Book of the Month for March 1997

GIFT AND MYSTERY (On the Fiftieth Anniversary of My Priestly Ordination) by Pope John Paul II, Doubleday, New York, NY, 1996; 114 pp. $19.95.

Call me prophetic. Call me cheap. When I saw "Gift and Mystery" in a bookstore last December, I told my friend, Fr. Joe Tyson, "I want that book, but I bet someone will buy it for me as a twenty-fifth anniversary present."

A week later Leticia Riojas, a wonderful Mexican American woman, presented me with the audio tapes of the pope's book. And at the end of January, when he returned from Spain, my co-worker, Fr. Alberto Cerezo gave me the book itself.

This book, a very concise autobiography, shows once again the Holy Father's ability to surprise. Lots of people, especially his detractors, try to sum him up. Recently I was with some folks who lamented the pope's "narrow vision." According to this group, he is hopelessly limited by his Polish experience of a lockstep Catholicism where the one on top gives orders and those below fall in line. "He was never exposed to other cultures and other expressions of Catholicism," they said. From there it was argued that we would be better off with a pope who had risen through the diplomatic corps and thus knew the cultural depth, for example of the American Catholic Church.

"Gift and Mystery" does reveal a man who loves his Polish roots. I was touched several times by the transparency of that love. He talked for example about Adam Chmielowski, a Polish patriot who lost his leg in the "January Uprising" of 1864. Later he devoted himself totally to the poor of Cracow, establishing a public dormitory for the "street people" of that city. Although he died in 1918 (two years before the pope was born) that layman's example of "radical choice" inspired young Karol Wojtyla to leave behind art, literature and theater to follow a priestly vocation.

This love of his own roots was the base for appreciating other countries and cultures. When I read about his years in Rome and his pastoral experience in Belgium, I had a sense of someone who was not an outside observer, but who entered deeply into those cultures. As one who has spent time outside my own country (four years in Rome and seven in Peru) I can testify to the difficulty of doing that. We Americans are notorious for skimming the surface. Those who talk most about "inculturation" impose their own cultural biases: egalitarianism, relativism and most recently "feminism." The irony is that the old style missionary whose greatest value was his Catholic faith actually identified more deeply with people--and vica versa. The pope comes across as precisely that kind of man.

Besides combining rootedness with expansiveness the Holy Father shows another synthesis: the scholar and the man of the people. In this he hard to pin down. He is not an intellectual who adopts a folksy tone. Nor is he a pietist casting about for intellectual weapons to defend religiosity. Rather he dives into contemporary philosophy, especially the study of the human person, with an assurance that it can deepen faith. His studies did not remain in a dusty monograph; they became a cornerstone of his pastoral work as a priest and later archbishop of Cracow. Today he is engaging the modern world on exactly that point: the meaning of the human person.

The Holy Father's view of the human person is not simply a matter of combining philosophical studies with the Catechism. It was refined in the greatest fiery furnace of perhaps any time in history: the Nazi occupation followed by Soviet domination. He movingly describes how friends of his were sacrificed to the Hitlerites' worship of race. After those years of horror came the decades of resistance to an even more all encompassing totalitarianism. He says little about his own role in the downfall of the Soviet system. What comes out most clearly is his conviction that the battle for the dignity of the human person is hardly won. Consumerism threatens to undermine it in a way communism never could. The person becomes another commodity and his freedom simply an exercise in choice. (The great encyclical Splendor Veritatis is a powerful challenge to that destructive view of man.)

The answer to the corrosive philosophies of the modern world is not argumentation. Rather it depends on priests fulfilling their ministry. The pope's reflection on fifty years of priesthood is a plea to his brother priests: celebrate the Eucharist with faith, hear confessions, be with young people, encourage married couples and above all, pray. The pope was ordained a priest the year I was born. When I was ordained he was celebrating his twenty-fifth anniversary. I could not help but compare my experience to his. Not to kick myself for accomplishing so little in comparison, but to marvel at precisely what is expressed in the title: Gift and Mystery.

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