Pope Leo XIII led the Catholic Church for some twenty-five years before he died in 1903 at age 93. A few years before his death, Leo received a much younger American bishop on his ad limina visit to Rome.
Shortly before he left, the bishop said to the nonagenarian pope, “Holy Father, I expect this is the last time we will meet on this earth.” Leo reached over, took the American prelate by the hand, and said, “My dear man, you didn’t tell me you were feeling poorly.”
Things are different, this time.
As the whole world understood during John Paul II’s August pilgrimage to Lourdes, this pope is not leading the Church from his office, with witticisms. This pope is leading the Church from the cross. With pain and difficulty, but without embarrassment or complaint, Karol Wojtyla is pouring out his life in witness to the truth on which he has staked his life. That truth the “law of the gift,” as he once called it in a philosophical essay is most powerfully revealed on the cross: our human and Christian vocation is to make our lives the gift to others that our own lives are to us and to do so, not by relying on our own skill, or strength, or cleverness, or virtue, but on God. Without reservation.
So New Zealand Bishop Patrick Dunn, recently in Rome for his ad limina visit, was onto something important when he told ZENIT news service that John Paul II might well “be living out the greatest days of his extraordinary pontificate,” as he marks the twenty-sixth anniversary of his election on October 16.
In his message to the New Zealanders, the pope had challenged the bishops to proclaim “the splendor of Christ’s truth.” The “splendor of truth” is, of course, the title of one of the pope’s most important encyclicals, on the nature of the moral life and the renewal of Catholic moral theology. Yet, as he demonstrates again in his new book, Rise, Let Us Be On Our Way (Warner Books), John Paul understands that the proclamation of the truth is always linked to love to radical, self-giving love. Reflecting on his experience of more than four decades as a bishop, the Holy Father tells story after story illustrating how the truth of Catholic faith is best communicated by love: whether that be the love of friendship, the love involved in teaching and counseling, the love involved in charity and service, or the love involved in a bishop’s simply being present to his people.
Canonizing Edith Stein in 1998, John Paul II commended the new St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross to the entire Church in these memorable words: “She says to us all: Do not accept anything as the truth if it lacks love. And do not accept anything as love which lacks truth. One without the other becomes a destructive lie.” We live surrounded by such lies; we probably don’t notice them, just as a fish doesn’t notice that it’s in “water.”
That is why the pope stresses in his new book that the heart of the bishop’s office is its witness to truth. As Archbishop of Cracow, Karol Wojtyla had to shoulder his share of diocesan management and planning. But his memoir of those days confirms what I discovered when writing Witness to Hope: Cardinal Wojtyla didn’t spend most of his time as a bishop in meetings. Rather, he spent himself, and his time, in teaching, preaching, and celebrating the sacraments with his people.
Which is to say, he spent his time living the truth in love.
That is what John Paul II has been doing on the world stage for twenty-six years. Now, far closer to the end of the pilgrimage than to the beginning, his pontificate ever more visibly embodies the truth of a prophetic sermon he gave in Rome, just before his election, when he reflected on the terrifying question Jesus posed to Peter on the lakeside in John 21: “Do you love me more than these?”
Why terrifying? Because Peter was being challenged to a more complete emptying of himself to be ever more the instrument of God’s purposes, not his own.
This column has been made available to Catholic Exchange courtesy of the Denver Catholic Register.