Massimo FAGGIOLI: John Paul II, the last European pope

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John Paul II, the last European pope

Massimo FAGGIOLI

Church historian, Professor of Theology and Religious Studies at Villanova University and contributing writer to Commonweal magazine. He was on the faculty at the University of St. Thomas from 2009 to 2016, where he was the founding director of the Institute for Catholicism and Citizenship.

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In some sense John Paul II was the last European pope: he was the successor to the last Italian popes (Paul VI and the very brief papacy of John Paul I), before the global turn of Catholicism that is developing under our very eyes — writes Massimo FAGGIOLI.

His idea of Europe was deeply shaped by a culture of nations and not of Heimat. He interpreted creatively that European identity as a bridge to a global and multicultural Catholicism, and not as a past the Church would return to.

The election of Karol Wojtyla signified the end of a particular phase in the history of a more dialogical Vatican Ostpolitik with Communist countries. At the same time, his pontificate was not free from the constraints of a particular situation: especially the “revanche de Dieu,” the beginning of a new phase in the relations between politics and religion on the world stage, with more assertive religious identities in both Judaism and Islam. Early on, John Paul II had to deal with the muscular anti-communist policy of Ronald Reagan, in Europe as well as in Latin America. John Paul II had to reframe the relationship between Catholicism and the global world, which, at that moment in history, meant also a renegotiation in the relationship between Europe and the USA. The turn of 1989-1991 in European history did not catch Vatican policy unprepared: John Paul II was far less triumphant than others about the prospects of a world to be built on the rubble of Soviet communism.

The objective convergence of views between the vision of John Paul II and that of the US administration of the 1980s towards Eastern Europe did not prevent the papacy from launching initiatives that implemented a wide-ranging Vatican vision of the post-conciliar world.

The gestures of his itinerant global pontificate – the trip to Casablanca on 19 August 1985, the visit to the synagogue of Rome on 13 April 1986, the first interreligious meeting in Assisi on 27 October 1986 – symbolically marked the first stages of a new Catholic vision of the world as a historical and spiritual landscape.

This ecumenical and inter-religious vision of John Paul II was inseparable from his historical and spiritual experience of 20th century Europe and its consequences for the entire world: the legacy of World War I, the inter-war period leading to World War II and the Holocaust, the Cold War, and the illusion of the “end of history” after the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe.

The magisterium of John Paul II on peace and interreligious dialogue gave the papacy an ecumenical role as the interpreter of universal political-moral instances speaking to a global audience, and meant a rejection of the theory of the inevitable “clash of civilizations”. That was one of the fruits of the very European culture of John Paul II. He forged a new relationship with the USA without forgetting the peculiar role of Europe thanks to a strong “geographical spirituality”. His “spirituality of the nations” was firmly grounded in the vision of a united Europe in a cultural communion with the Mediterranean and the Middle East. In this sense, it is clear that John Paul II’s anti-Communism was different from other anti-Communist ideological postures, including many anti-Communist sentiments in the very Catholic Church.

In the early 2000s the attempt of John Paul II to call Europe to turn to its “Christian roots” caused much criticism. That was the Polish pope’s interpretation of the challenge of secularization and multiculturalism – a way more Christian and culturally more aware than the ongoing “culture wars”, an American coinage permanently trying to land in the Old Continent.

After his death in 2005, the attempts to roll back the political and global outreach of the papacy have failed. It is evident from the renewed focus of Francis’ speeches and messages, during the pandemic, on the role of Europe in this particular moment in global history. The pontificate of Francis is one of the best evidences of this particular legacy of Karol Wojtyla’s life and work.

Massimo Faggioli

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