John Paul II Remembers the Twentieth Century

In 1993, Pope John Paul II met with Polish philosophers Józef Tischner and Krzysztof Michalski to discuss the events of the twentieth century, namely the rise of Nazism and communism. The Holy Father revisited the transcripts from these conversations and added to his earlier thoughts, expounding on democracy, freedom, and the future of Europe. The resulting work is Memory and Identity: Conversations at the Dawn of a Millennium, published in March by Rizzoli. In what reads more like a father's letter to his children than a profoundly insightful work of philosophy, John Paul offers the church and the world a hopeful portrait of the human person and an astute evaluation of dangers past and present.

Although much time is spent condemning in detail Nazism, communism, and consumerism, John Paul traces the decline of Western civilization to more fundamental errors in human thought. He places a particular emphasis on the error of the Enlightenment philosophy that replaced God with human consciousness as the basis of reality: Descartes's “I think, therefore I am” violently shifted man to center stage, leaving God in the wings of culture. When man forgot God, he “remained alone: alone as creator of his own history and his own civilization; alone as one who decides what is good and what is bad, as one who would exist and operate esti Deus non daretur, even if there were no God.” The results of man's forgetfulness were not fully realized until the twentieth century, the “'theater' in which particular historical and ideological processes played out, leading toward that great 'eruption' of evil, but also…the setting for their defeat.”

The defeat of Nazism and communism came through the unquenchable freedom in the spirits of those suppressed by these systems. But John Paul is quick to define this freedom as freedom for “a particular mission: to accomplish the truth about ourselves and the world.” The attempt to accomplish this truth John Paul names culture, and it is in man's culture that he remembers his own identity. Thus man also remembers God, for man was made in the image and likeness of God.

The ultimate expression of man's identity is Christ, who fully cultured, or rather “cultivated,” the truth of man in history. The truth of Christ is the center of culture, particularly in Europe, for “it was evangelization which formed Europe, giving birth to the civilization of its peoples and their cultures.” Christ is also the center of the church's culture and the hope for Christian unity: at the Last Supper, Christ reminded the church to remember her identity when he commanded, “Do this in memory of me.” In short, for church and civilization, to remember God is to remember man: “it is only in the mystery of the Word made flesh that the mystery of man truly becomes clear.”

“Without the Gospel,” concludes John Paul, “man remains a dramatic question with no adequate answer.” It might be said that when man attempted to answer the question of himself without the Gospel, the result was the destruction of the twentieth century. “Toward the end of the century,” adds the pope, “those destructive forces were weakened, yet they left a trail of devastation behind them…a devastation of consciences, with ruinous consequences in the moral sphere, affecting personal and social morality and the mores of family life…Sadly, one could describe Europe at the dawn of the new millennium as a continent of devastation.”

However, Europe knew similar devastation some 1,500 years ago, and there is great hope in the lessons of that history: Europe was renewed by spiritual revival, a revival led by a man not coincidentally named Benedict. The current Benedict, Pope Benedict XVI, identifies himself as “a humble servant in the vineyard of the Lord.” John Paul asks for as much in this last book, appealing for “laborers for this harvest that is ready and waiting to be reaped.” And while John Paul describes this harvest as an “enormous task,” he is hopeful. Liberty, culture, faith—all will be preserved: “In the love that pours forth from the heart of Christ, we find hope for the future of the world.”