The last article described the life of Karol Wojtyla up to his election as Pope John Paul II. This article will outline a few ways in which his pontificate demonstrates that orthodoxy and fidelity to the Church is not a static or unchanging phenomenon, but rather grows with the light and grace of heaven.
St. John Paul II certainly emphasized the teachings of the ancient faith, with for example the publication in 1992 of the first universal catechism of the Church since the sixteenth century. He also emphasized what he called in the title of a 1993 encyclical “the splendor of truth.” Likewise, he appointed Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI) to be the Prefect of the Congregation on the Doctrine of the Faith; and he in turn in such documents as the 1990 instruction on the role of theologians emphasized that Catholic theologians work in union with the historic teachings of the Church. But in that document, as well as such encyclicals as Fides et Ratio (Faith and Reason) and Ut Unum Sint (on ecumenism) Pope John Paul II and the Vatican emphasized that there is a continual growth in the riches of the faith as the truth leads us deeper into mystery and, precisely by clarifying our tradition, helps us to dialogue with the world and with other faiths. Thus, for example, in the series of 129 short talks, now joined together in the text Theology of the Body, Pope John Paul II clarified how the Church’s teachings on purity, marriage and family are not impositions on human nature but rather help the human person be free to live in truth and love.
This notion of freedom and love also led Pope John Paul II to support religious liberty and the freedom of peoples. And with his travels to 129 countries, he was able to bring a unity and purpose to the world like no one else on earth. He supported the attempts to reform the Latin American dictatorships and Cardinal Jaime Sin’s opposition to the Marcos regime in the Philippines; but he emphasized a peaceful transition of power as opposed to violence. And, of course in his native Poland and throughout Eastern Europe he supported the national movements to end the Communist oppression of those lands. His influence was so crucial that Mikhail Gorbachev once said “The collapse of the Iron Curtain would have been impossible without John Paul II.” As George Weigel said in the title of his biography of St. John Paul II, he was the 20th century’s greatest witness to hope.