Today is the 11th anniversary of Pope John Paul II's death.
I am still trying to get my arms around his legacy, and his influence on me and my soul. I suspect I'll be at it for the rest of my life—trying to sort and catalogue, organize and share my thoughts about his teaching, which seems to me key to everything. At least it is the key to understanding modernity—the mind of the Church in our day and time. I have also found it, mysteriously, key to my understanding myself and my spiritual journey—the meaning and "point" of the particular struggles I've faced along the way.
I came of age under John Paul II. I was 12 when he was elected; 39 when he died. Jules and I got to meet him in September of 1989, just weeks after our marriage, when I was already expecting our first baby. (The smile on his face is because I had just told him about her.)
My initial impression of him as Pope, I think, was in the context of the culture war. He stood for moral absolutes against relativism, and for lively, joyous faith against atheism. In college, I began to study him as an ethical thinker, through a course on the Nature of Love at the beginning of my courtship with Jules, when the impact of his thought was very existential. I came upon his poetry then, too, and his mysticism.
Later, in grad school, I got to know him more as a Cold War hero—an ardent opponent of the evil ideology of Marxism and materialism and a fearless defender of the dignity of the human person.
For decades I would say I interpreted him as a champion of the political and cultural right. And he was. But over the last ten years, I have begun to appreciate him more deeply as a champion also of the good causes of the left. He opposed authoritarianism, militarism, and social injustice of all kinds. He endorsed feminism. He stressed freedom. Above all, he directed attention to the subjectivity of the person.
The miracle is that he did it while at then same time thematizing the objectivity of truth. His personalism subsumed right and left; objectivity and subjectivity; transcendence and immanence; modernity and tradition.
Summarizing his legacy isn't easy. Often I dislike others' attempts to do it. I have issues, for instance, with Michael Waldstein's introduction to the Theology of the Body, which seems to me to paint John Paul II as an anti-modernist, when he was nothing of the kind. But then when I try to capture and convey his contributions myself, I find I too fall short. I can recognize certain definite themes:
1. The relation between freedom and truth
2. The master/slave dynamic
3. The priority of interiority
4. The embodiment of the human person
5. The hermeneutics of the gift
But I'm easily perplexed when I try to present all these in right relation to each other and to the whole of his thought and witness.
One thing I'm sure of though: The Church has hardly begun to realize the gift we had in him.