John Paul II's 25th anniversary: the impact of his teachings

John Paul II's 25th anniversary: the impact of his teachings

Cardinal George Pell

George Weigel, the American author of the best biography of the present Pope, Witness to Hope, claims that John Paul II came to realise that history is driven by ideas, ideals and the moral commitment of people to their versions of culture, which are always more powerful in the long run than politics or economics or armies.

John Paul also believed that at the heart of every enduring culture is an acknowledgement of the Transcendent, preferably the worship of the one true God and his only Son, Jesus Christ. This was not an enthusiasm for abstract, impersonal forces. He was always a disciple of Jesus Christ, Catholic and Polish, as he attempted to explain and relate eternal truths to the tragedy and muddle of 20th century life.

Human situation

He began to teach regularly, in season and out of season that there are truths about the human situation which can be known; in them is found human flourishing. His 1979 visit to Poland is the most spectacular example of the changes he wrought in human hearts. The truths he preached gave hope to millions in "the evil empire" and the mute acceptance of Communist lies and violence became no longer possible.

As his friend and ally, the priest sociologist and chaplain to Solidarity, Professor Jozef Tischner, explained, the 1979 pilgrimage convinced the Polish people to "stop lying" about the world they inhabited and the Solidarity movement grew like "a huge forest planted by awakened consciences".

Most Western commentators missed the significance of this Polish visit at the time, but Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the Russian writer who exposed the Gulags for what they were, and Yuri Andropov, then head of the KGB under Brezhnev, made no such mistake. They knew the likely consequences of the waves the Pope was creating.

In 1981 there was the attempted assassination by Mehmet Ali Agca and in February 1984 the Pope sent Dr Jerome Lejeune, the French geneticist who had lunched with him before Agca's failed attempt, to represent him at Andropov's funeral in Moscow.

John Paul II repeated and developed his central theses in every type of teaching from short homilies to solemn encyclicals, as he explained the scandal of the Cross and how the Church must be a sign of contradiction, while emphasising the power of reason to know the liberating effects of truth.

Some of the Holy Father's teachings were predictable and uncompromising, especially his consistent opposition to artificial contraception. Perhaps this will come to be seen in a new light once the implications of negative population growth sink in. Some of his encyclicals, especially on morality, were highly controversial far outside Catholic circles, particularly Veritatis Splendor (1993).

The powerful affirmation of moral truth provoked every leader-writer in the Western world into print, with newspapers such as Le Monde, the London Times and the New York Times discussing it at length.

Less controversial but just as politically incorrect was Evangelium Vitae (1995), which vigorously reaffirmed the value and inviolability of every human life, solemnly condemned abortion and euthanasia, and declared the death penalty permissible only when it would not otherwise be possible for society to defend itself, effectively ruling it out as an option in Western nations.

The great body of John Paul II's teaching in faith and morals and on social questions forms a powerful and coherent whole, drawing on the dynamic of tradition and development that has made the Catholic Church one of the most robust and longest surviving institutions in the world. There is no easy courting of popularity and no shirking of challenges, but despite this - or indeed because of it - it will continue to have an important effect on public thinking and discourse well into the 21st century.


For at the centre of his work is the question of the meaning of human life, and in particular, of suffering. A principal point of difference between secular humanists and Christians is the value accorded life and suffering. The radical secularist view that suffering is meaningless, that a life of suffering is without value, is no longer enough for people.

We know there is more to the story than this, and John Paul ll has addressed this intellectually and through the public performance of his duties at such personal cost. The Pope has seen his task as proclaiming Jesus Christ and His message to all who are prepared to listen.

To do this, he has shown time and again, that he is happy to suffer for us, to do what he can to make up all that still has to be undergone by Christ for the sake of His Body the Church. This is why, today, he struggles wearily on, helped only by Christ's power driving him irresistibly.

We thank God for his presence and witness, his teaching and courage and pray, yet again, as we did as children, that the Lord preserve him and give him life and deliver him not into the hands of his enemies.

This is part of Cardinal George Pell's homily of 16 October. The full text is available on

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