(Op-Ed): The Legacy of Pope John Paul II

AMONG THE inspirations of the life of Pope John Paul II was his frequent reference to the “civilization of love.” It was an ideal that sparked the imagination. Yet it also was a concept consistent with the example of his life in a culture that is awash at times in cynicism, uncertainty and materialism.

He showed us how to live a life grounded in prayer, but also in reconciliation.

His outreach to the Jewish people, for example, was remarkable at a time in history when ethnic divisions sometimes threatened the world on a broad level. He spoke of a special relationship between the Jews and the Church and insisted that the Old Covenant had never been revoked. His words put forth possibilities for theologians that are yet to be fully explored.

In one special moment, the Pope told an audience of Jews that he regarded them as “our brothers and sisters in the Lord.” Surely this was part of his vision of a “civilization of love.”

And in a time when society seems to have lost its ear for the ideals of procreation and their intrinsic connection to married love, the Pope spoke of the “nuptial meaning of the body” and upheld the values of Pope Paul VI’s controversial encyclical, “Humanae Vitae.”

He worked to put the encyclical in a larger context. In his “civilization of love,” the procreative ethic and an ethic of seamless love would reject the negativity of abortion and the refusal of societies to guarantee the education and health of all its children.

These were not popular views in parts of western civilization, yet even critics admired his fortitude and his recognition of heroic possibility in the aspirations of humanity.

In a self-centered culture, this pope bore witness to service, to personal sacrifice and the humanizing values rooted in love.

For some, the lives of the Saints might seem old fashioned and certainly a private domain of the Church. But in the pope’s “civilization of love” they were sources for healing cultures, because they represented the greatness of human possibility. He once spoke of the way in which Catholic and non-Catholic Christians died together in Uganda, referring to the "ecumenism of the saints and of the martyrs, saying the " communio sanctorum speaks louder than the things that divide us."

Yes, in the words of the cliche, this pope is a Catholic. But he saw heroic witness in any people who stood for goodness and hoped for the renewal of civilization.

So John Paul II could speak in the conviction of the absolute, and hold to tenets of Catholicism that rankled others, yet avoid triumphalism and superiority, tendencies that would be blind to the courageous witness of others. In this, he moved inexorably toward a “civilization of love,” inspiring others, particularly young people, to lives of joy and hope.

We should not be focused on the frailty of his last years, but on the incredible vitality that he brought to his mission during most of his tenure. He went everywhere, not just centers of Catholicism, whether the American Midwest or a former Soviet Republic or Castro’s Cuba. In his 26-year papacy, he made over 104 trips outside of Italy, taking in 129 of the world’s 191 independent states, according to a compilation by Agence France Presse. He held talks with more than 1,500 heads of state or government.

His great intellectuality, as expressed in the 14 encyclicals he wrote and 100 other major documents, was an infusion of energy to Catholic intellectual thought and he was a powerful influence for all of us at Catholic universities.

For decades the impact of John Paul II’s papacy will be discussed on these campuses and throughout the world. What remains to be seen is whether his “civilization of love” can be realized. It will be food for thought in these coming days as he is remembered and his image crosses millions of television screens once again.

The pope did not expect his bold vision to be achieved either quickly or painlessly, but it begins in the hearts and souls of every one of us. John Paul II believed in the power of ideals and simple human warmth to inspire a sense of heroic possibility latent in all of us, Catholic and non-Catholics alike.

He was a gift to Catholics. He was a gift to the world.

*Rev. John I. Jenkins , C.S.C., is president-elect of the University of Notre Dame and will assume his new office on July 1. John Cavadini , is chair of the theology department at Notre Dame.

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