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March 27, 2008
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A Portrait of the Pope as a Young Artist by David Scott
It should not be forgotten that Pope John Paul was a significant religious poet and a lifelong man of the theater.

John Paul, the Great—The Misunderstood Pope, by Debra Murphy
Media pundits who've been harping all week on the Pope’s ‘strict adherence to traditional Catholic morality and doctrine’ have it wrong. The fact is, John Paul II forged one of the boldest reconfigurations of Catholic theology in centuries.

The Pope at the Garden, by John Zmirak
I was a 14-year-old Catholic high school freshman when I first saw John Paul II at Madison Square Garden in 1979. I remember thinking: 'What a charming man. A pity he has such old-fashioned ideas.’ Little did I know…

John Paul II: Disciple of Christ, by J. Fraser Field
While paying homage to the Pope, the secular media has been careful to separate the greatness of the man from the faith he held and from the ideas he preached.

A Writer's Faith by Harold Fickett 
In my writing I’ve tried to dream up contemporary characters who are capable of belief, and through having a personal relationship with them, so to speak, believe myself.

Gay Marriage and the Collective Lie
We are called to love one another, but real love must be grounded in truth. What I would say to Andrew Sullivan then is, I love you, but don't ask me to lie.

Her Saving Grace, by David Scott
The dramatic story of the Immaculate Conception, defined 150 years ago this week, is the story of a new creation—for the world and for the human race.

Letters From Rome: A Young Priest’s Day-by-Day Witness to the Death and Burial of Pope John Paul II, by Father Peter Mitchell
Father Peter Mitchell—a young priest from Nebraska studying in Rome—found himself immersed in the events surrounding the death and burial of Pope John Paul II.  In a series of remarkable email letters he sent to friends and family he gave testimony to the Pope’s influence on his life, and captured the details and emotions of that amazing week, when the world stopped to mourn the passing of a saint.

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When he became Peter’s successor, Karol Wojtyla did not forget the Church’s commitment—and his own—at Vatican II to ground the Church’s witness in the freedom of conscience. And on The Day of Pardon, May 12, 2000, the prophet Pope John Paul II led the Catholic Church to an unprecedented act of self-examination, and closer to ‘the glorious freedom of the children of God.’

Pope John Paul II

In 1994, through the document Tertio Millennio Adviente [“As The Third Millennium Draws Near”], Pope John Paul II began to prepare the Roman Catholic Church for the Jubilee 2000 celebrations. Jubilee 2000 would be a time of repentance, as well as forgiveness, the pope said. The Church needed to recall those times in history when her sons and daughters   

. . . departed from the spirit of Christ and his Gospel and, instead of offering to the world the witness of a life inspired by the values of faith, indulged in ways of thinking and acting which were truly forms of counter-witness and scandal. . . . [a] painful chapter of history to which the sons and daughters of the church must return with a spirit of repentance is that of the acquiescence given, especially in certain centuries, to intolerance and even the use of violence in the service of truth.i

When the calendar of celebrations for Jubilee 2000 was announced, the first Sunday in Lent, March 12, was proclaimed the “Day of Pardon.” On that day, the world was informed, the whole Church would be called to a collective act of repentance for the historical sins of the Church’s sons and daughters.

The “Day of Pardon” announcement occasioned commentary from all sides, which steadily intensified as the event neared.

The whole Church would be called to a collective act of repentance for the historical sins of its sons and daughters.
External communities, particularly the Jewish community, watched to see whether the Church would not only confess but make a good confession. Those within the Church wondered whether the Church should repent of its historical sins and even whether it could. Do not sins belong by their very nature to individuals? Only God looks on the heart. Do we have a right to judge people in the past by today’s standards?ii 

The most interesting questions tended not to be asked. Why was this being done—particularly, why now? And what implications would the Day of Pardon have for the Church’s future? These, at any rate, are the questions that drove me to investigate the story.

After traveling to Rome, interviewing the papal household theologian Père Georges Cottier, and the director of the Vatican’s Secret Archives, Monsignor Cifres, as well as reviewing all the published material on The Day of Pardon, I found that the “why” and “why now?” questions had one answer: John Paul II. Although discussions about the Day of Pardon involved outside scholars, theologians, and several congregations and councils within the Curia, John Paul II led the Church toward the Day of Pardon from first to last.

This led me to wonder, “When did John Paul begin to think of this and how?”

Like many Poles, Karol Wojtyla came to think of Poland as a suffering servant among the nations—a Slavic Israel. Poland’s sacrificial history began as far back as the fourteenth century, when some of the people bordering its territories, the last of the pagan tribes left in Europe, the Samogitians, were among the first to experience genocide—not only mass slaughter but a principled slaughter.

At that time the Christian church was still evangelizing Europe. Missionaries were sent to the peoples of the eastern Baltic coastlands, to Prussia and border areas between Lithuania and Poland. Many of the missionaries were martyred.

To understand the full importance of Paul Vladimiri’s work, Karol Wojtyla would have to experience persecution himself.
In 1217, Pope Honorius III preached a Crusade against the pagan tribes of these regions: the Pruthenians, Curonians, Semigolians, Samogitians, Lithuanians, and other tribes within the Letto-Slavic race. In 1225, a Polish duke, Conrad of Massovia, claimed his territory had been invaded by these peoples and requested the assistance of the Teutonic Knights (As the first Crusades in the Holy Land were ending in the 13th century, the Teutonic Knights had begun a long retreat to Germany). The Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II endorsed this request by “incorporating” Prussia into the Empire by a Bull of 1226. Since Prussia was now formally part of the Holy Roman Empire, at least on paper, armies could be sent in to defend it—even from its own peoples. Frederic’s land-grabbing was further based on his own pragmatic theology. In Frederic II’s understanding, the Empire and the Church were one and so the Gospel could be spread by the sword. He saw no difference between subjugation to the Empire and conversion to the Christian faith.iii

Within twenty-five years, the Teutonic Order had conquered all of Prussia. Acknowledging this, Frederic II, in two Golden Bulls of 1245, granted the governance of Prussia to the Teutonic Order.

The Teutonic Order’s conquest of the eastern Baltic coastlands eventually boomeranged against Poland itself. In 1386 the grand duke of Lithuania, Jagellon, married the heiress to the Kingdom of Poland and embraced Christianity.vii From this time forward the Poles and the Lithuanians were Christian allies, and yet the Teutonic Knights did not cease their campaign, going so far as to burn whole villages of Lithuanians in their newly constructed churches. The Teutonic Knights insisted that the conversion of infidels could not be trusted.

This led the Poles to defeat the Teutonic Knights in a direct confrontation at Tannenberg in 1410.

The Teutonic Order’s principled slaughter did have one redemptive outcome. It led to the work of a Pole who is to international law what Copernicus is to astronomy. He was the rector of the University of Krakow from 1409–1432, and his name was Pawel Wlodkowic. (He is usually referred to in English as Paul Vladimiri) The story of the Teutonic Order’s slaughter of the Baltic tribes became important to Karol Wojtyla because of Paul Vladimiri. In fact, although their lives are separated by five hundred years, Paul Valdmiri, in terms of his thinking about religious liberty, stands behind Karol Wojtyla as the prophet Elijah—in Jesus’ thinking—shadowed John the Baptist.

In order to understand the full importance of Paul Vladimiri’s work, however, Karol Wojtyla would have to experience persecution himself.

 In 1944, on August 6, the Feast of the Transfiguration, in the city of Krakow, on what will come to be known as “Black Sunday,” the twenty-four year-old Karol Wojtyla crouches behind locked doors in his basement apartment on Tyniecka street. He can hear shots being fired almost as frequently as during the invasion. Jeeps, motorcycles with side-cars and black Marias roll through the streets, as squads of Gestapo arrest every able-bodied man they can find. The Nazis hope to forestall any repeat in Krakow of last week’s Warsaw Uprising, a last resistance by the Polish people to Hitler’s occupation. Warsaw is now being razed by overhead bombing, as the last hope of an independent Poland dies.

Any statement on religious liberty, Wojtyla argues, must speak not on the basis of human convention and law but from theological revelation.
From the time of the German Occupation, September 1, 1939, Karol Wojtyla has been engaging in underground activities that could have resulted in his being arrested, and imprisoned in Auschwitz—or simply shot in the street. For the Germans don’t merely mean to occupy and exploit Poland; they intend through their Kulturkampf [culture struggle] to wipe any vestige of Polish culture from the face of the earth. Engaging in cultural Polish activities and unsanctioned religious devotions have become capital crimes. Karol, or “Lolek” as he is more often called during this period, has consistently flouted these edicts. He’s a member of Unia [UNION], an organization of ideological and cultural resistance to the Occupation that promotes clandestine cultural activities, aids Jews, and seeks to keep Catholic social ideals alive. Lolek has also continued his studies in the underground Jagiellonian University, formed soon after most of the faculty was arrested and deported by the Nazis. He’s pursued his interests in acting and the great works of Polish drama by acting in The Rhapsodic Theater. The troupe members have put their cultural principles to the test (and risked their lives) in twenty-two formal performances and over 100 clandestine rehearsals.viii What’s more, Lolek is a key leader in Jan Tyranowski’s “Living Rosary” groups, where young people meet together to learn to live with God in the midst of the Occupation. Any one of these activities, as benign as they may strike us today, could already have led to Lolek’s death. 

Lolek’s greatest offense, however, lies in the life-commitment he’s only recently made. He’s one of Archbishop Sapieha’s “underground seminarians.” Since the occupying Nazis shut down the seminary, Archbishop Sapieha began accepting candidates for the priesthood on the basis of clandestine studies and examinations. Lolek goes to his job every night at the Solvay chemical factory in Borek Falecki, where he works in the plant’s water purification unit, stealing time, with his co-workers assistance, for his seminary studies. The job has so far protected him from deportation into slave labor within Germany, as his Ausweiss or identity card states that he’s employed in an industry essential to the German war effort. None of the Germans or their Polish informers have found out he’s been studying and taking exams in secret.

This morning when he came home from working all-night through a double-shift, he was informed that the Archbishop was calling in all of his underground seminarians to his own residence. Lolek was to go into permanent hiding. 

But the Gestapo are at the door of Tyniecka 10 before Lolek can make any effort to cross town to the Archbishop’s residence. He can only hide in the dark basement apartment and wait, praying for deliverance as his heart pounds. As he waits, he cannot help remembering the carnage on the road to Tarnow during an abortive escape attempt at the beginning of the Occupation. Whole families were cut down on the road by the strafing aircraft of the Luftwaffe. Old classmates like Jozef Wasik have been publicly executed for underground activities. The women of Jerzy Kluger’s family, a Jew, his closest friend in high school, have been shipped off to the extermination camps. The Salesian priests in his own Debniki parish have been arrested and deported as well. Just last April, the boy he served so many morning Masses with, Jerzy Zachuta, was taken by the Gestapo in the middle of the night. Zachuta’s name has been listed on a Gestapo poster with Poles to be shot.

Lolek has little doubt of the outcome if the Gestapo find him. For five years now he’s lived, as have all his countrymen, with the possibility of death from day to day. He knows how easily it can happen. 

He can hear the soldiers’ boots scraping the floors above and then hammering the stairs up to the second floor. “Our Father . . . “ he prays. The soldiers’ voices are muffled but he catches the sense. They are asking if anyone else lives here. A young man is often seen going in and out. 

“No one else lives with them,” his loyal neighbors reply, truthfully, evasively.

“No one out to Mass this morning?” the Gestapo question.
“No one is out,” they say. 

Lolek’s apartment, the one he shared for so long with his recently deceased father, is often referred to by friends as the “catacombs.” The first saints in the time of the Diocletian persecutions, the real catacombs, could they have been as frightened as he is now? “Blessed are thou . . . “ he prays. He’s cold and sweating at the same time. 

Lolek waits a hellish eternity, but the Gestapo finally leave without discovering him. He has been saved once more. But why? Why did they leave? The entrance to the apartment is obvious enough from the street. Was this providential? Has he been saved for something? Or only until the next time?  

His friend Irena Szkocka, whom he calls Babcia or Granny—most of the Rhapsodic Theater performances take place in her flat—then helps him wend his way across town to the Archbishop’s residence, she walking a block ahead as a scout.ix They are aided as well by a priest, who watches his back and side approaches. 

The three walk past the many posters listing the names of hostages who are waiting to be shot in reprisal for resistance activities, and over the Debniki bridge, which is guarded. Somehow the soldiers pay him no attention. From the bridge they have to walk up toward Wawel Cathedral into Old Town and finally to the Archbishop’s residence. Immediately adjacent to the residence sits a police station with an armory. But here again, they are not stopped.

As soon as Lolek enters the Archbishop’s residence, he’s given a cassock. Lolek, the robotnik from the chemical plant, disappears into a prophetic disguise. 

Soon the Nazis make inquiries about what has become of their worker, but underground channels arrange for his name to be stricken from the payroll. The Germans “were unable to find my trail,” as John Paul writes later.x 

In September of 1965, the fourth session, or Period IV, of Vatican Council II begins in St. Peter’s Basilica. The tremendous nave has been turned into an aula or hall, ten tiered rows of felt green chairs to each side, for the more than 2,000 Council Fathers, and additional periti (theological experts), religious, staff, and ecumenical observers.

It would take a Pole being elected pope before this unfinished business of Vatican II might be accomplished.
Karol Wojtyla, recently enthroned as Archbishop of Kracow, sits amid his fellow bishops, doing two things at once. While listening to the speeches or “interventions” by other Council Fathers, Archbishop Wojtyla is writing one of his own, which he’ll deliver in less thatn a week’s time on the 22nd. (Wojtyla is famous within his diocese for being able to write correspondence and memoranda while conducting meetings. He flabbergasts newcomers by summarizing these discussions at their end, giving due weight to different points of view, before articulating his own thoughts.)  

The most contentious issue at Vatican II, religious liberty, will soon be debated one last time, with the chances of the vitally-needed “Declaration On Religious Liberty” being promulgated growing longer. The schema or draft of the declaration presently before the episcopate faces stiff opposition from members of the Curia and others. Last year, Cardinal Tisserant, dean of the council presidents, went so far as to pull the document off the agenda. Because of extensive revisions suggested by the Secretariat For Promoting Christian Unity, Cardinal Tisserant said, further discussion would have to wait until Period IV. 

In response, more than a thousand Council Fathers signed a document urging Pope Paul, “urgently, more urgently, most urgently,” to overrule Cardinal Tisserant.

Pope Paul declined.

The Council Fathers now have one last chance to find a way through the impasse. 

The proposed declaration on religious liberty would re-position the church vis-à-vis the Constantinian legacy. Its opponents worry that the declaration may involve, in the words of historian and papal biographer George Weigel, “such a dramatic development of doctrine as to suggest that the Church had been gravely mistaken in the past.”xi

In nations where Catholics constitute a substantial majority, the Church has long-sought a “privileged position” within society—what in American constitutional terms we would call “establishment.” Cardinal Ottaviani of the Holy Office and others believe the church’s privileged position in Catholic-majority states desirable, in order to maintain a moral witness in culture. In 1965, the Church operates this way in many countries, particularly in Latin America. (In Ecuador, for example, the Church is not only supported by the state but has the right to outlaw any cult—meaning competing faith—it deems harmful.) Opponents of the declaration go on to argue that “error has no rights.” They fear abetting the moral relativism sweeping through Western culture.  

Many among the Western-Europeans bishops, influenced by the Nouvelle Théologie—New Theology—of such theologians as Yves Congar and Jean Daniélou see the necessity of a “new evangelization” that renounces the old altar-throne alliances. The “privileged position” once afforded the church in these countries has resulted in the church losing its dynamic witness. 

The United States contingent, led by John Courtney Murray, S.J., wants the universal church to embrace the free exercise of religion over against establishment.xii The Americans point out that the United States is among the most religious nations in the world precisely because the Roman church and other Christian communions do not suffer from the anti-clericalism that results from compulsory taxation. Christian communions in the United States are free to be the moral witness in culture that is needed because they are institutions purely of witness, not compulsion.

Archbishop Wojtyla and others from the Soviet bloc find the Western European and American arguments sympathetic but lacking theological depth. To Wojtyla’s mind, in fact, the present draft of the proposed declaration is based too much on “positive law”—legal guarantees. Wojtyla lives in a society where religious freedom supposedly enjoys a full range of legal and even constitutional guarantees. This does not keep the Polish government from building new towns, like the infamous Nowa Huta, without providing space for any churches. Nor does it prevent his government from interdicting free discussion even within the Catholic community itself—the Archbishop, when he wants to communicate with his parishes, must have his messages delivered by hand. It does not prevent his government from arresting clergy for organizing devotional groups in churchless neighborhoods.  

As the sometimes sonorous and often quite stumbling Latin of the Council Fathers’ interventions echoes through St. Peter’s, Archbishop Wojtyla ponders again how to find the needed basis for a declaration on religious freedom that speaks from the heart of the faith—an approach that the whole church can agree upon. At his enthronement ceremonies back in March of 1964, he was reminded again by Professor Franciszek Bielak’s welcoming speech of Paul Vladimiri’s work, the rector of the Academy of Krakow in the 15th century.xiii At the Council of Constance, Paul Vladimiri argued before the church fathers of his day that the Teutonic Order’s forced conversion—their slaughter—of the Baltic tribes must end.

Wojtyla has brought the works of Paul Vladimiri with him today and is refreshing his memory as to how the gospel allowed Vladimiri to grasp truths that eluded so many in his time.  

"It is not allowed to compel infidels by arms or oppression to embrace the Christian faith, for to take this way is to wrong our neighbor, and bad things most not be done in order that good things should result. . . [N]o one is to be compelled to the Faith, because Faith must not be from necessity, since forced services do not please God. . . . . And in particular the Jews should be tolerated because we prove our truth and faith by their books..."

Wojtyla thinks again, as he often does, of his high school friend Jerzy Kluger’s family, the matriarch Grandmother Huppert, his mother Rozalia, and his sister Tesia killed by Hitler’s Holocaust. After fifteen years he’s reconnected with Jerzy himself, oddly enough, by virtue of the Council; his friend now works in Rome as an engineer. In his mind’s eye, Wojtyla sees the Jews of Kracow being driven into the hastily-constructed ghetto, where so many died from disease and malnutrition even before the deportations.  
"And what is said of the Jews applies thoroughly of every infidel, and therefore the same law applies and those who use power rather than charity pursue their own ends and not Jesus Christ’s, and the rule of divine law is therefore broken. And whenever one prefers to dominate rather than to bestow care, honor inflates pride and what was provided for concord tends to damage."xiv
The Council of Constance embraced Vladimiri’s reasoning, Wojtyla knows, and officially declared that an infidel is a human being. A pathetic victory, it might seem, but if the Nazis had accorded the Jews the same status, the Holocaust would never have happened.

The notion of responsibility gives Wojtyla an idea, a way to frame his final argument to his fellow churchmen. Religious liberty must be considered within the context of its God-given purpose. God gave humankind free will in order that we might choose to love God—“since forced services do not please God,” as Paul Vladimiri wrote so long ago. The rule of divine law is the rule of charity, the rule of love, not power. Only those who are truly free can respond to God as God longs for them to. How can the church, in any way, compromise this God-given freedom? Only the free human person can be responsible, as God intended. 

When Archbishop Wojtyla steps to one of the microphones in the aula on September 22, to present an intervention on “The Declaration On Religious Liberty,” he delivers a pivotal speech, and much of its language will be picked up and used in the final document itself. He begins by delivering what seems criticism against his theological allies—the Western-European bishops and the Americans. Any statement on religious liberty must not simply embrace Western liberalism, he argues. The world is waiting for the Church to speak to this issue not on the basis of human convention and law but from theological revelation. 

“The Declaration,” he stated, “is made in part to the civil authorities but primarily and directly to the human person himself.”xv Because religion is a matter of relationship between God and humankind, the declaration should stress that the rights of conscience entail this fundamental relationship—their meaning in fact derives from it. 
It is not enough to say in this matter “I am free,” but rather “I am accountable.” This is the doctrine grounded in the living tradition of the Church of the confessors and martyrs. Responsibility is the summit and necessary complement of liberty. xvi
Archbishop Wojtyla’s appeal to the foundations of humankind’s relationship with God, as known through revelation, helped the Council to arrive at the final text of “Declaration On Religious Liberty,” which was formally promulgated on the penultimate day of the Council, December 7, 1965. 
The Vatican Council declares that the human person has a right to religious freedom... the right to religious freedom is based on the very dignity of the human person as known through the revealed word of God and by reason itself….

One of the key truths in Catholic teaching…is that man’s response to God by faith ought to be free, and that therefore nobody is to be forced to embrace the faith against his will. The act of faith is by its very nature a free act. xvii

“The Declaration On Religious Liberty” also distinguishes between the church’s teaching about religious liberty and the historical practice of many churchmen. The declaration acknowledges that “through the vicissitudes of human history there has at times appeared a form of behavior that was hardly in keeping with the spirit of the Gospel and was even opposed to it,” but insists “it has always remained the teaching of the Church that no one is to be coerced into believing.”xviii

Archbishop Wojtyla left Vatican II, this “second Pentecost,” as he described it, knowing that humankind’s God-given freedom and accountability demanded that the Church do more in terms of addressing that anti-Gospel “form of behavior.” It would take another “vicissitude of history,” the almost unimaginable event of a Pole being elected pope, before he would see how this unfinished business of Vatican II might be accomplished.    

On March 12th, the Day of Pardon for Jubilee 2000, St. Peter’s is filled to capacity, its great colonnades sheltering thousands of ticket holding congregants from the central nave out to the arms of the transept. Behind St. Peter’s crypt, under Bernini’s great, bronze spiraling baldichinni stands the altar. The altar itself is banked by choirs, row after row of boys and men in white surplices over black cassocks.   

‘To speak the truth about others, one must first be willing to speak the truth about oneself.’
The liturgy begins as two dozen candle bearers enter in pairs, followed by an army of purple vested bishops with tall, white miters. They stroll forward nodding to friends they see among the crowd, at ease with the pomp and splendor. At the beginning of this celebration the atmosphere is more like a huge graduation ceremony than a solemn Mass, with the crowd’s curious whispers competing with the introit music. 

John Paul II emerges at the right-hand side toward the back, where Michelangelo’s Pieta rests behind shatter-proof glass. (His initial seat at Vatican II was located at about the same place.) The pope wears purple vestments as well—the Lenten color of penitence. The staff he holds is silver, as are his miter and the lace embroidery on his stole. The pattern woven into his miter shows innumerable small crosses within window-like squares.  

Now seventy-nine years-old, the once extraordinarily youthful John Paul has aged—albeit he still keeps up a schedule that would exhaust most young men. This morning as the service begins his head rests crookedly on his shoulders. His staff shakes in his hand. His eyes are downcast and he breaths so heavily that it’s hard not to count each one. How will he get through this?

John Paul makes the sign of the Cross. He says that on this Day of Pardon the Church embraces her crucified Savior and asks the Father for Pardon. 

Then he mounts a three-step rolling platform and is wheeled by attendants in white-cutaways up the long, long aisle.

“Attend to my voice and listen to my prayer, Oh Lord!” the choir sings. 

Then the litany of the angels and saints begins. “Holy Michael, Holy Raphael…pray for us . . . Holy Lucy, Holy Cecelia, pray for us . . . “

A fifteenth century cross from the Church of St. Marcellus “al Corso” goes before, the corpus depicted in wood, its face twisted by the wrenching death. John Paul keeps making the sign of the cross as the procession moves forward; the people applaud in the midst of the chanting and the singing, and the seated cardinals doff their red caps.

The Mass moves quickly to the readings. John Paul’s homily will take up these words from the epistle: “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21).  

John Paul sits as he delivers his homily, his miter off, wearing only a white skull cap. He picks his way through white note cards with shaking fingers. As he speaks, he draws strength from the words themselves, his voice becoming more expressive, his presence full of life. He’s meditating on the thoughts of St. Paul, the former inquisitor who saw men to their deaths for what they believed.  

“Although Christ, the Holy One, was absolutely sinless,” John Paul says, “he agreed to take our sins upon himself; he agreed to bear our sins to fulfill the mission he had received from the Father, who—as the Evangelist John writes—‘so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him . . . may have eternal life’ (John 3:16).”

As John Paul speaks, the atmosphere in St. Peter’s changes. The speaker’s own conviction begins to become the crowd’s, as quiet reflection replaces curiosity and the spectators become worshippers. 

"'Because of the bond which unites us to one another in the Mystical Body, all of us . . . bear the burden of the errors and faults of those who have gone before us,’” John Paul says, quoting from Incarnationis mysterium, the papal bull that called the Church to celebrate Jubilee 2000.xix “[W]e cannot fail to recognize,” he says, “the infidelities of the Gospel committed by some of our brethren, especially during the second millennium. Let us ask pardon for the divisions which have occurred among Christians, for the violence some have used in the service of the truth, and for the distrustful and hostile attitudes sometimes taken toward the followers of other religions. Let us confess, even more, our responsibilities as Christians for the evils of today…”

“Yes, man is the only creature on earth who can have a relationship of communion with his Creator, but he is also the only one who can separate himself from him.”

After John Paul’s homily, seven representatives of the Church, five cardinals and two bishops, join him in prayerful repentance for the historical sins of the Church’s sons and daughters. They step forward to offer prayers for sins committed in the service of the truth, such as during the Crusades and the Inquisition, the use of torture, the burning of heretics, and the forcible conversion of indigenous peoples; for sins against Christian unity; for sins against the Jews; for sins against love, peace and respect for cultures and religions; for sins against the dignity of women and the unity of the human race, and for sins related to the fundamental rights of the person, the rights of conscience being chief among them. After each cardinal and bishop offers a prayerful petition, John Paul replies with his own. 

Cardinal Ratzinger, who heads the Congregation for the Defense of the Faith, the successor to the old Roman Inquisition, prays for sins committed in the service of truth. “Let us pray,” Cardinal Ratzinger says, “that each one of us, looking to the Lord Jesus, meek and humble of heart, will recognize that even men of the church, in the name of faith and morals, have sometimes used methods not in keeping with the Gospel in the solemn duty of defending the truth.”

To this, John Paul replies, “In certain periods of history, Christians have at times given in to intolerance and have not been faithful to the great commandment of love, sullying in this way the face of the Church . . . “  

The great cloud of witnesses we are taught watches over us—among them the Teutonic Knights’ victims and Paul Vladmiri—must be cheering.

At the end of the prayers, John Paul approaches the 15th century wooden crucifix—a crucifix lovingly crafted in the time of Paul Vladimiri and the Council of Constance. He pauses to kiss the Crucifix and then looks up at its victim. 

As the bright television lights catch John Paul’s upturned face, the aged pope looks transformed, absolutely vital. He looks up at Jesus and his eyes are filled with gratitude and satisfaction.

As I’ve explored the life of Karol Wojtyla and his actions as pope, I’ve come to see The Day of Pardon as a profound expression of John Paul’s inner drama—his spiritual formation. John Paul knows what it is to crouch in fear while mortal enemies knock at the door and pray for God’s deliverance. That was just a brief episode, yes, but it’s also an emblem for his deep and long-lasting experience of totalitarianism and its many uses of coercion. His life impressed upon him that the fundamental freedom that exists between God and humankind must never be compromised by any human agency. 

In John Paul we once again see a Christian and a Christianity of the catacombs, and like the early Church Fathers, especially Tertullian and St. Cyprian of Carthage, he knows that the church, like its Lord, may employ only the means of witness, never power. “[T]hose who use power rather than charity pursue their own ends and not Jesus Christ’s,” as Paul Vladimiri wrote so long ago.

When he became Peter’s successor, John Paul did not forget the Church’s commitment and his own at Vatican II to ground the Church’s witness first and foremost in the Christian understanding of the human person—who we are, how God has made us, and what God wants for us.

As Archbishop Wojtyla emphasized to the Council Fathers of Vatican II in 1964, the freedom of conscience that God extends to the human person demands accountability. How can the church lecture the world on this point unless it is willing to be accountable? As Monsignor Cifres told me in Rome, “When John Paul goes to other countries, he speaks very directly about the most important moral issues. But to speak the truth about others, one must first be willing to speak the truth about oneself.”xx

On The Day of Pardon, May 12, 2000, the Catholic Church finally repented of the sins resulting from the Constantinian legacy; It turned to go in an utterly different direction—the true way of the Cross. Only the greatest of contemporary prophets could have led such a historically-bound and politically-sensitive institution to such an act of self-examination. Behind the prophet John Paul II, the church marched out of the past into something closer to “the glorious freedom of the children of God” (Romans 8:21, NIV).

i Tertio Millennio Adveniete, 33, 35.
ii There were more serious diplomatic considerations as well, especially relations with the Islamic world. 
iii Stanislas F. Belch, The Contribution of Poland To The Development Of The Doctrine Of International Law: Paulus Vladimiri, decretum doctor, 1409-1432 (Veritas Foundation: London, 1964), 8.
iv Ibid. 8.
v Ibid. 9. 
vi Norman Houseley, “European Warfare c. 1200-1320,” in Medieval Warfare: A History, ed. by Mauirice Keen (New York: Oxford University Press), 118.
vii Influenced by their Lithuanian neighbors, the Samogitians officially converted to Christianity in 1413, although pagan religious practice continued among the common people until the beginning of the 17th century.
viii George Weigel, Witness To Hope (New York: Harper Collins, 1999), 65.
ix Witness To Hope (Harper Collins, 1999), 72.
x Boniecki, Kalendarium, “Theological Studies,” as cited in Witness, 72.
xi Witness, 163.
xii According to George Weigel (personal correspondence, October 2, 2000), Murray qualified the applicability of the American model. “[H]e didn’t imagine the American constitutional arrangement as a one-size-fits-all template for the universal Church.”
xiii This review by Wojtyla of Paul Vladimiri’s works in the midst of the Council is a fiction—the product of historical guess-work and reconstruction. We do know that Archbishop Wojtyla regularly worked on a variety of writing projects during Council sessions. We also know that Paul Vladimiri could not have been too far from his mind, because on October 20 of 1965, about a month after delivering his first intervention of that session, Wojtyla spoke over Vatican Radio to Poland, explaining the Council’s work on “The Declaration On Religious Liberty.” In this radio speech, he used the example of Paul Vladimiri in order to connect the Council’s work with Polish traditions of tolerance.
xiv Works of Paul Wladmiri, ed. Ludwik Ehrlich (Instytot Wydawniczy, Pax: Warsaw), from “Saevientibus” (1415), 60-61, 9. (The statement on the Jews is imported from page 9 into the midst of the greater statement from pp. 60-61 for context and clarity.)
xv Karol Wojtyla as quoted in George Hunston Williams, The Mind of John Paul II (New York: Seabury Press, 1981), 177.
xvi Ibid. 177.
xvii Vatican Council II: The Conciliar and Post-Conciliar Documents, vol 1, ed. by Austin Flannery, O.P. (Boston: St. Paul Editions), 800, 806-807.
xviii Vatican II, 809.
xix Incarnationis mysterium, n. 11.
xx Personal interview with Monsignor Alexandro Cifres, April 13, 2000.

April 5, 2005

HAROLD FICKETT is the author of The Living Christ, The Holy Fool, and other books, and is co-founder of Image Journal. He is a Godspy Contributing Editor.

This article had been adapted from The Living Christ (Doubleday). Reprinted with permission. ©2002, Doubleday. All rights reserved.

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04.06.05   Godspy says:
When he became Peter’s successor, Karol Wojtyla did not forget the Church’s commitment—and his own—at Vatican II to ground the Church’s witness in the freedom of conscience. And on The Day of Pardon, May 12, 2000, the prophet Pope John Paul II led the Catholic Church to an unprecedented act of self-examination, and closer to ‘the glorious freedom of the children of God.’

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