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Vol 40 No 3


Barry Brundell MSC

Gerard Kelly

Thomas Groome

Anthony Gooley

Daniel Ang

John O’Carroll and Chris Fleming



A papacy communicated:
Pope John Paul II


THE PONTIFICATE of Pope John Paul II occurred at a remarkable time in history. It began just fourteen years after the conclusion of the Second Vatican Council, and lasted for twenty-six years. Over those years the whole world lived through rapid change, most notably in the area of technology and communications. There probably weren’t the great intellectual movements that other generations had lived through, particularly in the first half of the twentieth century, but there were significant social and political changes. This pope was undoubtedly the most photographed pope in history. He was the most travelled pope, and seen by more people than any pope before him.

All of us have many images of him ingrained on our mind’s eye. In this article I want to highlight some of the images that have been important to me, and reflect on what they tell us about John Paul II and the way he exercised the papal office.
The first snapshot that would be in my album would be the one where he is standing with his hands shaped like binoculars, raised to his eyes. It was probably taken at a gathering with young people, as a way of communicating something back to them. This gesture – and we’ve probably all often used it – is a sign that you want to have a closer look at something, or that you want to see some far distant object more clearly. This, I believe, characterised the papacy of John Paul II: he liked to have a close look at the church in all of its local manifestations, which was why he visited so many local churches and met with local people. But he also liked to offer a long-term vision and hope, which was why he put so much energy into the Jubilee celebrations and the advent of the third Christian millennium. In my mind though, this image serves as a good symbol of the meaning of the papacy. Throughout the great Tradition of the Church the role of the pope, as the Bishop of Rome, has been to keep watch. Even in the New Testament, the word we translate as bishop is also translated as overseer. In the ancient literature this office was likened to the sentry who stood guard in the watchtower over the city gate. The role of the bishop of Rome is to keep watch over the faith of the apostles by handing it on faithfully and ensuring that it is a point of unity for all the people. All popes, including John Paul II, refer back to that text in Luke’s gospel that speaks of Peter strengthening his brothers and sisters in the faith (Lk 22:32). John Paul would have seen his mission in terms of keeping the spark of faith alive throughout the whole church. He was supremely confident in the power of faith to sustain whole peoples.

This is a good point to turn the page and look at the next snapshot in the album. It is his first foreign trip. He returns to his native Poland, and is greeted by huge crowds – much to the embarrassment of the local government authorities. There, as he stepped off the plane, we saw for the first time a gesture that would become familiar. He bent down and kissed the ground. What did it mean? On that occasion it signalled that he was a son of Poland and he was there to honour the land, the people, and the culture that had made him who he was. The faith he professed, even as bishop of Rome, was truly the faith of the apostles, but handed down through the Slavic culture. His background would always shape his life and his vision of Christianity.

The gesture as he descends the steps of the plane reminds me of the fact that the pope should never be seen as the bishop of the whole world. He is a local bishop, who has been formed by a local church and expresses his faith in the worship and piety of his own culture. The significant thing about John Paul II was that he was the first non-Italian pope in over four hundred years. As he assumed the role of bishop of Rome he was in a unique position to place in sharp relief for us the meaning of being ‘Catholic’. To affirm that the church is catholic is to affirm that it is local, and that it is embedded in a particular place. The pope has a special task of holding in a true unity these diverse expressions of the faith in the local churches. When John Paul II kissed the ground he symbolically highlighted the connection, and indeed the affection, between that local place and the Church of Rome.

History will probably tell us that his visit to Poland was a turning point not only in the affairs of that country, but of the whole Eastern bloc. Within ten years the Berlin Wall had come down and the geo-political configuration of the world had changed forever. I won’t try to attempt to analyse what happened. But I am interested in the vision of humankind the John Paul taught so strongly. It was preached in Poland, and came alive in the Solidarity movement, and eventually spawned a new breed of leaders. This vision is grounded in his faith, and the story of redemption. It was expounded in his first encyclical, Redemptor hominis, ‘Redeemer of Humankind’. The world usually awaits the first encyclical of a new pope with anticipation and expectation because it is taken as a signpost pointing to the directions that the papacy will take. There is something programmatic about it: it analyses the situation of the world and the church, reflects on it in the light of the Christian Mystery, and offers a teaching for the times.

In Redemptor hominis we have a clear teaching that is probably best labelled as Christian humanism. It is a teaching that derives from the Mystery of the Incarnation: because Jesus was truly God and truly human we find in him the image of the authentic human life. John Paul developed his teaching out of the context of the situation of the world as he observed it. We should not forget that this bishop of Rome had two perspectives on the world. One was that gained from living under communist rule in Poland, the other was witnessing certain developments in the West. When reflecting on human progress, particularly technological and social progress he felt the need to place it in the context of authentic human development, and to ask questions that call for reflection rather than quick answers. Let me give a taste of what he said:

The development of technology and the development of contemporary civilisation, which is marked by the ascendency of technology, demand a proportional development of morals and ethics. For the present, this last development seems unfortunately to be always left behind …The first reason for disquiet concerns the essential and fundamental question: Does this progress, which has a human author and promoter, make human life on earth ‘more human’ in every aspect of that life?…There can be no doubt that in various aspects it does. But the question keeps coming back with regard to what is most essential—whether in the context of this progress human beings are becoming truly better, that is to say more mature spiritually, more aware of the dignity of their humanity, more responsible, more open to others, especially the neediest and the weakest, and readier to give and to aid all (n.15).

His emphasis on human dignity and human potential was also the context for speaking of the mission of the church. In the same encyclical he spoke of that mission:

The church of our time—a time particularly hungry for the Spirit, because it is hungry for justice, peace, love, goodness, fortitude, responsibility, and human dignity—must concentrate and gather around that Mystery (of the redemption), finding in it the light and the strength that are indispensable for her mission. For if, as was already said, the human person is the way for the church’s daily life, the church must always be aware of the dignity of the divine adoption received by humankind in Christ through the grace of the Holy Spirit and of the human destination to grace and glory (n.18)

Human beings are destined to grace and glory. This is what he also preached in Poland, and this is what shaped the mission of the church there.

This leads me to me next photo in the album. It is of another trip—a trip that was very unlike that first one to Poland, but a trip that had the same message about human dignity and the mission of the church. The image is of the 1986 visit to Australia. The particular photo is at the end of his sixth day. This was a remarkable day because he left Melbourne early in the morning and flew to Darwin where he addressed the Royal Flying Doctor Service and the Katherine School of the Air. After Mass he flew to Alice Springs where he gave what has become his most celebrated speech in Australia, namely to Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders. Then he flew to Adelaide and arrived when it was already dark. This is the photo I want to focus on; it was taken at the end of the day as he drove from Adelaide airport to the Town Hall. For the whole journey he passed through a phalanx of people holding lighted candles, and arrived to participate in a ceremony where he lit the Advent candle for peace. He addressed the people:

The lighted candles which you hold and the candles of the Advent wreath are symbols of Jesus Christ, who is for ever the Light of the world.1

At the end of his prepared speech he added words that conveyed his own deep-felt emotion:

I express to all the city and the citizens of Adelaide my deep gratitude for this splendid reception. It was a reception in the spirit of faith and the candles in your hearts were the signs of this faith.2

The symbolic is at the heart of being catholic. John Paul was acutely aware that symbols carry a culture and thus have the power to take us to the core of the faith, to that place that even words cannot go. Lighted candles had expressed the hope of a local church.

Earlier in the day, his speech at Alice Springs had recognised the culture of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians. This pope who was so imbued with his own Slavic culture, encouraged Aboriginal Australians to sustain their culture, because it will be the only vehicle they have for handing on the faith. One of the most quoted passages from the speech is this one:

Your culture, which shows the lasting genius and dignity of your race, must not be allowed to disappear. Do not think that your gifts are worth so little that you should no longer bother to maintain them. Your songs, your stories, your paintings, your dances, your languages, must never be lost. … The Gospel now invites you to become, through and through, Aboriginal Christians. It meets your deepest desires. You do not have to be a people divided into two parts, as though an Aboriginal had to borrow the faith and life of Christianity, like a hat or a pair of shoes, from someone else who owns them. Jesus calls you to accept his words and his values into your own culture. To develop in this way will make you more than ever truly Aboriginal.3

Because the church is earthed in a particular place, his words here to Aboriginal Australians need to be heard by all Australians. Let me quote one more section of the speech:

Your Christian faith calls you to become the best kind of aboriginal people you can be. This is possible only if reconciliation and forgiveness are part of your lives. Only then will you find happiness. Only then will you make your best contribution to all your brothers and sisters in this great nation. You are part of Australia and Australia is part of you. And the Church herself in Australia will not be fully the Church that Jesus wants her to be until you have made your contribution to her life and until that contribution has been joyfully received by others.4

The vision of John Paul II, right from the beginning, included a vision of the human community, and the unity of the Church. It is also seen in the next photo in the album. The year is 1982, and he is on another of his trips. This time to England, and he meets the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Robert Runcie, at Canterbury Cathedral. The photo shows the two of them kneeling side by side in prayer. There is no doubt that they prayed for the unity of all the churches. I wonder if they both thought about their respective local churches and the ancient connection between them. Perhaps John Paul remembered his predecessor Gregory the Great who sent Augustine from Rome to Canterbury. Perhaps Robert Runcie looked at the list of Archbishops of Canterbury on the wall of the Cathedral, and saw his own name at the top, and that of Augustine at the bottom. Maybe they both recalled Gregory’s farewell instructions to Augustine:

My brother, you are familiar with the usage of the Roman Church, in which you were brought up. But if you have found customs, whether in the Church of Rome or of Gaul or any other that may be more acceptable to God, I wish you to make a careful selection of them, and teach the Church of the English, which is still young in the faith, whatever you have been able to learn with profit from the various churches. For things should not be loved for the sake of places, but places for the sake of good things.5

This Polish pope was keenly aware of the importance of local culture and customs for expressing the faith. He understood the particular role that was his as the bishop of Rome to be a bridge builder (pontifex) between cultures and different practices so that the riches of the church in one location might assist churches in other locations to develop their own understanding and practice of the faith. This is why the unity of the church was so central to the way he understood his own mission as pope. In 1995 he published an encyclical on Christian unity, Ut unum sint. I am willing to predict that in the years ahead, as there is further refection on the impact of his papacy, this encyclical may well be judged his most important. It is there that he states what is essential to the papacy, and calls for a patient and fraternal dialogue with Christians from other churches about how it might become a more effective instrument for the unity of the church. He clearly sees that he has a duty to promote the unity of the church, and to ‘watch over’ even those churches that are not in full communion with the Catholic Church. Since the meeting in Canterbury Cathedral in 1982 some Anglicans, as well as members of other churches, have suggested that there might be a way for the Bishop of Rome to exercise some sort of primacy even in our current divided state.6 John Paul implicitly acknowledged this in the encyclical:

Whatever relates to the unity of all Christian communities clearly forms part of the concerns of the primacy. As Bishop of Rome I am fully aware, as I have reaffirmed in the present Encyclical Letter, that Christ ardently desires the full and visible communion of all those Communities in which, by virtue of God’s faithfulness, his Spirit dwells. I am convinced that I have a particular responsibility in this regard, above all in acknowledging the ecumenical aspirations of the majority of the Christian Communities and in heeding the request made of me to find a way of exercising the primacy which, while in no way renouncing what is essential to its mission, is nonetheless open to a new situation (n.95).

He went on:

This is an immense task, which we cannot refuse and which I cannot carry out by myself. Could not the real but imperfect communion existing between us persuade Church leaders and their theologians to engage with me in a patient and fraternal dialogue on this subject, a dialogue in which, leaving useless controversies behind, we could listen to one another, keeping before us only the will of Christ for his Church and allowing ourselves to be deeply moved by his plea ‘that they may all be one … so that the world may believe that you have sent me’ (n.96).

Unity was a passion of Pope John Paul II. He liked the public gesture that would signal an important step towards unity. For him, a step towards Christian unity was also a step towards the unity of the human family.

There is one last snapshot to consider. It is towards the end of his life. He is in a wheel chair at the window of his apartments in the Vatican. He is now feeble, afflicted with Parkinsons Disease, and no longer able to speak. He releases from his window some doves that will fly out into the piazza below. They symbolise peace and his long-held desire for peace. They symbolise the peace that brings reconciliation between peoples and restores the communion of the human family. They are the gift of a dying man, one whose thoughts are now more clearly on his destiny beyond this world. His thoughts are on communion with God. But it is a communion which has marked his life, and shaped his papacy. His first encyclical was a meditation on the communion between Jesus and human beings, and the consequences for the relationship between human beings. Let me suggest that his last encyclical gathers up the whole of his ministry as bishop of Rome. This was the encyclical on the Eucharist, Ecclesia de Eucharistia. Allow me to conclude with a few sentences from the conclusion to that encyclical:

Allow me, dear brothers and sisters, to share with deep emotion, as a means of accompanying and strengthening your faith, my own testimony of faith in the Most Holy Eucharist…Here is the Church’s treasure, the heart of the world, the pledge of the fulfilment for which each man and woman, even unconsciously, yearns. A great and transcendent mystery, indeed, and one that taxes our mind’s ability to pass beyond appearances. … In the humble signs of bread and wine, changed into his body and blood, Christ walks beside us as our strength and our food for the journey, and he enables us to become, for everyone, witnesses of hope (n.59).

There can be little doubt that in John Paul II we did in fact see a new way of exercising the primacy. He looked closely at the local churches, and in doing so called them to share his vision—or rather God’s vision—of a new humanity, a true communion with God and with each other.

Fr Gerard Kelly is a priest of the Archdiocese of Sydney and President of the Catholic Institute of Sydney.

1. The Pope in Australia: Collected Homilies and Talks (Homebush: St Pauls Publications, 1986), 174.
2. Ibid., 175.
3. Ibid., 167.
4. Ibid., 171-172.
5. Cited in Bede, A History of the English Church and People I.27.2 (Penguin, 1968), 73.
6 See, for example, The Gift of Authority, an Agreed Statement by the Second Anglican–Roman Catholic International Commission (London: Catholic Truth Society, 1999), n.60.

This article is the text of an address given at the Knights of the Southern Cross (Bulli Branch) dinner on 27 May 2006.