and forgiveness and healing after abortion.
In “Crossing the Threshold of Hope” (1994) he said, “In firmly rejecting "pro choice" it is necessary to become courageously "pro woman," promoting a choice that is truly in favor of women.”
He challenged public officials to realize that when a state permits abortion, “the disintegration of the State itself has already begun” (Evangelium Vitae, 20).
And he called upon the young, and all of us, to build a “Culture of Life” with tremendous hope.
If he could repeat one thing to us this day, I believe it would be his words at World Youth Day in Denver on August 15, 1993: “Have no fear. The outcome of the battle for life is already decided … You too must feel the full urgency of the task … Woe to you if you do not succeed in defending life. …This is no time to be ashamed of the Gospel. It is the time to preach it from the rooftops.”
By beatifying John Paul II, the Church is saying “Amen!”
Father Frank Pavone is national director of Priests for Life and a Fox News contributor.