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Be not afraid – the lesson of St John Paul


GIVE us leaders again like Pope John Paul II, Reagan and Thatcher, the cry goes up today, St John Paul’s Day. The lesson of St John Paul is one of personal responsibility. Leaders fail us but it is within our compass to affirm truth, he taught, to live beyond fear. 

This year marks the hundredth anniversary of the birth of Karol Wojtyla in Wadowice, southern Poland. Walking up from the railway station, the playing fields where he once played in goal for a Jewish football team are still there. Visitors kneel in the church where he was baptised. The town is full of cheerful restaurants and shops. Tourists and townsfolk mingle. Pilgrims have come to love this man to whom under God so many of us owe our faith. 

There is no such thing as coincidence, St John Paul taught. Bold claims for a man who valued the family as an instrument of God. His own mother died when he was barely nine, his brother three years later and his father in 1941. Amidst the death squads and starvation of wartime Krakow, Karol Wojtyla made friends with people he was to keep in touch with for the rest of his life. Together they resisted Nazi occupation. This was not an occupation like that of France or Denmark. From 1939 the Germans set about stamping out Polish identity altogether. As the thugs and searchlights of the Gestapo swept the streets, the Rhapsodic Theatre celebrated Polish culture in secret. Karol Wojtyla and his friends wrote and performed plays in upper rooms, reciting the poet and dramatist Adam Mickiewicz by candlelight.

This idea of celebrating culture over and above the absurdities of the prevailing regime gained traction under the Soviet occupation. Catholic Poland struggled between the rubble of the Third Reich and the sociopathic madness of the Soviet Union. Both systems overlooked the sanctity of the individual. Made in the image of God every person is unique, a truth John Paul was to assert forcefully throughout his life. This fired a sense of curiosity about the individual and the infinity of God’s creation. Years after meeting them the Pope would remember people and ask after their spouses and children. An enormous appetite for reading and discussion fuelled an intellectual inquiry that ranged from Aquinas to Aristotle, even Bob Dylan. At a conference in Bologna John Paul was billed to speak after the singer. Bob Dylan ended his set with Blowin’ in the Wind. Intrigued, John Paul put aside his prepared text and talked of the Holy Spirit, the answer, he suggested. 

Starting in Krakow his grouping of friends, the Srodowisko, called him Wujek (uncle). The idea was to confound the communists who banned Catholic priests from teaching. The Srodowisko took to the hills skiing, hiking and kayaking. Wujek celebrated Mass, often using an upturned canoe as an altar. Everyone dressed in old clothes, battered denims and canvas jackets, better suited to the great outdoors than the cloister. This did not matter to the priest. For at the centre of his life was Christ, a real person, God made flesh.

The completeness of his faith remains an inspiration. His was not a blind faith. John Paul wrote poetry and plays, sang, shared jokes. His humour disconcerted church officials. This was life lived to the full. ‘I am come that you may have life and have it in abundance,’ Jesus said and John Paul took him at his word. Despite the Cold War John Paul taught that life was to be lived for the glory of God. The effect on Poland was dramatic. A Scots businessman who visited the country many times in the 1980s said, ‘You’d be sitting in a crowded restaurant and suddenly someone would jump up and propose a toast: “The Polish Pope”. Everyone bounded to their feet and crashed down a drink. This went on and on with no thought for the secret police.’ Polish national pride was restored, confidence and identity rekindled. Poles simply couldn’t take communism seriously. 

The centrality of Christ to all men and women meant stepping away from a tribal identification of Catholicism. John Paul, along with Joseph Ratzinger, Pope Benedict XVI, was one of the principal architects of Vatican II. To see this in terms of liberalism versus conservatism is to misunderstand the council. The eternal truths of which the church is the guardian do not change. They are to be explained and the gospel promulgated, wider and better as Christ instructed. John Paul argued that the church was not primarily a Petrine or Pauline institution – i.e. not a hierarchical administrative structure under the successor of Peter nor a driven, evangelical, teaching, organisation informed by Paul. No, it is Marian – of Mary. The church, he taught, was on a mission to enable men and women to say Yes! to God just as Mary had.

John Paul was a good listener. In the confessional his parting words before absolution were often: ‘You must decide.’ The penitent was encouraged to take personal responsibility. The church cannot insist on Christ, only propose him, he said. The individual, formed in the image of God, is sacrosanct. Faith is by revelation not diktat. John Paul called people to a life of heroic virtue. The state cannot direct your life for you. Freedom, he taught, was the ability to choose good, to hold yourself to a higher moral standard, to strive for holiness. This became apparent during the struggle against the communists. A secular state placing no value on the individual or the family was invalid. 

The lesson of St John Paul is that we need not be swayed by current fashion, political correctness or secular culture. The truth of Christ transcends the mundane. We can assert our culture and our faith in ideas freely discussed and laughter. It is by the life of the spirit we confound an iniquity as insidious and damning as that faced by St John Paul. ‘Be not afraid’ became his antiphon, or catchphrase if you will. It still serves us well. 

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John Musgrave
John Musgrave
John Musgrave is an author living in the West Country. His first novel Radio A-Go-Go is out now.

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