Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Rosary at the Mass Rock for Life and Faith in Ireland

Photo of a contemporary mass celebrated at the Mass Rock, Glenside Road, Belfast
Mass celebrated at the Mass Rock at Glenside Road in Belfast. Photo: Cliff Donaldson via The Irish News

On March 18, at 2:30pm (Irish local time) faithful Catholics in Ireland will be gathering at the historic Mass Rocks, Mass Houses, monastic ruins, and at the Papal Cross in Phoenix Park (Dublin) for the celebration of the Holy Mass, to pray the Rosary, and to appeal to the Irish saints for life and faith in Ireland.

It is another initiative by the same Catholic laity who successfully organized the Rosary on the Coast for Life and Faith last November that surrounded Ireland with a human Rosary of 30,000 participants at over 300 locations on the Solemnity of Christ the King.

In this next phase in the battle for life and faith in Ireland, the organizers during this Lenten season have turned to Our Lady of Fatima's requests: repentance; reparation; prayer and sacrifice for the conversion of sinners; and the daily recitation of the Rosary. 

By gathering at the many Mass Rocks (and other locations) scattered throughout the Irish landscape, organizers seek to encourage the faithful to emulate their ancestors who not only drew strength from the Rosary, but courageously risked their lives to attend Mass at the hands of "hunted priests" at these clandestine locations during a very dark period in Ireland's history of persecution against Catholics.

As the title of this national prayer effort suggests, life and faith are threatened in Ireland and have been for quite some time. The lives of the unborn are particularly threatened: a national referendum will be held in late May, on whether or not to repeal the Eighth Amendment, Ireland's pro-life clause in the constitution.

Secularization has also taken its toll on the population; there is a noticeable waning and loss of faith. This did not just happen over night, but over several decades, highlighting in the process how over a few generations, those who consider themselves members of the Mystical Body of Christ are today a smaller percentage of faithful Catholics.

Google map image of confirmed locations for Rosary at the Mass Rock
Confirmed locations as of February 27, 2017. Image:
Google Maps via Coastal Rosary Ireland
If we look to Ireland's history from the last century up until and including recent decades, it will not be difficult to ascertain how the forces of darkness (the Evil One and his demons) have been waging a war to usher in moral disorder that includes a Culture of Death: contraception (devices and birth control pills) has been available for decades; the 1992 referendum resulted in the option for women to travel to another country (England) in order to have an abortion, as well as the availability of information regarding abortion "services" in other countries; divorce was no longer banned as a result of the 1995 referendum; and most recently the referendum of 2015, ushered in "same-sex marriage."

In 2016, the Irish government set up a "Citizens' Assembly" to "consider" the future of the Eight Amendment, which arrived at the conclusion in April 2017, that the Eight Amendment should be repealed. They voted overwhelmingly for abortion to be permitted on the grounds of a mental or physical threat to the life of the mother, in cases of disability, and for socio-economic reasons.

The Eighth Amendment was approved by 67% of the Irish population in a referendum on September 7, 1983. It came into effect on October 7, 1983, the feast of Our Lady of the Rosary and states, “The State acknowledges the right to life of the unborn and, with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother, guarantees in its laws to respect, and, as far as practicable, by its laws to defend and vindicate that right.” 

This national prayer effort seeks to draw Divine Intervention upon Ireland to prevent what abortion proponents hope will be a "positive" result in the upcoming Eight Amendment appeal referendum. For all Catholics in Ireland, the referendum will be an opportunity to respond positively, once again, to St. John Paul's homily of October 1, 1979, in Limerick:
And so I say to all, have an absolute and holy respect for the sacredness of human life from the first moment of its conception. Abortion, as the Vatican Council stated, is one of the "abominable crimes" (Gaudium et Spes, 51). To attack unborn life at any moment from its conception is to undermine the whole moral order which is the true guardian of the well-being of man. The defence of the absolute inviolability of unborn life is part of the defence of human rights and human dignity. May Ireland never weaken in her witness, before Europe and before the whole world, to the dignity and sacredness of all human life, from conception until death. (6)  
Saving the Eighth Amendment is absolutely essential in the battle for life and faith in Ireland; one that is primarily a spiritual battle that must be fought with spiritual weapons.

In addition to the Mass, the selection of the Rosary to fight this spiritual battle is not without its special significance. In the Secret of the Rosary, at the Forty-Sixth Rose: Group RecitationSaint Louis De Montfort wrote that not only is group recitation of the Rosary the method of prayer that the devil fears the most, but "...[I]t is far more formidable to the devil than one said privately, because in this public prayer it is an army that is attacking him." (98)

By selecting the Rosary to fight the good fight, this national effort follows a long-held tradition in the Catholic Church that began in 1214, when the Blessed Virgin Mary appeared to St. Dominic, the founder of the Order of Preachers, and gave him (and the entire Church) the Rosary. In addition to its many benefits—including the conversion of sinners—the Rosary is an effective weapon against the Evil One and his demons.

In his encyclical Supremi Apostolatus OfficioPope Leo XIII wrote about devotion to the Rosary and its efficaciousness as a remedy for the many evils of society. Pope Leo XIII stated, "It has always been the habit of Catholics in danger and in troublous times to fly for refuge to Mary, and to seek for peace in her maternal goodness; showing that the Catholic Church has always, and with justice, put all her hope and trust in the Mother of God." (2)

Written in 1883, Pope Leo XIII's encyclical not only encouraged devotion to the Rosary, but spotlighted how important it has been in the history of the Catholic Church when faced with several threats; namely, the violence of heresy, intolerable moral corruption, and aggressive Islamic attacks by the Ottoman Turks.

A photo of the Mass Rock at Letterkenny, Donegal, Ireland
Mass Rock ("Carraig an Aifrinn" in Gaelic) at Letterkenny, Donegal, Ireland. Photo: We Love Donegal/Mass Rocks

The Mass Rocks located throughout the Irish landscape were specifically chosen for their historical significance: a period in Ireland when Catholics were legally persecuted by the British Crown and the state-sponsored, Church of Ireland for almost 300 years. As a result of that persecution, faithful Catholics had to clandestinely attend Mass at various locations throughout Ireland where natural flat rock formations became altars and other rocks (some taken from damaged monasteries and churches) had been formed into crosses and altars for midnight-Mass celebrations.

In his homily at Phoenix Park in Dublin during his Apostolic Journey to Ireland in the Fall 1979, Saint John Paul II had mentioned the Mass Rocks in stressing how important the Mass has always been for Ireland:
As I stand here, in the company of so many hundreds of thousands of Irish men and women, I am thinking of how many times, across how many centuries, the Eucharist has been celebrated in this land. How many and how varied the places where Mass has been offered—in stately mediaeval and in splendid modern cathedrals; in early monastic and in modern churches; at Mass rocks in the glens and forests by "hunted priests", and in poor thatch-covered chapels, for a people poor in worldly goods but rich in the things of the spirit, in "wake-houses" or "station houses", or at great open-air hostings of faithful—on the top of Croagh Patrick and at Lough Derg. Small matter where the Mass was offered; for the Irish, it was always the Mass that mattered. (1)
In her email to supporters, Kathy Sinnott, who heads the group organizing this national prayer effort stated, "Our Mass Rocks and monastic ruins tell an important story of commitment to life and faith that we must never forget. They remind us that life and faith are treasures worth the greatest sacrifice." As to why March 18, was chosen as the date for this national prayer event, Sinnott explained:
  • It bridges the feasts of our two great saints: March 17, St Patrick, the Patron and Protector of Ireland and March 19,  St Joseph, the Patron and Protector of the Family and of the Universal Church who visited the Irish in Knock in a special manifestation of his care.
  • It is the Fifth Sunday of Lent (in the extraordinary form known as Passion Sunday) when we through the liturgy begin the ascent to Calvary.
  • It marks the 145 Anniversary of the Consecration of Ireland to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, Passion Sunday 1873
  • It falls on the Feast of Our Lady of Mercy (Savona) where Our Lady called for fasting and conversion of life so that we will be shown "Mercy not Justice." This devotion was especially highlighted by Pope Benedict XVI.
  • It is the feast of Blessed Christian O'Conarchy, the first Cistercian abbot in Ireland 1100s, Bishop of Lismore and a model of Irish monastic devotion.
  • It precedes a series of referenda which seek to legalize abortion (Article 40.3.3), blasphemy (Article, no fault divorce (Article 41.3) and to remove recognition from the home carer (Article 41.2.1)

Sinnott also stated that St. John Paul II and the "Rosary Priest" Venerable Patrick Peyton will be asked to bless the Rosary at the Mass Rocks and all who take part.

This group at
 is a shining example of how the laity can effectively put faith into action on a national level.

When I was first informed about Rosary at the Mass Rock, I was not only pleased to read about this next phase in the continued effort for life and faith in Ireland, but it also brought to mind Saint John Paul II's Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Christifideles Laici, on the vocation and mission of the lay faithful in the Church and in the world. At eighty-four pages, it thoroughly details and explains that vocation and mission, and was written with the intention to stir the laity to a deeper awareness of the gift and responsibility they share, both as a group and as individuals, in the communion and mission of the Church.

Christifideles Laici is perhaps more relevant today than when it was first released on December 30, 1988, on the Feast of the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph. Saint John Paul II stated, "A new state of affairs today both in the Church and in social, economic, political and cultural life, calls with a particular urgency for the action of the lay faithful. If lack of commitment is always unacceptable, the present time renders it even more so. It is not permissible for anyone to remain idle." (3)

In today's state of affairs in the Church and in the world, there is an ever increasing need for the laity to get involved and boldly take up the challenges of living the Catholic faith in the twenty-first century as part of the Church's evangelical mission. Kathy Sinnott, her fellow organizers, and all participants have certainly demonstrating this in a most admirable way last Fall—not to mention the planning, prayer, fasting, and effort it takes to organize such a national event—and will be doing so again in less than three weeks from today.

May Catholics in Ireland and those throughout the Universal Catholic Church be united in prayer on March 18; that it may draw God's Divine Intervention and mercy upon Ireland, "save the eighth," and uproot and remove the moral disorder from the landscape and restore Ireland to a Culture of Life.

Friday, February 23, 2018

St. John Paul II's Address to the United Nations in 1979: A "Stunning Speech" Indeed

A black and white photo of St. John Paul II giving his address to the UN in 1979.
St. John Paul II during his address at the United Nations in 1979. Photo: Catholic News Service via Salt and Light Media

Recently I had finished reading George Weigel's book, Lessons in Hope: My Unexpected Life With St. John Paul II, where he described Saint John Paul II's address to the United Nations (UN) in 1979, as a "stunning speech." As with many of Weigel's writings on St. John Paul II, they lead to further readings from his many references, citations, extensive endnotes, and bibliographies. Being somewhat intrigued by that description, I had decided to add the speech to my blog-draft list. 

The speech is twelve pages printed and like so many of Saint John Paul II's writings, it contains a dense amount of
information that requires the reader's full and undivided attention. After having read it twice, I completely agree with Weigel's description: it is indeed a stunning speech!

At the core of Saint John Paul II's speech is the human person: the importance of each individual's dignity and inalienable rights, and how all threats to peace can ultimately be identified and measured by the manner in which States fail to safeguard and ensure man's freedom and ability to live his human dimension to the fullest.

The hour-long speech began with Saint John Paul II's gratitude to the general assembly and in particular to the Secretary-General of the United Nations Organization, Dr. Kurt Waldheim, for inviting him to address the thirty-fourth general assembly. Saint John Paul II then segued into the formal reason for his intervention: the special bond of cooperation that links the Apostolic See with the United Nations—indicated by the presence of the Holy See's Permanent Observer—one that is held in high esteem by the Holy See.

In addition to that bond, Saint John Paul II highlighted the Apostolic See's esteem for the United Nations as a "supreme forum for international life of humanity today," which received much attention in papal messages, encyclicals, in documents of the Catholic episcopate, and in the Second Vatican Council. 

Drawing upon his predecessors' (Popes John XXIII and Paul VI) "look of confidence" on the UN as a "promising sign of our times," Saint John Paul II reinforced that confidence and conviction, which as he stated did not stem from merely political reasons, but of the ...[R]eligious and moral character of the mission of the Roman Catholic Church." (4)

Moreover, Saint John Paul II pointed out the Catholic Church, as a universal community of faithful that exists in almost all countries and continents, "...[I]s deeply interested in the existence and activity of the Organization whose very name tells us that it unites and associates nations and States." (4) Elaborating further, he stated, "It seeks out the ways for understanding and peaceful collaboration, and endeavours with the means at its disposal and the methods in its power to exclude war, division, and mutual destruction within the great family of humanity today." (4)

This was the "real reason, the essential reason" for Saint John Paul II's presence at the UN that day in October 1979. 

The speech was not without scriptural passages. Referring to the occasion when Jesus was before the tribunal of the Roman judge Pilate, where He declared that the purpose of His existence in the world was to bear witness to the truth (John 18:37), Saint John Paul II made it clear that, as the Vicar of Christ, his mission was to do likewise.

Saint John Paul II expressed his gratitude once again and then congratulated the general assembly for the opportunity to speak that day, which as he stated, "...[S]hows that the United Nations Organization accepts and respects the religious and moral dimension of those human problems that the Church attends to, in view of the message of truth and love that it is her duty to bring to the world." (5)

By no means was the address limited to those in the UN General Assembly building. Saint John Paul II extended his greetings to all men and women living on the planet; a greeting that placed an important focus on the human person.

Highlighting the importance of the human person, Saint John Paul II emphasized that although members of the UN represent a particular State, system, and political structure, they represent above all "individual human beings," of which each one is endowed with dignity as a human person, with "...[H]is or her own culture, experiences and aspirations, tensions and sufferings, and legitimate expectations." (6)

Saint John Paul II reminded the representatives that political activity "comes from man, is exercised by man and is for man," and what justifies any political activity is service to man; one that has a responsibility and concern for the essential problems and duties of "...[H]is earthly existence in its social dimension and significance, on which also the good of each person depends." (6)

Several minutes (almost two pages worth) was dedicated to the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights, in which Saint John Paul II referred to it not only as a "fundamental document," but a "real milestone on the path of the moral progress of humanity." (7) Defining progress, he went on to state that, "The progress of humanity must be measured not only by the progress of science and technology, which shows man's uniqueness with regard to nature, but also and chiefly by the primacy given to spiritual values and by the progress of moral life." (7)

Acknowledging the importance of unity, Saint John Paul II highlighted how nations have understood that if they are not to go to war, they must unite and associate with each other. Moreover, he stressed that the "real and fundamental way" to achieve this was through "...[E]ach human being, through the definition and recognition of and respect for the inalienable rights of individuals and of the communities of peoples. (7)

Saint John Paul II also provided what has proven to be a prophetic warning; that is, if the truths and principles contained in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights were forgotten or ignored, the UN would be faced with the threat of a new destruction. Elaborating on how this new destruction would come about he stated:
This is what would happen if the simple yet powerful eloquence of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights were decisively subjugated by what is wrongly called political interest, but often really means no more than one-sided gain and advantage to the detriment of others, or a thirst for power regardless of the needs of others—everything which by its nature is opposed to the spirit of the Declaration. 'Political interest' understood in this sense, if you pardon me, ladies and gentlemen, dishonours the noble and difficult mission of your service for the good of your countries and of all humanity. (9)
"No more war, war never again!" Saint John Paul II spoke these words, citing from his predecessor, Pope Paul VI, who fourteen years earlier addressed the UN from the same podium. In 1979, there was great cause for concern of war breaking out throughout the world: it was only in 1978—through direct intervention from the Vatican that successfully mediated a solution to the Beagle Channel boundary dispute—that a war was averted between Argentina and Chile; not to mention the Middle East crises which not only persist to this day, but have increased.

Saint John Paul II's concern about the possibilities of wars breaking out was also merited by "troubling reports" of weaponry being developed beyond the size and means of war, and how such realities seriously endangered humanity by the threat of destruction.

Avoiding war requires energetic and continuous efforts to ensure that attitudes, convictions, intentions, and aspirations of governments are not geared toward the possibility of provoking war. Saint John Paul II reminded the UN that this is a duty for every society, regime, and government.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights as Saint John Paul II pointed out, "...[S]truck a real blow against the many deep roots of war, since the spirit of war, in its basic primordial meaning, springs up and grows to maturity where the inalienable rights of man are violated." (11)

Examining the principle tensions that can weaken peace, Saint John Paul II made what is perhaps one of "the" most salient points in the speech, "Every analysis must necessarily start from the premise that—although each person lives in a particular concrete social historical context—every human being is endowed with a dignity that must never be lessened, impaired or destroyed but must instead be respected and safeguarded, if peace is really to be built up." (12)

As to the many inalienable rights Saint John Paul II enumerated some of the most important ones that are universally recognized:
...[T]he right to life, liberty and security of person; the right to food, clothing, housing, sufficient health care, rest and leisure; the right to freedom of expression, education and culture; the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, and the right to manifest one's religion either individually or in community, in public or in private; the right to choose a state of life, to found a family and to enjoy all conditions necessary for family life; the right to property and work, to adequate working conditions and a just wage; the right of assembly and association; the right to freedom of movement, to internal and external migration; the right to nationality and residence; the right to political participation and the right to participate in the free choice of the political system of the people to which one belongs. (13)
Moreover, Saint John Paul II pointed out that these human rights are, "...[I]n keeping with the substance of the dignity of the human being, understood in his entirety, not as reduced to one dimension only. These rights concern the satisfaction of man's essential needs, the exercise of his freedoms, and his relationship with others; but always and everywhere they concern man, they concern man's full human dimension. (13)

Saint John Paul II reminded the general assembly that man lives in the world with both material and spiritual values with the latter having a "pre-eminence": the values of the spirit define the proper sense of earthly material goods and the way to use them. When material and technical development, and the development of civilization as a whole are guided by the pre-eminence of spiritual values, they not only serve what constitutes man, but form the basis of a just peace. (14)

Having distinguished material and spiritual values, Saint John Paul II then proceeded with a critical analysis of our modern civilization, in which he not only highlighted how the world has experienced the development of material goods as has never seen before, but also pointed to the rise in attitudes of "insensitivity to the spiritual dimension of human existence." (15) In his analysis, Saint John Paul II identified two main systematic threats against human rights: the distribution of material goods, and the various forms of injustice in the field of the spirit.

The distribution of goods as Saint John Paul II pointed out, is "...[F]requently unjust both within individual societies and on the planet as a whole." (17) Nature's bounty allows man to possess and enjoy many goods but when the inequality of possession of material goods occurs (and in their enjoyment), it can result in injustice and social injury. (17)

Saint John Paul II then went on to describe how economic tensions between States and even entire continents, can contain "substantial elements" that can "restrict or violate human rights." Expanding on this point, he stated:
Such elements are the exploitation of labour and many other abuses that affect the dignity of the human person. It follows that the fundamental criterion for comparing social, economic and political systems is not, and cannot be, the criterion of hegemony and imperialism; it can be, and indeed it must be, the humanistic criterion, namely the measure in which each system is really capable of reducing, restraining and eliminating as far as possible the various forms of exploitation of man and of ensuring for him, through work, not only the just distribution of the indispensable material goods, but also a participation, in keeping with his dignity, in the whole process of production and in the social life that grows up around that process. Let us not forget that, although man depends on the resources of the material world for his life, he cannot be their slave, but he must be their master. The words of the book of Genesis, "Fill the earth and subdue it" (Gen 1 :28), are in a sense a primary and essential directive in the field of economy and of labour policy. (17)
Another aspect of this first systematic threat against human rights is the "frightful disparities" between the excessively rich and those who are extremely poor, even destitute. Saint John Paul II referred to this disparity as an "abyss" which is not only a grave symptom in the life of any society, but also separates countries and regions of the earth.

To remedy such disparities will require a unified and coordinated effort by all countries that must be based on what Saint John Paul II referred to as "an authentic perspective of peace":
Everything will depend on whether these differences and contrasts in the sphere of the "possession" of goods will be systematically reduced through truly effective means, on whether the belts of hunger, malnutrition, destitution, underdevelopment, disease and illiteracy will disappear from the economic map of the earth, and on whether peaceful cooperation will avoid imposing conditions of exploitation and economic or political dependence, which would only be a form of neocolonialism. (18)
With regard to the second, main systemic threat to human rights in the modern world—the various forms of injustice in the field of the spirit—Saint John Paul II focussed on how man can be wounded in his inner relationship with truth: in his conscience; in his most personal belief; his view of the world; in his religious faith; and in the sphere of civil liberties.

Fundamental to civil liberties is the equality of rights without discrimination—on the grounds of origin, race, religion, nationality, sex, and political convictions—which Saint John Paul II went on to define as, "...[T]he exclusion of the various forms of privilege for some and discrimination against others, whether they are people born in the same country or people from different backgrounds of history, nationality, race and ideology." (19) He also point out that despite the "thrust of civilization" giving life to political societies that safeguard the objective rights of the spirit—human conscience and creativity, and man's relationship with God—there are recurring threats and violations against these rights, often with, "...[No] possibility of appealing to a higher authority or of obtaining an effective remedy." (19)

Drawing attention to another problem with political systems that safeguard freedom of the spirit (freedom of thought, expression, conscience, and religious freedom) Saint John Paul II stressed that within those systems exist social structures that "condemns" man to become a second-class or third-class citizen, which can be identified by compromised advancement in the social and professional life, and in the inability of families to freely educate their children. Moreover, he stated, "It is a question of the highest importance that in internal social life, as well as in international life, all human beings in every nation and country should be able to enjoy effectively their full rights under any political regime or system." (19)

Religious freedom is absolutely essential to the cause of peace. Highlighting the importance of religious freedom, Saint John Paul II cited from the Second Vatican Council's Declaration, Dignitatis Humanae (on the right of the person and communities to social and civil freedoms in matters religious):
In accordance with their dignity, all human beings, because they are persons, that is, beings endowed with reason and free will and therefore bearing personal responsibility, are both impelled by their nature and bound by a moral obligation to seek the truth, especially religious truth. They are also bound to adhere to the truth once they come to know it and to direct their whole lives in accordance with its demands (Dignitatis Humanae, 2). (20)
The United Nations proclaimed 1979, to be the "Year of the Child." Saint John Paul II expressed his joy on the subject of children. He also reminded the delegates that a child's life begins at conception, "Concern for the child, even before birth, from the first moment of conception and then throughout the years of infancy and youth, is the primary and fundamental test of the relationship of one human being to another." (21) He went on to further state, "And so, what better wish can I express for every nation and the whole of mankind, and for all the children of the world than a better future in which respect for human rights will become a complete reality throughout the third millennium, which is drawing near." (21)

At the close of his address, Saint John Paul II expressed his hope for peace, justice, and freedom for all peoples of the world, and that the United Nations would continue to be, "...[A]n authentic seat of freedom of peoples and individuals in their longing for a better future. (23)

Attending the thirty-fourth general assembly must have been quite the experience for State representatives, the press, and others. George Weigel was one such individual—a "newbie columnist" on his first major assignment: Saint John Paul II's papal pilgrimage to the United States in October 1979. It was a speech that Weigel would come to analyze and write about twenty years later.

In Witness to Hope, the first of three seminal works on the life and papacy of Saint John Paul II, Weigel dedicated three and a half pages (chapter ten, The Ways of Freedom) to Saint John Paul II's 1979 UN address. Although it was written and published many years prior to Lessons in Hope, that information and in particular the concluding paragraph serves as another resource of just how stunning a speech it truly was:
The delegates to the General Assembly had listened to John Paul's address in silence. No one had wandered about the floor of the General Assembly, as often happened during normal business. However they construed its meaning, the representatives of the worlds of power knew that they had been listening to a force to be reckoned with. (350)
Saint John Paul II's speech is perhaps more relevant today than when it was first delivered in 1979. If one reads the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and compares it to the many UN resolutions passed and the initiatives undertaken over the past few decades it will not take much time or effort to conclude that the United Nations has significantly deviated from its origins. What was once an international forum that staunchly defended the human person, and each individual's dignity and inalienable rights has today become a battlefield for the social engineering of States—heavily influenced by non-governmental organizations (NGO) and lobbyists, funded by globalist billionaires—with agendas that bring about a moral disorder in society and a Culture of Death.

The details of what the United Nations has become today can be read at C-Fam: Center for Family and Human Rights.

Saint John Paul II's address is a treasure trove of clarity, knowledge, and understanding about the truth of the human person and how each individual's dignity and inalienable rights are inseparable from freedom and peace in the world.

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Lessons in Hope: My Unexpected Life With St. John Paul II

Lessons in Hope: My Unexpected Life With St. John Paul II and Centesimus annus
George Weigel's book, Lessons in Hope: My Unexpected Life With St. John Paul II and St. John Paul II's encyclical, Centesimus annus released in 1991, on the hundredth anniversary of Rerum Novarum

As a blogger I do a lot of reading in order to be better informed and remain current on a variety of topics that I blog about. At times I put all that aside and take on some pleasure reading. Today's post is about such a reading, Lessons in Hope: My Unexpected Life with St. John Paul II; a book written by George Weigel, a Catholic theologian, leading American public intellectual, and Senior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, who I had the pleasure of meeting in October 2016, at the Catholic Civil Rights League's Annual General Meeting in Toronto.

Weigel's latest book completes the triptych on the life of St. John Paul II, that began with his two previous volumes, Witness to Hope and The End and the Beginning.

The impetus for writing this "third panel" on the portrait of St. John Paul II's life stemmed from Weigel's discovery that during the promotion of The End and the Beginning (published in 2010) readers and audiences wanted to know more about St. John Paul II's life: stories that would, as Weigel put it, "...[M]ake him present again by rekindling memories or illuminating previously unknown aspects of his rich personality." (3)

Responding to that yearning to know St. John Paul II in a more personal way—which did not fit into the genre of serious biography—Weigel set out to "widen the anecdotal lens" and wrote the third volume of this seminal work that truly is a treasure trove of anecdotal information on the life of both men.

Weigel presented that anecdotal information within a timeline of his life: that began with Lent 1960; fast-forwarded to his university education; throughout his professional life; St. John Paul II's death and funeral; continued to the writing and promotion of The End and the Beginning; and concluded with a final reflection.

In 1982, having arrived at the Marian shrine of Fatima, on a pilgrimage of thanksgiving for surviving the assassination attempt made on his life a year before at St. Peter's Square, St. John Paul II stated, "In the designs of Providence, there are no mere coincidences." (5) That statement summed up St. John Paul II's view of God's ways with the world and with history. (5) 

Reflecting upon his own experience learning about St. John Paul II, Weigel understood that much of what happened over the course of his life was not just happenstance or coincidence, but part of God's providential plan for his life: preparation for becoming St. John Paul II's biographer. Weigel referred to that preparation as "bricks" that formed the "foundation" for his study of St. John Paul II. 

The first part of Weigel's reflection took him back to his childhood, detailed in the chapter, Lent in the Third Grade, where he uses the analogy of a seed planted in him that eventually flowered into a passion for Polish history and literature, and a determination to tell the story of St. John Paul II, who at that time was the forty-year-old auxiliary bishop of Kraków.

That seed during Lent 1960, was the prayer assignment given at the Cathedral School in downtown Baltimore, for each grade to pray for the conversion of a communist leader during the entire time of Lent. Grade three's assigned figure was Poland's Władysław Gomułka—the de facto leader of post-war Poland until 1948, and later between 1956-1970—who was a supporter for the persecution of the Catholic Church and intellectuals, and who together with his associates mistakenly considered Karol Józef Wojtyła to be an intellectual they could manipulate.

The first brick laid in the foundation of Weigel's life was between 1969-1973, during his seminary studies in philosophy at St. Mary's Seminary College in Baltimore. Although he did not pursue a vocation to the priesthood, the time at St. Mary's proved to be essential for Weigel's biographical studies in order to get inside the mind of "Karol Wojtyła the philosopher," who St. John Paul II himself stated, "...[C]ould only be understood from the inside." (93)

The foundation grew during his graduate studies at the University of Toronto, between 1973-1975, and continued into the early part of his career between 1975-1984; a time that Weigel referred to himself as an "apprentice wordsmith."

The "apprenticeship" included two years (1975-1977) as a junior faculty member of St. Thomas Seminary School of Theology in Kemore, Washington; and as Weigel noted, it was a crucial turning point in his life when he learned the invaluable lesson, "...[Y]ou really don't know what you think about something until you try to teach it, persuade others of it, or engage others in it." (17)

The apprenticeship moved from teaching at St. Thomas into the world of think tanks: the World Without War Council (WWWC) in Seattle. It was also a time in which Weigel was afforded the opportunity to further develop his writing skills and he wrote articles about several topics including religion and St. John Paul II.

Weigel's debut as a "public intellectual/theologian/columnist" had several effects. One of which was the exploration of St. John Paul II's grand strategy for the victory of freedom in Central and Eastern Europe, "...[T]he robust defense of human rights, anchored in religious freedom, as a nonviolent weapon that communism could not match." (23)

Think tanks did not offer Weigel the same financial security as teaching, but it did provide him with something even more valuable: freedom. It was with that freedom that Weigel was able to take on his first assignment in 1979: to write about St. John Paul II's first papal pilgrimage to the United States in October of that same year.

Weigel elaborated on that assignment in the chapter, Front Row Seat, where he wrote how the "nascent desire" to know St. John Paul II better was born from the few seconds when St. John Paul II passed by him, only a foot or two away, inside the United Nations General Assembly building, where the Pope delivered what Weigel described as a "stunning speech." That encounter would eventually lead Weigel into relationships and adventures he never thought possible as a "...[N]ewbie columnist on the fringes of the papal media tsunami in October 1979." (27)

On what was an "unforgettable morning," Weigel walked to the home of then Pastor Richard Neuhaus seeking his insight on the speech. It was the first conversation Weigel had about the proper interpretation of a St. John Paul II text, "...[T]he keys, he [Neuhaus] insisted, were the Pope's locating human rights at the center of any humane world politics, religious freedom at the center of human rights, and a biblically informed notion of human dignity as the foundation of the whole edifice." (25)

It was only a couple of months later in March of that same year that Weigel "unpacked" the key themes of Christian personalism in St. John Paul II's first encyclical, Redemptor Hominis.

Between 1984-1985, Weigel spent a year "in the castle"; a reference to his time at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars (WWICS) in Washington, which at that time was located in the old Smithsonian Castle on the National Mall. During that year, Weigel experienced: true academic community; a fellowship that reverenced the truth; and was befriended by five men whom he credits as having "decisively" shaped his future thinking and work.

Following his sabbatical at the WWICS, Weigel spent the next four years (1985-1989) launching and leading the World Without War Council's sister organization, the James Madison Foundation, which involved him in enterprises that would shape his work on St. John Paul II. (33)

A photo of George Weigel, Senior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington
George Weigel. Photo: Ethics and
Public Policy Center/George Weigel
In 1989, Weigel became the second president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center (EPPC); a position he held for seven years. The EPPC had as Weigel put it, "...[A] well-deserved reputation for serious public policy research that fit well within the neoconservative consensus." (38) He went on to further describe it as a place where colleagues shared his conviction that St. John Paul II was "...[T]he religious figure of consequence on the world stage." (38)

It was during this time that Weigel took one step closer to becoming St. John Paul II's biographer: writing about the pope's encyclical, Centesimus Annus. The experience taught him something very important about the pope: that St. John Paul II had "...[B]rilliantly scouted the terrain on which the battle for the twenty-first century would be fought in the West—a man I thought I would like to know better." (42).

Weigel had been writing about St. John Paul II steadily since 1979, and by 1991, he had become one of pope's "principal interpreters" in North America, which St. John Paul II, through his personal intelligence network, was well aware.

Being one of the pope's principal interpreters did not make Weigel's "stock" rise among those who considered Karol Wojtyła a "Conservative Pole with a premodern mind." Weigel had a different view of St. John Paul II, "...[I] had come to the settled view that he [St. John Paul II] was a thoroughly modern intellectual with a very different read on modernity—one that deserved serious attention. That judgement was amply confirmed when Centesimus Annus was published at the beginning of May 1991." (41) Weigel dedicated two full pages to this encyclical that included his description of St. John Paul II's brilliance:
...John Paul crafted an encyclical that brilliantly described the threefold free and virtuous society of the future as one composed of a democratic political community, a free economy, and a vibrant public moral culture. And, he insisted, the culture was the key to all the rest, because it took a certain kind of people, culturally tutored in certain virtues, to make the machinery of free politics and free markets work so that the result is genuine human flourishing. Truth, he argued, and especially the truth about the human person, had everything to do with living freedom well and building prosperous economies. And the central truth that the free societies of the future had to own was the truth about the human person, which we can know by both revelation and reason. (41)
In the chapter, Rookie Vaticanista, Weigel details how over the course of eight days in Rome in 1991, he met with several figures in the Roman Curia and Rome-based journalists. From those conversations, Weigel referred to one in particularly as especially important in shaping his perceptions of St. John Paul II's role in the fall of communism: the conversation with then-archbishop Jan Schotte; a man who, "...[I]ntuitively grasped John Paul II's culture-driven approach to historical change, in which the truth, spoken clearly and winsomely enough, has the power to forge cultural tools of resistance to oppression." (52)

Schotte revealed that the first thing St. John Paul II did upon assuming the office of the papacy was to ask for the archives on the Ostpolitik—the well-intentioned failed Eastern policy of Pope Paul VI that sought to appease communist countries with the hope that the Catholic Church would not be subjected to persecution. That review helped convince St. John Paul II to follow his instincts of being, "...[M]ore forthright and 'undiplomatic' in his defense of religious freedom and his unmistakable challenge to communism from the very beginning of his papacy." (52)

The conversation with Joaquín Navarro-Valls, the Vatican spokesman from 1984 to 2006—a Spanish layman and medical doctor who had practiced psychiatry before entering into the world of journalism—helped to further distinguish St. John Paul II's approach to communism from Pope Paul VI's, specifically with respect to the different readings of the Yalta accords. Navarro-Valls emphasized that Pope Paul VI saw the accords (which divided Europe at the end of WWII) as a political fact, whereas St. John Paul II completely rejected Yalta and all that it represented on, "...[E]thical, historical, and cultural grounds—which was why his [St. John Paul II] method turned out to be 'much more subversive' in undermining the Yalta system than an overtly political approach would have been." (54)

St. John Paul II on stage to celebrate Mass for Pentecost, Poland 1979
St. John Paul ll's 1979 Vigil Mass for Pentecost at Victory Square, Warsaw, Poland. Photo: YouTube/WYD2016 Blog 2 - A Pilgrim's Guide to Warsaw

Seeking to deepen his understanding of how St. John Paul II "triggered a revolution of conscience" in Poland, Weigel made his first trip to pope's homeland in 1991. During those twelve days he travelled to Warsaw, Kraków, Gdańsk, and Tarnów, where he inquired about the origins of the Revolution of 1989. Whether it was a government official, journalist, priest, house wife, academic or anyone else, they all responded with the same answer: St. John Paul II's epic June 1979 pilgrimage to Poland, the "Nine Days that changed the history of the twentieth century." (57)

From the many people Weigel met with I found his conversation with Polish priest, Father Kazimierz Jancarz particularly interesting, not only from what he shared, but due to the fact that his parish, the Church of St. Maximilian Kolbe, was in the Mistrzejowice nieghbourhood of Nowa Huta, where the battle to build a church was hardest fought in previous decades against the communists, who planned Nowa Huta to be a town without a Church and without God.

The great symbol in that struggle was the Ark Church in the Bienczyce neighbourhood of Nowa Huta where since 1959, St. John Paul II celebrated midnight Mass at an open, outdoor field until the Ark Church's completion and dedication on May 15, 1977.

Weigel wrote that Father Jancarz gave him a lesson in how hope, "...[W]as kept alive at the grassroots level in the 1980s, during and after martial law." (61) Elaborating on Father Jancarz's information, Weigel captured the spirit of Polish cultural resistance:
Under his leadership, the Kolbe parish in Nowa Huta became a piece of free Poland when the regime tried to stamp out Solidarity [A trade union that became legally recognized, independent, and self governing after the 1979 papal pilgrimage] and what it represented: free space for free associations of free people who could think freely about themselves and the future. An underground university was formed for the steelworkers, the professors coming from the Jagiellonian University and the Kraków Polytechnic; some four hundred workers 'graduated' after four semesters (including their 'proletarian' parish priest). 'Evenings of Polish culture'—political cabarets, theatrical performances, musical programs—replicated Karol Wojtyła's own experience in the cultural resistance during World War II: people in touch with their own culture can never be completely occupied, whether by a Nazi occupation force or by communist usurpers. (62)
When St. John Paul II had given the "green light" for Witness to Hope in December 1995, during a "dinner of consequence," Weigel decided that the best approach would be to postpone any writing for eighteen months, during which time he set out to meet with as many people as possible and read all that he could on the pope. It resulted in more than a thousand pages of interview notes and eight full-size drawers of research materials.

Much of Lessons in Hope detailed the research of those eighteen months: the many conversations and numerous interviews with members of the Roman Curia, and several other clergy at various levels of the Church hierarchy; members of religious Orders; and St. John Paul II's network of lay friends (young adults and married couples) that began forming around him in the late 40's, the group of people referred to as "Środowisko."

Those conversations provided insights into the rich interior life and personality of St. John Paul II and his papacy. Some stood out in my mind more than others.

The first of those individuals is Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI (then-cardinal Ratzinger, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith) whom Weigel describes as "unfailingly helpful" when he was preparing Witness to Hope, and to whom he dedicated an entire chapter entitled, The Indispensable Man. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI informed Weigel that St. John Paul II was a man with "an acute sense of the human dilemma in late modernity"; the problem of 'the human person,' which as he further explained was what "...[D]rove both Wojtyła's philosophical work and his pontificate." (112) 

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI shared how he had lunched regularly with St. John Paul II; working lunches that were "quasi-seminars," where St. John Paul II thought out his weekly audience addresses, hashed out major encyclicals, two responses to liberation theology, and the apostolic letter, Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, on the Church's inability to admit women to the priesthood. (113)

A photo of St. John Paul II with then-cardinal Ratzinger at the Vatican
St. Pope John Paul II with Pope Emeritus
Benedict XVI (then-cardinal Ratzinger)
Weigel described the working relationship between St. John Paul II and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI:
They were something of an odd couple: a Pole and a German of the same World War II generation; a philosopher and a theologian; a former actor and a man one couldn't imagine on stage; a thinker-sportsman-mystic who became a compelling public personality and a learned but shy scholar who was likely happiest when reading or playing the piano by himself. Yet they worked in harness for over twenty-three years, one succeeding the other as pope. And between them, they gave the Second Vatican Council what it lacked until October 16, 1978—a coherent, comprehensive, and authoritative interpretation that pointed the Church into the third millennium of evangelical mission, which was what John XXIII had hoped for in summoning Vatican II. (111)
Another individual that stood out in my mind is Sister Emilia Ehrlich, an Ursaline nun and the Pope's English tutor and personal librarian, who Weigel met in 1997, and to whom he also dedicated an entire chapter: Tutor, Translator, Librarian, Nun. 

Sister Emilia, whose background is both Polish and American, fluent in English, and held a divinity degree from the Pontifical Faculty of Theology, insisted that Weigel not mention her in his book because she was "just a private person helping the Pope" and didn't want to be considered a "second Pascalina"—a reference to Pope Pius XII's powerful housekeeper, Mother Pascalina Lehnert, who "...[W]as ejected from the Vatican the day Pius XII died and took refuge in the convent at the North American College, bringing the late pontiff's pet parakeets with her." (123) Sister Emilia had spoken of St. John Paul II in quite a remarkable way:
As for the man who was always being orphaned, she said that 'he was a faithful friend and once you were his friend, you were always his friend.' People loved him because 'he loved people,' and kept promises, said what he thought and didn't speak until he had something serious to say: something rare among intellectuals, she shrewdly observed. She also remarked on his exceptional ability to make people in vast crowds think he was addressing them personally. (124) 
Of the many Curial figures Weigel spoke with who taught him about St. John Paul II and the challenges he faced governing the Church, I thought it noteworthy to include some of the details from Weigel's conversation with Cardinal Francis Arinze from Nigeria. 

Weigel descried Cardinal Arinze as one of his favourite interlocutors and a man of "...[I]nsight and charm and a first-generation Christian who seemed overwhelmingly grateful for the gift of faith he had been given as a boy." (133)

Cardinal Arinze knew and worked with then Cardinal Wojtyła during the synods of 1969, 1971, and 1977, and he told Wiegel that upon hearing of St. John Paul II's election as pope, he immediately informed some Irish priests in Belfast with whom he was staying, "We're going to have a bit of clarity in the Church. Now, we are going to know where we stand, clearly, without being aggressive, but clear." (133)

There is one comment in particular from Cardinal Arinze that was striking and brought back memories of St. John Paul II's life and papacy, "...[T]he John Paul II Effect was to make 'a Catholic who is a serious Catholic happy that he is living at this time in history." (133)

Weigel wrote that Cardinal Arinze understood why St. John Paul II as a vocation magnet, "How can young people join a group of permanently confused people who don't know where they're going? The Holy Father is just the opposite. People who see him know that he is happy in his vocation. His general style has encouraged vocations, because young men see that he is happy." (133)

In the chapter, Wojtyła's Poland in Depth, Weigel details his trips to Warsaw, Kraków, and Lublin in April 1997; researching St. John Paul II's pre-papal life. During that time, he met with many people, both clergy and laity, including members of the Środowisko group.

A black and white photo of Fr. Karol Wojtyła with students in 1954
Fr. Karol Wojtyła with students in 1954. Photo: First Things/The Jeweller's Shop, John Paul II, and the Joy of Holiness

Saint John Paul II had insisted earlier that same year (January 1997) that Weigel would not be able to understand him unless he understood the people of Środowisko. So Weigel set out to learn what they could teach him about Fr. Wojtyła.

In addition to most of the individuals becoming professionals in various fields (some quite distinguished) Weigel was struck by, "...[T]heir stories, while displaying the personal touches that came from intimate friendships involving unique personalities, were completely coherent in the portrait they drew of Karol Wojtyła as priest, bishop, and friend." (157)

Among the many characteristics of St. John Paul II, they mentioned: his "permanent openness"; a man who mastered the art of listening; how Fr. Wojtyła insisted on the moral responsibility of each individual; that they talked about everything, but never once did Fr. Wojtyła impose a view; and that the spiritual direction he gave to each individual included what would become his signature phrase, "You must decide." (157) Weigel described how content the people of Środowisko felt with Fr. Wojtyła: 
The result was a zone of freedom in a world of greyness and conformity. In a communist environment that remained stifling even after the worst of the Stalinist repression, they 'felt completely free with him,' as Teresa Malecka put it. 'While he was among us we felt that everything was all right.' They also emphasized that all this—hiking, kayaking, skiing with young people and young couples, parties in their homes for name days and after the baptisms of their children—was unheard of among other Polish clergy. So was Wojtyła's custom of saying Mass on their summer vacations with an overturned kayak as an impoverished altar. (158)
Father Wojtyła had asked the Środowisko group to call him "Wujek," which in Polish means "Uncle." He did so as a matter of protecting himself and the group from the ubiquitous secret police; a time when it was illegal for organized Catholic youth groups to meet with priests. Fathert Wojtyła's rise in the Church hierarchy did not end that special relationship with Środowisko, as he assured them, "Don't worry, Wujek will remain Wujek." (158) 

Much of what Weigel wrote rekindled memories of my discovery of the life and papacy of St. John Paul II through the many references to the pope's writings. Perhaps what rekindled that discovery the most was Weigel's inclusion of St. John Paul II's Love and Responsibility and Theology of the Body.

It is in the chapter, Something Useful for the Universal Church, that Weigel wrote about Love and Responsibilitythe Kraków archdiocesan institute on marriage that Bishop Wojtyła created and whose works were first published in 1960, in a book of the same title—and how it was Fr. Wojtyła's pastoral response to the question of his young student friends, "How do we prepare a good marriage?" Love and Responsibility details the answer to this question, providing the fundamental understanding of what it means to be a "person," and the challenge of human sexuality.

It was in that same chapter that Weigel also wrote about Theology of the Bodythe 129 general audience addresses the pope delivered at St. Peters Square from September 1979-1984, in which St. John Paul II provided his vision of the human person based on scriptural references; and revealed the truth about what the human body means, the call to be a gift of self, and detailed God's plan for mankind.

Weigel also included in that same chapter, two other important writings: Saint John Paul II's Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris Consortio (on the role of the Christian family in the modern world) and Evangelium Vitae, the encyclical on the value and inviolability of human life.

Ben-Hur and the Pope is the chapter where Weigel wrote about the film documentary, Witness to Hopeand how it came into being which had a special significance for me: it was my first in-depth look into the life and papacy of St. John Paul II. It aired on my local Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) station in the fall of 2001, and it immediately instilled in me a desire to know the pope better. From that day on my discovery of St. John Paul II began (and continues to this day) that without a doubt, led to my attendance at World Youth Day 2002, in Toronto.

As to World Youth Day 2002, Weigel included some of his memorable moments in the chapter, The Long Lent. That inclusion brought back several memories, one of which Weigel shared: the clearing of the dark skies and rain that day in North York, into into a bright, sunny one upon St. John Paul II's arrival.

Reading Lessons in Hope afforded me an opportunity to better understand the life and papacy of St. John Paul II in ways that I have never read before. I also gained a greater appreciation and respect for George Weigel and his achievements.

Among the many lessons that one can learn from reading Lessons in Hope, one that has stood out in my mind is that by cooperating with the Designs of Providence—and the many graces, gifts, and blessings that accompany them—God can accomplish great things through His chosen vessels. The lives of St. John Paul II and George Weigel are ample proof of that.