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On Pope John Paul IIs Tenth Anniversary
A Meditation by Father John Hardon, S.J.
The Holy Father Pope John Paul II celebrated the tenth anniversary of his pontificate last month. To mark the occasion, our contributing editor, Father John Hardon has set down these reflections on what this pontificate means to the history of the Church.
In conversation with Mother Teresa shortly after the attempted assassination of Pope John Paul II, she observed how this savage attempt to kill the Pope has served to unite so many people. It has brought us together, she said, in a way that can only be described as an act of God. We are more united as Catholics now than we could ever have been, except for this murderous attack on the life of the Holy Father.
My purpose here is to identify what I consider the basic teaching of Pope John Paul, which should unite us as Catholics in these historic times. This teaching can be capsulized in four statements, each of which can serve as one aspect of our subject, namely The Cost of Proclaiming Christ: the Message of Pope John Paul II. We will call the first three duties and the fourth an opportunity, as follows:
Know the Truth
If there is one theme that stands out in documents and addresses of Pope John Paul, it is his insistence on the faithful knowing what God has revealed in the person of Jesus Christ. This is no casual recommendation to Catholics who should know the faith. It is an urgent plea of the Vicar of Christ talking in the last quarter of the 20th century, when science has opened up vistas of knowledge that were not even dreamed to exist as recently as 1900; when education has sharpened the critical faculty of millions in almost every country of the world; when the power of the state is organized in what seems like a conscious effort to de-Christianize the minds of its citizens, through legislation and the media.
Knowing what Christ revealed is much more than knowing the facts of our faith. It means understanding the faith. This probably sounds strange to some people. But it is crucially important.
Remember the parable of the sower in the Gospel who sowed his seed on four kinds of ground, and only the last soil produced any harvest? When Christ came to explain why no fruit was produced in certain kinds of ground, He identified the first nonproductive soil as that which fell by the wayside. They are those, Christ said, who having heard the word of God, fail to understand it. Therefore the devil comes along and steals the word of God from their hearts.
Understanding what we believe does not mean full comprehension; what we believe is still revealed mystery. But it should be intelligible mystery and not merely a series of episodes in the gospels, or propositions taught by the Church that we have not truly grasped with our minds or thoroughly satisfied ourselves are true before the bar of reason.
The Pope, who is urging us to know our faith, is one of the intellectual giants of our day. He graduated from the Angelicum with the reputation for being the outstanding student ever to finish at that generations old University of St. Thomas in Rome.
When he tells us to know our Catholic Faith, he knows that otherwise we shall not be a match for the demonic intelligence at work in the world. We shall, in Christs words, be robbed by the evil one of what we had uncritically believed. Remember, the source of all evil is error; and the safest possession of good is a clear understanding of the truth.
The World Needs Christ
Words cannot describe the pathetic need that the modem world has of Christ.
This is something more than the recognized condition of man as a fallen creature who needs a Redeemer. It is the aggravated need of a world that has become intoxicated by its material achievements and, as a result, become master of its own creations. It is a world, too, where Christ is ignored or rejected, is living in a dream land filled with terrifying spectres of which the drug culture of America is only a symptom.
Words could not be more graphic than those of John Paul II in describing the plight of Christless modern man. He is fearful and worried, he is uncertain and confused, he is groping in the dark searching for some solution to his problems and some alleviation of his pain.
There is the record of tens of thousands registered suicides and of 50 million abortions annually throughout the world, of divorce above 50 percent of marriages in what the Pope calls materially super-developed countries. All of these are cold statistics but they reflect the awful plight of so many of whom Christ is a meaningless word or at most a convenient piece of profanity.
Nineteen hundred years ago, Paul told the Romans of his day that without Christ, people become filled with all inequity, malice, fornication, avarice, wickedness, full of envy, murder, contention, deceit and malignity, that they become detractors, hateful to God, proud inventors of evil things, dissolute, without affection, without fidelity, without mercy.
This terrible indictment of men without Christ in the first century has become worse in our century. Why? Because in Pauls day it was mainly a paganism that never knew Christ; in our day it is a paganism that in many cases has rejected Christ. Therefore besides the loss of so many blessings that come from the ignorance of God and His church, there is now the added loss of divine grace a retribution for sin, for God is not mocked. Man does not turn his back on the Redeemer without suffering for what he does.
Duty to Proclaim Christ
Against this background of the world today, is it any wonder the Pope has made the motto of his pontificate the command, Proclaim Christ?
Make Christ known where His name has not been heard before. Make Him better known where He is only dimly understood. Above all proclaim Him in circles and among people who were once believers and because they had not been nourished with the bread of Christian truth, have become estranged even from the God who made them.
Gone is the day when this duty might seem to apply only to priests and religious, especially when so many who were consecrated to the Lord have betrayed their master and some have even become agents of the enemy.
I am saddened when I think of the zeal of people like the Mormons or Jehovahs witnesses, of cultists like the Hare Krishna or the Moonies. I ask myself, where are the hundreds of thousands of graduates of our Catholic Colleges when it comes to spreading the faith or to advancing the knowledge of Christ on earth.
In one nation after another, the Pope reminds us that nothing we ever receive from God is to be kept for ourselves alone. Nothing! Absolutely nothing! Everything is given in order to be shared and among the gifts that God gave us, none is more precious, and to be more generously shared than our surpassing knowledge of Jesus Christ.
Paying the Price
All that we have so far said was only a prelude to the real message that the Holy Father wishes to convey. He wants us to not only expect to pay and pay dearly for making the Savior known in the modern world but actually to embrace the prospect of suffering for the name of Christ.
It is no secret that if Christ Himself was rejected by many of His contemporaries in Palestine, we should not expect to fare better in present-day America.
This, in fact, is the hardest lesson we have to learn in life; that truth has never been popular with the masses and least of all when that Truth, in the person of Christ, makes heavy demands on our charity and chastity and cheerful acceptance of the Cross.
What, then, is the price you can expect to pay for proclaiming the God you believe in by your conduct, your speech, and the efforts you make to bring others to the heart of Christ?
You can expect to be criticized for your old-fashioned and outmoded way of thinking, or put down as scholastic, or medieval, or preconciliar. What may be hardest to take is that this criticism may come from persons that you dearly love; those perhaps to whom you owe a heavy debt of gratitude. It was not without reason that God foretold that our worst enemies would be those from our own household.
Martyrdom and sacrifice are not familiar terms in the vocabulary of modern man. But they are precious words on the lips of those like our Holy Father, who have discovered the secret of true joy in this world. It is the joy that comes to those who are convinced that Jesus is God; who are convinced that so many are deprived of this knowledge of Christ; who are compelled by their faith to share Christ with everyone even with those who may not be willing to listen, and above all, who are committed to proclaim the Master at no matter what cost to themselves.
Pope John Paul has said that the Churchs normal condition is one of persecution. To believe that is to be happy to be living in todays world which, I have no doubt, is the Age of Martyrs.
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