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Catholic Voice
  April 25, 2011   •   VOL. 49, NO. 8   •   Oakland, CA
Bishop's Column

A time for gratitude and renewed hope

The beatification of Pope John Paul II gives us all occasion once again, just as the occasion of his death, to reflect upon his life, his persona and the incomparable mark he has left on the Church in our time. In my own case, it takes a particularly personal note as well.

I still recall how his passing away affected me far more deeply and emotionally than I would have anticipated, and how many of my contemporaries told me the same thing about themselves. It was at that time that it dawned on me how much I have been influenced by this pope and how intertwined my priesthood has been with his pontificate.

Call it fate if you will, but it began from the very start when, as a young seminarian newly arrived in Rome to begin theology studies, I stood in St. Peter’s Square on the night he was elected and witnessed him appear on the balcony of the Basilica. From that night, I was privileged to have had some point of contact with him unique to each specific stage on my journey to and through Holy Orders: as a seminarian, serving midnight Mass for him; as a deacon, serving as a bearer of the holy oil for the Chrism Mass; as a priest, concelebrating Mass with him in his private chapel; as a bishop, being privy to an extended audience with him on the ad limina (required report by a bishop) visit.

Memorable World Youth Day

However, of these and all of the other up-close and distant encounters I had with John Paul II, the one that stands out most significantly in my memory is the 1993 World Youth Day in Denver. To welcome the Holy Father on our own ground, with the youth of the parish where I was pastor, and with youth from all around the world, was an extraordinary experience of the communion of the universal Church.

John Paul II’s affection for the youth and his world travels are only two items on a very long list of the legacy which he has left behind. He will equally be remembered for his tireless defense of the dignity of human life in all stages and conditions, for his understanding of the relationship between faith and reason and how these relate to truth and freedom, for his ability to reach out to and befriend people of all political persuasions and ethnic, economic and religious backgrounds, and, of course, for his constant injunction to us — and personal example — to “be not afraid.” Yet another contribution is one the meaning of which we will be unpacking for many years — indeed, generations — to come: his “theology of the body,” his insight that the nuptial imagery of Scripture is the key to understanding all of revelation.

New thinking

In effect, we are witnessing a development of Catholic thought not unlike that at the previous turn of the century. In the 19th century the philosophy of Marxism promised a society of social and economic justice, where all are truly equal; tragically, we know now that it resulted in some of the most unjust and brutal regimes in world history.

The Catholic response was the development of her social teaching, beginning with Pope Leo XIII’s landmark encyclical, Rerum novarm (Of new things), in 1891. The Church’s social teaching, though, does not so much make a new breakthrough in Catholic thought as it brings out into the light what was always within our teaching Tradition and develops it more thoroughly.

Similarly, at this turn of the century, we are witnessing the tragic results of the “sexual revolution” and all of the social upheavals that went with it, which deceptively promised liberation but, as it turns out, delivered oppression, in the form of broken families and broken lives — yet another affront to human dignity.

Theology of the body

The Church’s response — thanks to John Paul II — is the theology of the body, which reaffirms with greater insight, and in terms understandable to the contemporary mind, the Church’s constant belief in the beauty of God’s plan for marriage and in the truth that the human person is to be valued as a good in and of itself, and not for any ulterior purpose. Once again here, this is not so much a completely new body of teaching as it is a matter of digging deeply into the Church’s teaching tradition over the centuries and developing it in light of the “signs of the times.”

Both of these pivotal developments in Church teaching correct the same error which is the basis of the false promise of justice in Marxism and the false promise of freedom in the sexual revolution: an incorrect understanding of the human person. Both are philosophies of materialism; they understand all of reality as consisting of only what is material, and so can understand the human person as only a material, or physical, being. There is no more. From Church teaching, though, we know that there is more, much more.

The human person is primarily a spiritual being, with a destiny that lies beyond this world. Moreover, human beings work out their eternal salvation within the context of society; we are also social beings, and so everyone is to have a proper place within the interactions of society. We know, too, that we are not compartmentalized beings, as if the spiritual, the social and the physical dimensions of our being were all disconnected. No, they all make up the one human person created in the image and likeness of God.

Complete vision

This integral and complete vision of the human person informs everything that the Church does and teaches: worship, education, health care, other forms of social outreach, works of justice and charity, and so forth. And consequently, when put into action, it results in true justice and true freedom.

These historic days for us as Catholics are a time of thanksgiving and renewed hope. The succession of Pope Benedict XVI to the Chair of Peter has provided both continuity and distinction in the Church’s leadership: no one could be better suited to continue the legacy begun by John Paul II, but by placing his own extraordinary gifts and talents at the service of the Gospel. Like his predecessor, Pope Benedict will leave his own unique, indelible mark on the Church.

Our Lord reminds us once again that he does not leave his flock untended. As we move forward to face the challenges that lie ahead, we can do so with utter confidence, knowing that we have every reason to “be not afraid.”

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