A Measure of Greatness

The papacy of John Paul II: two assessments





Robert Louis Wilken


On the twenty-fifth anniversary of the election of John Paul II as pope, I am reminded of the words of Stephen Spender’s poem, “I Think Continually of Those Who Were Truly Great.” In it Spender speaks of those “Whose lovely ambition / Was that their lips, still touched with fire, / Should tell of the Spirit, clothed from head to foot in song.” Greatness, like holiness, is a rare and precious thing. In the course of most human lifetimes there will have lived a great man or woman, or several, but few can say they lived when someone “truly great” sojourned among us. Because our lives have intersected with the life of John Paul II, we are among those few. He belongs in the company of “those who in their lives fought for life, / Who wore at their hearts the fire’s center. / Born of the sun, they traveled a short while toward the sun, / And left the vivid air signed with their honor.” Greatness is never measured by a single standard; it is unique, tailored to the singularity of each person. In the long history of the papacy there have been only two popes who earned the title “great,” Leo in the fifth century and Gregory at the end of the sixth century. They were two quite different persons, and it is not at all clear why they rather than, say, Nicholas I in the ninth century or Gregory VII in the eleventh, came to be designated great. Why is Basil, the older brother of Gregory of Nyssa, called great, when Gregory, a more accomplished theologian, is simply St. Gregory? And why is Albert, the teacher of Thomas Aquinas, designated great when St. Thomas, the deeper and more enduring thinker, is not? I do not know and I do not know whether John Paul II will be called John Paul the Great, whether he should be, or even what criteria one would use. That will be the work of time and memory. Greatness is as mysterious as it is elusive, and we are too close to John Paul II to imagine how he will be remembered. What I do know is that he has lit the darkening sky of the late twentieth century and the start of the new millennium with an unforgettable witness. I also know that his lips have been “touched with fire.” For many, it is the lips that have taught, spoken words of comfort, and raised hopes (“Be Not Afraid”) that will be remembered. Yet the fire that I have seen break from his lips has been the flame of prayer. I always think of him foremost as a man of prayer. The first time I saw him up close was in the spring of 1996. I was living in the Benedictine monastery of Sant’Anselmo in Rome, and on Ash Wednesday it is the custom of the monks to join with the Dominicans at Santa Sabina, some five hundred meters distant, for the Ash Wednesday liturgy. It begins with brief prayers at Sant’Anselmo and, after a procession through the streets of the Aventine Hill, continues at Santa Sabina. In the choir of the Church of Sant’Anselmo we awaited the pope’s arrival with high excitement, and, shortly after 4 p.m., I heard rustling sounds at the rear of the church. I peered into the nave expecting to see the Holy Father processing down the center aisle to the main altar, but he was not there. Suddenly I spied him in his white cassock, walking slowly and unaccompanied down the south aisle of the church. At once I realized he was going to the side altar to pray before the Blessed Sacrament. For more than ten minutes he prayed there alone and only afterward did he enter the apse of the church for brief public prayers before beginning the procession to Santa Sabina. It was a characteristic gesture, and it made an indelible impression on me. In public liturgies, especially when there are huge crowds, the bishop is so much part of a communal rite that one is hardly aware of his internal prayer. Yet on this occasion the pope had stepped outside the public ritual and, as the faithful watched and waited, he prayed to God as he would, it seemed, in the solitude of his private chapel. He was not praying alone, though, and his prayer deepened our sense of community and helped us to focus our own prayer. As he prayed silently, he invited us to make our prayer more interior, and he directed the assembly away from the pomp and ceremony of a papal liturgy toward the object of our worship, the Triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Again and again, on television during his trip to the Holy Land when he asked for his breviary in the crypt of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem; in liturgies in the piazza before the great basilica of St. Peter in Rome; at Mass in his private chapel in the papal apartments; and, most recently, in Slovakia, the pope has turned within himself and to God, seemingly oblivious of those around him. Though fully present at every action in the liturgy, in those moments where there is time for reflection, he appears visibly engaged in intense prayer. So much of the office of the papacy is taken up with words, with preaching and teaching, with greetings to pilgrims and delegations, statements on events happening around the globe, addresses to bishops or religious, that it is tempting to view the pope primarily as a teacher and administrator. Indeed, this pope has been a man of words. As anyone living in Rome and reading L’Osservatore Romano knows, the sheer volume of words is overwhelming. They gush forth each day like a swollen mountain stream in spring. Like others, I sometimes wonder why the pope has to speak, seemingly, on everything. At one point earlier in his papacy, when encyclicals seemed to follow one another with mounting regularity, some wag quipped that it was perhaps time to start an “encyclical of the month” club. Yet amid the torrent of words there has always been the stillness and silence of prayer. The office of the papacy is not simply sacramental and administrative and judicial and political, it is also an office of prayer. John Paul II has never let us forget that, and his prayer has intensified our devotion. He has taught us that when we come together to pray, we are gathered in the presence of God. By his example, John Paul II has directed our gaze towards the living God. When I think of John Paul II’s papacy, I always remember the saying over the north entrance of the Church of Sant’Anselmo: Si cor non orat, in vanum lingua laborat. If the heart does not pray, the tongue works in vain. _____________________________________________________


Susan A. Ross


When Karol Wojtyla was elected pope in 1978, I was a fourth-year graduate student, beginning work on my doctoral dissertation. Some twenty-five years later, I am now one of the senior faculty members at my institution, teaching students many of whose parents are younger than I am. For these students, John Paul II has been pope longer than they have been alive. I am old enough to remember four previous popes, but assessing John Paul II’s papacy is a much more difficult task than summing up John XXIII (Vatican II) or Paul VI (the aftermath of Vatican II and Humanae vitae). So much more has happened in these twenty-five years: the increasing globalization of the church, the fall of communism, the growth of nationalism, the dangers of capitalism. I will leave it to others to reflect on such issues. My concern is the impact of the papacy of John Paul II on women in general and on theologies of and by women in particular. In 1978, feminist theology was just beginning to discover its own identity. Rosemary Ruether’s New Woman/New Earth-still in my judgment one of the most significant works of feminist theology-had been published three years earlier, linking sexism with racism, anti-Semitism, and ecological devastation. In 1978 I did not consider doing a dissertation on feminist theology, and only as I finished the dissertation four years later did I realize that my work on the relationship between aesthetic and religious revelation had some feminist theological implications. When I began teaching in 1980 I was given the opportunity to offer a course in “whatever I wanted” (along with two other set introductory-level courses), so I decided to put my newfound interest in feminist theology to work by teaching a course in “Women and Religion.” This proposal was met with puzzlement and concern by my new employers who reminded me that I had been hired to teach “systematic theology.” When I asked Anne Carr, one of my dissertation readers, what to say in response, she wisely counseled me to say simply that this would be a course in systematic theology, looking at God, Christ, the person, sin, grace, church, etc., from the perspective of women. The brave students who signed up for the course expected to learn more about the Blessed Mother, St. Joan of Arc, and other notable women of church history. They were in for a surprise. I mention these incidents to remind us where feminist theology was in 1978, as Cardinal Wojtyla ascended to the papacy. He too had an interest in the same issues that concerned feminists-marriage, family, sexuality, the body-as well as the consequences of unfettered capitalism and the evils of socialism. He too put his ideas in writing. While John Paul II’s output has been nothing if not prodigious, one cannot but notice how much of his writing has concerned issues relating to embodiment and sexuality, from Love and Responsibility (first published in 1960) to the collection of writings and addresses published as The Theology of the Body in 1997. Some clear and consistent themes emerge from these writings: the goodness of the body, the essential differences between men and women, the distinctive gifts of women, the mutual gift of self in sexuality that precludes artificial contraception, the model of Christ and church as bridegroom and bride, and Mary as the model of womanhood and discipleship. Because of my own interest in issues relating to women, embodiment, and sexuality, I have read much of John Paul II’s work on these and other issues. While we have some profound disagreements, his work cannot be ignored. John Paul’s insistence on the goodness and integrity of the body and sexuality is a welcome and needed voice to counter those forces that see our bodies as merely instrumental. He is right that consumerism and a lack of respect for women plague our world, particularly those of us in the West. Yet his message is not one that I can wholeheartedly accept. For it is also true that the last twenty-five years have been marked by the official church’s resistance to the voices of women, as many of us have come to see our experiences in ways that are not always consistent with official church teaching. Sidney Callahan once recounted how, at a meeting in Rome, John Paul II had declared himself to be a feminist. I can understand how he may see himself in this way-his interest in the beauty and wonder of “woman,” in Mary the representative of the feminine whom he so admires as a model of womanhood and humanity-could lead him to say that he, of all people, is a feminist in that feminism is a celebration of the feminine. Yet this is precisely what feminism-at least the feminism that characterizes the work and writings of women activists and academics over the last thirty years-is not. Feminists reject the idea that there is a “feminine” identity that women are “given” by virtue of their being born female. Yet not all feminists agree on what women’s identity is, nor can they agree on what to call the movements for the advancement of women. Womanists and mujeristas challenge European and American women to rethink these issues from the perspective of poor women, women of color, women whose issues of identity concern not only gender, but also race, class, sexual orientation, ability, and social location. While there are certainly some feminist theologians for whom the ideas of John Paul II have little if any relevance-perhaps only as illustrations of all that feminism fights against-some others, such as myself, see the situation in more complex terms. We (that is, feminists and John Paul II) have shared a concern for bodily integrity, for a sense of realism that sees what we as embodied persons are given as the material out of which and with which we act. Yet a greater sense of the complexity of this embodiment-one that has arisen from women’s reflections on how it has been shaped not only by physical but by social limitation and possibility, by our language, and by our history-seems to be missing from John Paul II’s side of the conversation. When the Vatican issued its statement on the ordination of women in 1977, many of us were concerned about the theology of “symbolic representation” that seemed to be so central to the document. This idea suggested that only men could fully image Christ since Christ was a male. What, then, we asked, did it mean for women to be made in the image of God and baptized as full members of the church? During John Paul II’s papacy, this language has receded, to be replaced by the language of bridegroom and bride. Humanity, and women in particular, are the receptive brides of Christ. Mary, always obedient, is the model for humanity. One of John Paul II’s main concerns has been to understand more fully the mystery that is womanhood. It is the assumption that womanhood can be defined in certain ways that are already, and even better, understood by the church than by women themselves that is the sticking point. One of my strongest memories of John Paul II’s papacy comes from his first visit to the United States. Huge and adoring crowds greeted him in every city he visited. Then, in Washington, D.C., Sister Teresa Kane, as president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, addressed the pope with words that beseeched him to listen to the voices of women crying out for change in the church. The Holy Father sat with his head buried in his hands as Kane spoke strongly and courageously. A few years later, as the late (and perhaps not so lamented) pastoral letter on women’s concerns was still being debated in the United States, I heard a story about one of the bishops involved in drafting the letter. He had gone to Rome as part of the process, and had been sternly admonished for giving the impression that the bishops were to learn from women’s experiences. The bishops were the teachers, he was told, and not the learners. Not long after, the pastoral letter was “tabled.” As I consider John Paul II’s twenty-five-year papacy, I am left with this juxtaposition of speaking and listening, of teaching and learning, a conversation that has not always been mutual. John Paul II has taught us a great deal, and the world is changed because of his presence. Still, I wonder whether the church under his papacy has been sufficiently attuned to the workings of the Spirit, who blows wherever the Spirit wills, and whose light cannot be extinguished-perhaps, speaking through the voices of women. end

Published in the 2003-10-10 issue: 

Susan A. Ross is associate professor of theology at Loyola University Chicago. Her most recent book is Extravagant Affections: A Feminist Sacramental Theology (Continuum).

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