The lasting legacy of John Paul II for me and for many are the three words with which he began and ended his papacy: “Be not afraid.”
For the pontiff, this fatherly counsel represented the only sure means to cross “the threshold of hope.” The instruction to be without fear was not an admonition of licensed irresponsibility – it was not, for example, an invitation to set aside one’s marriage because one was tired of it, or to neglect the needs of the poor because it is easier and less costly to oneself to let those without health care or sufficient wage to fend for themselves. Quite the contrary, as in other aspects of the paradox that is faith, John Paul taught us that for man to be free of the fear of himself and of others and of oppressive systems that perpetuate injustice, man must cultivate in his heart a true fear of God. By fearing God, we gain the wisdom to discover his unlimited divine mercy and an understanding of the truth of the human person.
Abstract? So it was claimed by a modern life grown complacent in affluence. Harsh? So it would be sometimes argued by cradle Catholics raised in the skepticism-turned-cynicism of the 60s and who mistook John XXIII’s important ecumenical opening of the church’s windows as an invitation to reduce faith’s significance; it actually was an invitation to the deeper, more transforming faith capable of sustaining peace on earth.
There is a conservative orthodoxy in John Paul II that distinguishes him from John XXIII, and it is apparent in the naming of bishops, but John Paul II, himself, living his motto of “totus tuus” (a gift of total self), was seen as beyond partisanship and given the latitude to refresh the Thomistic, structural teaching of the church. Whether it be labeled caritas or charisma, one hears in one’s mind that impish Polish voice saying “John Paul II loves you,” and tears of warm embrace follow.
Six years removed without his sweet nature before us, John Paul II’s encyclical writing is realized more readily as making demands on us, collectively or individually. As Americans ever promoting democracy, it is jarring, but correct, that “moral teaching can in no way be established following the rules and procedures of a democracy” and “opposition to the teaching of the church’s pastors cannot be seen as a legitimate expression of Christian freedom.” Opponents of John Paul would no doubt point out that Qaddafi has said similar things, and it annoys us. There is an overwhelming difference, of course, and it is that: John Paul II strengthened “the harmony of freedom and truth;” Qaddafi literally slaughters it daily.
John Paul II’s legacy has had special poignancy for me over the last year as death and was my constant companion. I lost my father, my mother’s sister (my mother having untimely predeceased her older sibling), and two of my closest and dearest friends when -- four seconds after what is now supposed to be a rare medical reaction causing me to lose consciousness -- my rental car slid into a shallow but fatal ravine in a California canyon. Airlifted to a trauma unit, I survived after two major surgeries, wondering whether I was now the object, like Job, of a heavenly contest between God and the devil. The extreme right blogosphere – disregarding any aspect of Christian charity -- had already and gleefully consigned this Reagan Republican to hell over my endorsement of Barack Obama in the 2008 presidential contest. Still very strongly attached to the social justice message of our articulate and internationally admired president, I have just this week mustered the courage to turn back the privilege and challenging work of serving as U.S. ambassador, since for the last year or more the State Department bureaucracy has frustrated efforts to promote faith-based diplomacy. When even personal expressions of faith allowed every citizen were denied, a boundary was crossed. I thus resigned (actually offered to resign) and while disappointed that the president (or more likely the bureaucracy) chose to accept, I shall be forever grateful to the president for bringing me to Malta, where John Paul II visited twice. Unlike the moral confusion or secular exclusion that lurks in the aptly named Foggy Bottom, in Malta there is a clear recognition that, as the Holy Father taught, “the most serious pastoral problem in today’s growing secularism is the separation of faith from moral life.”
The beatification of John Paul II reminds us powerfully that faith is no mere intellectualism, “but a living remembrance of His commandments . . . to live as He lived in profound love of God and of our brothers and sisters.”
(Recently offered to resign as U.S. Ambassador to the Republic of Malta; these views are Kmiec’s personally and do not necessarily represent the Department of State).