Acton Commentary

What is the Legacy of Pope John Paul II?


As someone perceived to be an expert on the thought of John Paul II (I have written quite a few scholarly articles and a book on his thought, and I'm teaching a course at Saint Louis University this semester on the philosophy of John Paul II), I've received frequent telephone calls recently from journalists. Almost every interviewer begins by asking me, “What is the legacy of Pope John Paul II?”

Those interviewing me usually want a sound-bite sized quote. Since I'm a philosopher, I prefer to draw distinctions and tell stories.

Perhaps because of my Polish ethnicity on my mother's side, I think that the life and legacy of John Paul II is best understood in light of the history and culture of Poland.

Nation and State

The thousand-year history of Poland has produced a profound distinction between the Polish nation and the Polish state. The “nation,” its language and cultural heritage, is rich. Ever since Prince Mieszko, the medieval leader who united various Slavic tribes into a unified people, converted to Catholicism in 966, a Polish-speaking people have inhabited central Europe. That people, who spread throughout the fields of central Europe, formed their own culture.

The “state” of Poland has had a much more rugged history. After a golden era of prosperity from the 14th to the 16th centuries, Poland was partitioned three times in the 18th century. By 1795, the state of Poland disappeared until the end of WWI in 1918.

The Polish nation, its culture, literature, faith and heritage, survived this period, not through governmental strength, but through the people drawing on their own cultural resources.

A story from my family helps make this point. 100 years ago, when my great grandmother immigrated to Chicago from Europe, there was no Polish government, but she understood herself to be a Pole. She raised her daughters, including my grandmother, in a Polish speaking home where the whole meaning of life was understood in terms of the Catholic faith. These were not people of high culture. Grandma never went to school beyond 6th grade. But she was raised to have a deep respect for the life of learning and the life of faith. My grandparents' house was always filled with books, and especially religious books.

The cultural heritage my grandparents passed on came through the way they conducted their everyday lives. Consider the way they prepared for Easter supper. My grandmother, who is now 91 years old, continues to practice this tradition. Beginning on Palm Sunday, her entire kitchen each year is taken up with preparations for the Easter meal. Her directions for preparing the Easter soup revolved around the days of Holy Week in preparation for Good Friday and Easter Sunday. (When Grandma taught my sister how to prepare Easter soup, a white borsch-like soup made with crumbs from Polish bread, the directions were all intertwined with her faith: “Wait until the liquid is boiling long enough to say a Hail Mary and a Glory Be, then add the bread crumbs.”)

My grandfather took charge of grating the horseradish. His eyes would fill with tears from the strong smell of grated horseradish, but he always passed it off as a mere reminder of Good Friday sufferings. The horseradish was mixed with beets, a sign of Christ's blood. In their home, these weren't mere traditions; they were an integral part of a lived faith. Each year, the Easter food was taken to the parish church where the priest blessed it.

I call attention to these elements of Polish culture that were passed on through my family to clarify the distinction between the Polish nation and the Polish state. For my grandparents, the important things in life had to do not with the government and its laws, but with family and faith. In these things, my maternal grandparents were unmistakably Polish.

Poland and Karol Wojtyla

The Polish habit of distinguishing between nation and state came easy to Karol Wojtyla. From his birth in 1920 until his sophomore year at the Jagiellonian University in Krakow, he lived in a Polish nation governed by a Polish state. On September 1, 1939, that came to an end with the Nazi invasion from the west. When the Soviets invaded from the east 17 days later, Poland endured another period of seeking to maintain itself as a nation without a state.

Amidst totalitarian oppression, Karol Wojtyla devoted himself to the life of literature, drama and the theater - and to the life of prayer and service. As a young priest, Wojtyla studied theology and philosophy, becoming a pastor and then a university professor of ethics before his appointment as bishop.

This habit of emphasizing the importance of the moral-cultural sphere shaped Wojtyla as he became pope. In his role as Pope, he encouraged us to take up the deepest questions of human life: “Who am I? Where have I come from and where am I going? Why is there evil? What is there after this life?” As John Paul II put it, the human person “is understood in a more complete way when he is situated within the sphere of culture through his language, history, and the position he takes towards the fundamental events of life, such as birth, love, work and death. At the heart of every culture lies the attitude man takes to the greatest mystery: the mystery of God. Different cultures are basically different ways of facing the question of the meaning of personal existence.”

Authentic Culture

We saw this emphasis on the moral/cultural sphere when Pope John Paul II visited St. Louis in January of 1999. During the youth event, the Pope spoke about the responsible use of the gift of freedom. “Freedom is not the ability to do anything we want, whenever we want. Rather, freedom is the ability to live responsibly the truth of our relationship with God and with one another.” His homily during mass at the dome emphasized culture by retelling the history of the role of Christian faith in the St. Louis region. His was a call to remember who we are. By this, he didn't focus primarily on our government and laws, but on the habits of our hearts, expressed in our actions, and in the way we love God by loving our neighbors.

The Pope brought down the Soviet Union by emphasizing communism's central failings: its false understanding of human life and its inability to distinguish between state and culture. The Pope was not a wholesale critic of the state; in fact, he praised the importance of the rule of law and emphasized the need for a juridical structure that provides stable guarantees: a system of property, a stable currency, efficient public services, etc. But he placed much stronger emphasis on the need for a healthy and free moral/cultural sphere, both in the life of the individual human person, and in the various groups and associations that make up society.

While emphasizing the need for a healthy and free culture, John Paul II cautioned us that we are surrounded by and participate in a very different climate, one that he termed a “culture of death.” A culture of death is an idea of society excessively concerned with efficiency. When efficiency becomes a primary good, those who are weak and vulnerable come to be viewed as useless, or as an intolerable burden. The result is a conspiracy against life. In this way, the Pope analyzed our contemporary situation with regard to social and moral issues in cultural terms. The main problem isn't that we have bad laws. Rather, we face a distortion of the spirit. What is needed is a change of heart. Hence, the Pope's message calls us to promote a culture of life.

What is the legacy of Pope John Paul II? This pope from Poland retrieved the spiritual and moral importance of authentic culture. Lying deep in every culture there is an impulse toward fulfillment, goodness, truth, and life. He clarified our task: to promote a culture that defends and welcomes every human person. May Pope John Paul II rest in peace.