JOHN PAUL II: A BIBLICAL PILGRIM IN THE WORLD
Some 12 years ago the distinguished Lutheran theologian, Dr Robert Jenson, wrote a brilliant essay for First Things with the provocative title. "How the World Lost Its Story". Dr Jenson's purpose was to sketch a strategy for the Christian Church in the distinctive cultural circumstances of the postmodern world. but his central image the idea of a world bereft of a "story" may help us understand one important facet of the life and ministry of Pope John Paul II.
While it was primarily an essay in ecclesiology. Jenson's article was also an acute analysis of the contemporary situation of both Jews and Christians under the conditions of postmodernity. We live, he writes. in a culture of incoherence. The more generous postmodern theorists may concede that there are truths around us that can be grasped. although the postrnodernist is most likely to describe such discoveries as a matter of "your truth" or "my truth". What cannot be admitted is that whatever fragments of truth may be found can be fit into a coherent narrative or story. And a world without a storyline, Dr Jenson goes on to observe, is a world bereft of dramatic texture: no story, no drama; no drama, no dramatic resolution. A world without a story, a world without drama, is a world without a sense of promise, a world that, as Jenson puts it. "cannot entertain promises". Little wonder that this is a cultural circumstance in which people of biblical faith often feel acutely uncomfortable.
The western world once had a story, Jenson observes. It was a story learned from many sources. But its essential narrative line was pre-eminently the by-product of biblical faith. Rodney Stark has made a parallel point in his recent study, The Victory of Reason: it was biblical faith or more explicitly, the Christian development of the faith of the people of Israel that gave western civilisation its linear concept of history. its future-orientation, its belief in both spiritual and moral progress. Thus it was biblical faith that gave the west its sense of what we might call the world's "narratability-.
Forty years ago, prior to the social and cultural upheavals responsible for what we now style "postmodernity," I was taught one way to tell the world's story; it was a story that many of you were taught as well, and in its most intellectually sophisticated form, you can still find it in weighty books like William H McNeill's The Rise of the West. According to this rendering of the world's story, the key chapter headings read something like this: Ancient Civilisations; Greece and Rome; the Dark Ages; the Middle Ages; Renaissance and Reformation; the Age of Reason; the Age of Revolution; the Age of Science; the Space Age. Now this was, to be sure, a largely secular telling of the world's story; still, it was a rendering of the story that was not hostile to, but was in fact dependent on, the concept of a linear story. a human story oriented toward the future. And that, I suggest, was because this way of telling the world's story which even in its secular form acknowledged the accomplishments of both Judaism and Christianity in forming that unique civilisational enterprise known as "the west" remained tethered, if by a rather long and perhaps frayed umbilical cord, to a deeper storyline: a storyline whose chapter headings read Creation, Fall, Promise, Prophecy; Incarnation, Redemption, Sanctification, the Kingdom of God. The story of the west that I was taught in school was a story that skated perhaps too comfortably across what Christopher Dawson would have called "the surface of history". But, in Jenson's terms, it was in fact a coherent story because its narratability rested on the foundations of that deeper biblical storyline to which it was tethered.
Over the past several generations, though, that tether has been broken. History texts may still tell the world's story in more-or-less linear fashion. beginning with ancient civilisations and finishing up with the space age. But that. one suspects, is because the textbook publishers, influenced by the market (which means school boards), have not yet become completely enthralled to the gospel of incoherence proclaimed by the prophets of postmodernism. In large sectors of western high culture, however, a sense of the narratability of the world has been completely lost, because the tether between the world's story and the deep narrative of that story as proclaimed by the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament has been cut. And the result is the world that we dub "postmodern": the world of the nonstory, the un-narrative, the world of fragmented knowledge and incoherence, the world cut off from a true knowledge of the past and sceptical about any notion of the future that speaks of promise.
When he was elected the 264th Bishop of Rome in 1978. Karol Wojtyla brought to the Office of Peter a sharp intuition about this problem, which he had honed in his work in the late 1960s and early 1970s with doctoral candidates in philosophy at the University of Lublin. Before the first decade of his pontificate was completed, he seems to have come to the judgment that the problems of postmodernity the problem of a world that had lost its story would (and sooner rather than later) replace the Marxist misconstrual of reality as the principal challenge to a biblical understanding of human nature, human community. human origins, and human destiny. History would not end with the Communist crackup; but the very idea of something called "history" might well be lost, were postmodernism to triumph.
Wojtyla also brought to the papacy a settled conviction that the world's story and the biblical story were not stories running on parallel tracks. Rather, the biblical story the story, to repeat, whose chapter headings are Creation, Fall, Promise, and Prophecy; Incarnation, Redemption, Sanctification, and the Kingdom of God is the world's story: the story whose surface features are conventionally labelled Ancient Civilisations, Greece and Rome, the Dark Ages, the Middle Ages, Renaissance and Reformation, and so forth and so on. The biblical story is the world's story read in its deepest dimension and against Its most ample horizon. The biblical story is, if you will, the story inside the conventional story of history, the depth story that gives the surface story its narratability and, ultimately, its coherence.
Let me put this in another, if related, way: John Paul II believed, with Hans Urs von Balthasar, that the human story is not the story of man's search for God, but rather the story of God's search for us, and our learning to take the same path through history that God takes. That is what the biblical story teaches and that, John Paul II was convinced, was the story the world must learn anew (or, in some instances, for the first time), if the world were to recover a sense of its nobility and possibility which is to say, if the world were to recover its story and its destiny. And it was in that conviction that John Paul II became a pilgrim to the world: a biblical pilgrim, telling the world its true story the story of Abraham, the story of Moses, the story of Jesus so that, as he put it at the United Nations in 1995, "a century of tears might give birth to a new springtime of the human spirit".
It was neither an accident nor a curiosity of the Vatican's sometimes arcane terminology that John Paul II always referred to his travels as did the Vatican's press releases and other official documents as "pilgrimages". This was not tourism. This was not "travel". On 250 occasions over 26 years, John Paul left Rome and went on pilgrimage to a foreign country or a particular local Church in Italy, to remind the people of those unique places that their story was part of the deep narrative of the world's story, the story of creation and redemption. Thus John Paul II's biblical pilgrimage throughout the world and through contemporary history was a pilgrimage intended to restore a sense of history as His-story: the story, to repeat, of God's search for man and our learning to take the same path through history that God is taking.
That 26-year-long pilgrimage had certain moments of the highest drama.
There was John Paul ll's first Polish pilgrimage in June 1979. There, by speaking truth to and about power, and by giving back to his people the truth about their identity and their culture, John Paul ignited a revolution of conscience in Poland and throughout east central Europe. That revolution of conscience, in turn, was a critical factor, and perhaps the critical factor, in shaping the non-violent political resistance that eventually produced what we now know as the Revolution of 1989 and the collapse of European Communism. As Yale historian John Lewis Gaddis has noted in his recently published history of the Cold War, the slow retreat of the Communist plague from the lands behind the iron curtain began in earnest when John Paul II, biblical pilgrim, came home and reminded his people that to exclude the God of the Bible from the history of man was an offence against humanity and against true humanism.
There was John Paul's March 1983 pilgrimage to Nicaragua. a long-suffering land then being led by a gang of adolescent Marxists known as Sandinistas, who were given to careering around the nation's capital in sports cars, brandishing AK-47s, when they weren't locking up their political opponents and harassing the heroic Archbishop of Managua, Miguel Obando Bravo, a true man of the people. The Sandinistas tried to interrupt the papal Mass with shouts of "Power to the People"; John Paul demanded "Silence!" and the Sandinistas more or less obeyed. The ruling party loaded the area in front of the papal Mass platform with their stooges;
John Paul, seeing the faithful Catholic people of Nicaragua penned into enclosures more than a hundred yards away, stood at the front of the Mass platform. grasped his silver crosier-crucifix by its base, and waved it back and forth across the sky in salute to those who had come to Mass to pray. That remarkable scene was televised all over El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Panama and slowly, over the ensuing months and years, the Sandinista plague also began to recede, and with it the dream of a Communist Central America.
There was John Paul's historic visit in April 1986 to the Synagogue of Rome, which was a pilgrimage of another sort, the continuation of a personal pilgrimage that had begun more than 60 years before in Wadowicc, the small Polish town where Karol Wojtyla had grown up. As he drove across the Tiber and up the Lungotevere to the great synagogue into which no previous Bishop of Rome had ever set foot, he carried with him memories of friendships with his Jewish classmates, of his father's teachings about tolerance, of the town pastor's Gospel-based condemnations of anti-Semitism, of his loss of friends in the Shoah and his own experiences of life under Nazi occupation. He had, among senior churchmen, a unique sense of the drama of modem Jewish life and a unique appreciation of Jewish pain. But he had come to the Synagogue of Rome, he said, not only to remember and to repent of whatever needed repentance, but to mark a new beginning: a moment in which Jews and Catholics. mindful of their "common heritage drawn from the Law and the Prophets" undertook "a collaboration in favour of man", in defence of life and in defence of the dignity of the human person. Jews and Catholics, collaboratively. had to remind the world of its true story, from which men and women learned the truth about their dignity.
Then there was John Paul ll's pilgrimage to Denver and World Youth Day 2003. Most of the bishops of the United States, like most bishops throughout the West, had given up on young people: they funded youth ministry offices in their dioceses, but without any real hope that they would produce much of anything. John Paul 11 had a very different view, based on his own extensive experience as a young priest, when he was one of the most dynamic and effective university chaplains in the world. His magnetic presence had brought to Denver more than three times the number of young people the US bishops' conference had expected; and at his last meeting with them, at a great Mass in Cherry Creek Park, he laid down a challenge a challenge to tell the world the truth of its story. The world could not wait for these committed young souls to become its leaders in some vague future; it needed their witness now. And so he challenged them: "Do not be afraid to go out on the streets and into public places, like the first apostles who preached Christ and the good news of salvation in the squares of cities, towns, and villages. This is nu time to be ashamed of the Gospel ... It is the time to preach it from the rooftops."
John Paul made a different kind of pilgrimage to the United States two years later, when he came to the symbolic centre of worldly power. the great marble rostrum of the General Assembly of the United Nations, to defend the universality of human rights against postmodern sceptics, east-Asian autocrats, Islamists, and the world's remaining Communists, all of whom regarded the idea of -universal human rights" as (to borrow from the mummy at the University of London, Dr Jeremy Bentham) "nonsense on stilts". A world without a story of human tragedy and aspiration, John Paul suggested, was a world in which genuine human conversation was impossible. A world that had forgotten the moral truths inscribed in the human heart truths that could be known by reason was a world condemned, not simply to incoherence, but to dangerous incoherence, of the sort Nietzsche had foretold in his speculations about the triumph of the will to power. Perhaps that was why. the Pope proposed, there was something strange afoot at the end of the second millennium: "It is one of the great paradoxes of our time that man, who began the period we call 'modernity' with a self-confident assertion of his 'coming of age' and 'autonomy,' approaches the end of the 20th century fearful of himself, fearful of what he might be capable of, fearful of the future ... In order to ensure that the new millennium now approaching will witness the flourishing of the human spirit, mediated through an authentic culture of freedom, men and women must learn to conquer fear. We must learn not to be afraid, we must recover a spirit of hope and a spirit of trust ... Hope and trust are ... nurtured in that inner sanctuary of conscience where man is alone with God' IGaudium et Spes 16] and thus perceives that he is not alone amid the enigmas of existence, for he is surrounded by the love of the Creator." The politics of nations could never ignore the deep narrative of the world's story; to do so meant "harming the cause of man and the cause of human freedom". That was why he had come to the summit of the Mars Hill of the postmodern world; he had come "as a witness: a witness to human dignity, a witness to hope, a witness to the conviction that the destiny of all nations lies in the hands of a merciful Providence".
On the night of December 24-25, 1999, Pope John Paul 11 opened the Holy Door of St Peter's Basilica, symbolically opening the Great Jubilee of 2000. The door had been knocked open on previous jubilees, as the pope rapped on a loosened brick with a white and gold hammer and set loose a cascade of masonry that, when settled, revealed an open door. John Paul chose a different method on• Christmas Eve, 1999: the masonry that sealed the door between jubilees was already removed, and the Pope inaugurated the Great Jubilee by gently pushing on the door with both hands a symbol of the gently welcoming embrace of divine mercy, which John Paul wanted the Church and the world to experience anew, so that the Church might be reminded of the story it must proclaim to the world and the world might be reminded of the truth about itself.
Then there were the dramas at the end: John Paul II on pilgrimage to Lourdes in August 2004, a "sick man among the sick", teaching with his example that suffering embraced and transformed by grace is part of the true story of the world. And there was John Paul in his last nine weeks, teaching a last priestly lesson in the truth that he had taught for decades from the most visible pulpit in the world that self-giving, not self-assertion, is at the heart of the world's story.
John Paul II's Holy Land pilgrimage of March 2000 has a privileged place among the dramatic highlights of his pilgrim's progress through the last quarter of the 20th century and the first half-decade of the 21st. He had first broached the idea of a pilgrimage to the Holy Land shortly after his election: where else should a pope spend his first Christmas but in Bethlehem? When the traditional managers of popes had been revived, they adduced all sorts of reasons why it was impossible: the Holy See had no diplomatic relations with the contending states in the area, the politics were a minefield, there was no time to prepare, the security situation would be impossible, etc etc. For once, John Paul agreed not to follow his own instincts, and for the next 21 years, whenever the question of the Holy Land came up in the Pope's conversations with his diplomats, he would ask, "Quando mi permetterete di andare?" (When will you let me go?). In Tertio Millennia Adveniente, his 1994 apostolic letter outlining plans for the Great Jubilee of 2000, he floated the idea of a great biblical pilgrimage through the principal sites of salvation history; Ur, Sinai, the Holy Land itself; Damascus, site of the conversion of St Paul and the symbolic starting-point of the Christian mission ad gentes. Five years later, in early 1999, the traditional managers of popes were privately suggesting that it was a lovely dream, but one that would remain just that a dream.
They did not reckon with John Paul II, who on June 29, 1999, simply announced that he was going, adding Athens and the Areopagus for John Paul, a powerful metaphor of the Church's encounter with the postmodern world to the itinerary. Plans to begin in Ur of the Chaldees were scotched by the manipulations and intransigence of the Iraqi government of Saddam Hussein, so on February 23, 2000, John Paul conducted a "virtual pilgrimage" to the land of Abraham, whom the Roman Canon names "our father in faith", in the Paul VI Audience Hall of the Vatican, which had been transformed by oak trees (reminiscent of the terebinths of Mamre), a primitive uncarved stone (evoking the sacrifice of Isaac and the many altars Abraham had built in his wanderings), and a reproduction of Andrei Rjiblev's great icon of the three angels visiting Abraham. Abraham, he said, was the archetype of the person who grasps the meaning of the story of God's search for man in history, "someone [who] is heading toward a promised land that is not of this world", a destination reached, as Abraham had reached the land of the promise, "through the obedience of faith". The next day, John Paul flew to Egypt, and on February 26 he came to Mount Sinai, where he spoke of the liberating power of a divine law "written on the human heart as the universal moral law" before it was written on tablets of stone. A wind still blew from Sinai, the Pope proposed, and that wind reminds us that the Ten Commandments are the "law of freedom: not the freedom to follow our blind passions. but the freedom to love, to choose what is good in every situation, even when to do so is a burden". That law of freedom is bound up with human fulfilment, for, as John Paul said, "in revealing himself on the Mountain and giving his Law, God revealed man to man himself. Sinai stands at the very heart of the truth about man and his destiny." Sinai is a privileged place in the depth narrative that is the world's story. rightly understood.
John Paul II finally arrived in the Holy Land of his imagination and his desire on March 21, 2000. Over the next five days, he went to Bethlehem and to Galilee, where he visited Nazareth, stood in Capernaum outside the house of Peter, his predecessor, and preached to tens of thousands of young people on the Mount of Beatitudes.
Fittingly enough, however, it was in Jerusalem that John Paul's jubilee pilgrimage saw its most dramatic moments: the Pope at Yad Vashem on March 23, calling the world to reflect on the lethal consequences that result from following a false story; the Pope praying at the Western Wall on March 26, in an embodiment of the divinely mandated entanglement of Christians and Jews that spoke far more powerfully than any interreligious manifesto; and later that day, the Pope at Calvary and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. He had been there, formally, in the morning. where he had celebrated Mass at the traditional site of Christ's tomb before going to pray at the Western Wall. Then, later in the afternoon, during the luncheon at the apostolic nuncio's residence that was the last event on the schedule, John Paul II quietly asked whether he might be permitted to return to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. in private. The traditional managers of popes couldn't believe it, but the Israeli authorities agreed to honour the wish of the man their security services had code-named "Old Friend". So the Pope went back. And there, this old man, crippled by disease, climbed the steep, stone steps to the Eleventh and Twelfth Stations of the Cross because the man who had called the world to fearlessness on October 22, 1978, had to spend more time in prayer at the place where, he believed, the eternal Sun had taken all the world's fear upon himself and, by offering himself to the Father in an act of perfect obedience, made it possible for the sons and daughters of God to live beyond fear.
John Paul's June 1999 Letter on Pilgrimage to the Places Linked to the History of Salvation,one of the most lyrical documents of his papacy, was also perhaps his clearest statement of his intentions in undertaking a pilgrimage to the Holy Land which was nothing less than to remind the world of its lost story. "To go in a spirit of prayer from one place to another," he wrote, "in the area marked especially by God's intervention, helps us not only to live our life as a journey, but also gives us a vivid sense of a God who has gone before us and leads us, who Himself set out on man's path, a God who does not look down on us from on high, but who became our travelling companion." That was why he had to go on pilgrimage to "the places where God had pitched his 'tent' among us" because in doing so, he was bearing witness in an unmistakable way to the world's true story, the story whose chapter headings are Creation, Fall, Promise, and Prophecy; Incarnation, Redemption, Sanctification, and the Kingdom of God.
John Paul's biblical pilgrimage throughout the world contained a challenge for all of the people of the Bible, Jews as well as Christians. What was that challenge? John Paul hinted at it during his historic 1986 visit to the Synagogue of Rome. when he spoke of a Jewish-Catholic "collaboration in favour of man". By which I take it he meant that the people who take Abraham as their "father in faith", the people who worship the God who revealed his Name to Moses on Mount Sinai, the people who share the same Ten Commandments as their basic moral code, the people who live in a covenant relationship with God, must be, collaboratively, lights to the nations, defenders of the dignity of human beings created in the image and likeness of God. and promoters of authentic freedom.
John Paul was acutely aware of the urgency of a renewed collaboration between the people of the Bible in building a new humanism because he was acutely aware of the dangers of the present moment in history. The American Jewish editor and essayist, Milton Himmelfarb, who died recently. once suggested that the essence of Jewish witness in the world could be captured in one sentence: "Judaism is against paganism." John Paul would have agreed. and would have said that, as for Judaism, so for its child, Christianity. Our "collaboration in favour of man" is a collaboration against paganism.
Princeton's Robert George proposed some years ago that the one, infallible way to recognise paganism in its protean array of disguises is to find where innocents are being slaughtered. Paganism, in whatever form, requires the death of innocents; that is what false gods do, and that is what their false stories require. That was true of Moloch, and it has been true of Moloch's successors down to our own time, including the National Socialist Moloch and the Marxist-Leninist Moloch. But a world without a story can be just as lethal as a world built on a false story.
The false story of the imperial autonomous self has, in a sense, filled the narrative gap in a postmodern world-without-a-story; and that false story has, predictably, had exceptionally lethal consequences, with the death of innocents from abortions over the past 30 years now tolling in the hundreds of millions around the world.
The first decade of John Paul's papacy witnessed his successful campaign against the false god of Communism and its distinctive form of paganism; the entire pontificate, however, saw the late Pope challenging the false gods of the postmodern culture of death by constantly preaching the God of Abraham, Moses, and Jesus as the Lord of life. As creatures of the Lord of life, human beings are endowed with an inalienable dignity; and it is in the book of that dignity that we read the strongest account of what we call "human rights". Thus the task of the people who have been claimed by the Lord of life as his own, and who have entered into a covenant relationship with him, is to be witnesses to and messengers of the truth about who we are as human beings and in doing so, to build a culture of life that takes its orientation from the Lord of life, the ultimate source of our dignity and our rights.
On March 20, 2000, shortly after his arrival in Jordan, Pope John Paul II went to the Memorial of Moses on Mount Nebo and looked across the Jordan Valley at the land he had first visited during the Second Vatican Council the land to which he had wished to return for so long, the land he had frequently visited in his imagination and his prayer. Some, pondering that dramatic scene, thought of the elderly Pope as a different kind of Moses: a prophet and lawgiver rich in years who would, in fact, manage to make it over Jordan into the Promised Land.
But perhaps another image was more apt. John Paul II, biblical pilgrim in the postmodern world, was, rather, Joshua. constantly pressing Joshua's challenge at Shechem: "Choose whom you will serve" (Joshua 24:15). The Lord of life, the God of Abraham and Moses and Jesus? Or Moloch in one of his many costumes? The Lord of life, who summons his human creatures to an even nobler life of covenant fidelity, indeed of covenant communion with him? Or Moloch, who always demands the blood of innocents?
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