“As long as I have breath within me I shall cry out Peace in the name of God!”
So said Pope John Paul II, in 2002, when he was rapidly losing the breath within him.
He spoke to America at a turning point … a religious turning point, after which the credibility of the Catholic Church would take a terrible hit, and a political turning point, after which the credibility of the Bush administration would nosedive.
When Pope John Paul II begged the United States not to go to war with Iraq — both in 1990 and in 2002-3, he was handing us a golden opportunity to choose life over death.
No one on earth at the turn of the 21st century knew better how to triumph through peace than Pope John Paul II.
No one was more insistent about calling for peace.
No world figure was as willing to use the full weight of his moral authority to cry “no more war!”
We should have listened. We didn’t.
John Paul was born in the wake of World War I, found his vocation in the grip of World War II, spent his ecclesial career under Soviet occupation, and used his papacy to help bring about a peaceful resolution to the Cold War.
The images of him we have from his youth play like allegories of the human spirit’s refusal to be cowed by violence.
There was Karol Wojtyla, the altar boy, walking to church as the bombs fell.
“It was the first wartime Mass before the altar of the crucified Christ and the scream of sirens and the thud of explosions have remained forever in my memory,” said Father Kazimierz Figlewicz. “Nonetheless Karol in his imperturbable way had crossed over the bridge and walked to the cathedral because he was always observant in his religious commitments.”
There was young man Karol, the worker, struck down by a German truck and limping out of the hospital to enter the seminary.
There was Brother Karol the seminarian, hiding in the basement from the Nazis.
The lesson of his early life: Faith is greater than bombs. War may wound faith, but faith can’t be killed. Faith slowly gathers strength in the shadows of war.
Karol Wojtyla, the son of a Polish Army captain, knew that violence is often, sadly, necessary. In his message to the U.S. National Prayer Breakfast in 2000 he identified himself as “one who is personally grateful for what America did for the world in the darkest days of the twentieth century.”
But the armed intervention by the allies in World War II did not free his homeland. “Liberation Day” in Poland was a Soviet holiday, a sad joke. It marked the end of one occupation and the beginning of the next.
Karol Wojtyla’s entire ecclesiastical career in Poland was spent in a tense chess game with violent atheist communists who wanted to destroy the Church.
It was a chess game that he won.
He won not by directly attacking the atheist government but by creating “practical acts of solidarity.” George Weigel’s Witness to Hope tells the tale. When the Soviets would not allow a Church in a new town, John Paul gathered people for Mass in a meadow. The parish was no longer a request: It was an indisputable fact. When they tried to close a seminary in 1963 he promised to stand with the staff on the day of their eviction: A practical act of solidarity. The government backed down.
John Paul created the fact of a religiously aware Poland by preaching sermons about man’s interior freedom, and demonstrating what he meant. After Vatican II, Cardinal Wojtyla wrote Sources of Renewal about its teachings and formed hundreds of lay study groups to read its documents. The communists didn’t realize what was happening.
After he visited Poland as Pope in 1979, the Solidarity movement sprung from what one Polish leader cited by Weigel called “a huge forest planted by awakened consciences.” John Paul had planted that forest and tended it for years.
Under the noses of the Communists, John Paul II sewed the dangerous seeds of reform, and dealt a peaceful deathblow to the autocracy. Today, Poland is the bright spot for the Church in Europe. It is one of the last European countries to preserve some semblance of the right to life. Polish immigrants are keeping British parishes open, and Polish priests are supplying America’s Church, too.
So when Pope John Paul II begged the United States not to go to war with Iraq — both in 1990 and in 2002-3, he wasn’t a naïve peacenik talking out of school about something he knew nothing about.
He was the world’s towering expert in how to overcome violent opponents not for a day, not for a year, but in a way that would change the course of history.
Yet as the United States rushed to war, we too easily dismissed what he had to say.
When John Paul II said “Nothing is resolved by war, it only brings greater suffering and death,” he spoke from an experience that would have emotionally crushed most of us.
When he commanded, “No one can remain silent and inactive; no political or religious leader!” he was begging for Catholics to take up his cry.
When he said, “Denunciation must be followed by practical acts of solidarity that will help everyone to rediscover mutual respect and to return to frank negotiation,” he was referencing his life’s towering achievements. Too many of us dismissed his words as church platitudes.
The whole world is different because of what John Paul did, along with the the political forces of the West. It would be so much better if we had done this one thing more together.
Before Iraq, George Bush was going to be the president that ended abortion. On day two of his term, he told the March for Life he was banning overseas abortion. On day six, he made an unprecedented visit to the home of Washington’s archbishop to meet with U.S. bishops. Then, at a February meeting with 37 Catholic leaders he revealed his master plan: First, increase service to the poor and to mothers in trouble through faith-based initiatives, then address abortion legislatively.
After Sept. 11, 2001, he was poised to make good on his plan. We struck back against Afghanistan’s Taliban with the general approval of the world (including the Vatican). “God bless America” signs were up at gas stations. People were helping each other and politically divided Americans were pulling together as a team. If ever a moment was ripe for faith-based initiatives – step one of Bush’s pro-life plan – it was then.
But with the prize before him, Bush strayed. He looked to Iraq and took his eyes off the prize.
The Iraq war brought pain, suffering and division to Americans. Then, it brought profound change. Ross Douthat made the case in “The Obama Era, Brought to You By Iraq.”
Gripped with resentment over the Iraq war, Americans elected Barack Obama, the most pro-abortion voice in the Senate. He promptly became the most pro-abortion president ever. But his rejection of the right-to-life didn’t just lead him to target the unborn. Obama went From Anti-War Law Professor To Warmonger In 100 Days and as Warrior-In-Chief he presides over a Lethal Presidency. And soon he went from rejecting the right to life to rejecting the right to religious liberty, outlawing Catholic consciences in health care.
We have no way of knowing what might have been. Perhaps America was too far gone already.
We do know that in his second inauguration, George Bush seemed to have learned the John Paul lesson. Said Bush:
“Freedom, by its nature, must be chosen, and defended by citizens, and sustained by the rule of law and the protection of minorities. And when the soul of a nation finally speaks, the institutions that arise may reflect customs and traditions very different from our own. America will not impose our own style of government on the unwilling. Our goal instead is to help others find their own voice, attain their own freedom, and make their own way. The great objective of ending tyranny is the concentrated work of generations. The difficulty of the task is no excuse for avoiding it.”
We should have done it that way the first time.
The words of this dying, pained Pope in Rome sound more relevant than ever this Easter Week:
“How many members of the human family are still subject to misery and violence! In how many corners of the world do we hear the cry of those people who implore help, because they are suffering and dying….
“Men and women of the third millennium! Let me repeat to you: open your hearts to Christ, crucified and risen, who comes with the offer of peace! Wherever the risen Christ enters, he brings with him true peace! May that peace enter, first of all, every human heart, the unsoundable depth, not easy to heal. May it permeate relations between all sectors of society, between different peoples, tongues and mentalities, bringing everywhere the leaven of solidarity and love.”
St. John Paul II, pray for us.
We long to “Be not afraid.” Ask God to give us a portion of the courage he gave you to go to God’s altar as the bombs are falling and to get up from the roadside and return to the altar, with a limp.
We find it so much easier to destroy than to build. Teach us to follow the hard way of Christ which is to heal hearts, teach the principles freedom and practice love, in “practical acts of solidarity.”
St. John Paul, pray that, now that your breath has gone, we may take up your cry of Peace in the name of God.
CatholicVote.org is celebrating Pope John Paul II and his contributions to solving problems facing the world over the last 50 years. Here are other published commentaries at CV this week:
April 21: ‘As long as I have breath within me I shall cry out peace in the name of God’ by Tom Hoopes
April 21: 34 ways to have an epic life — the greatness of John Paul the Great by John White
April 22: John Paul II, Abortion, and Democracy by Carson Holloway
April 23: JP2 on the New Feminism: Be Not Afraid by Pia de Solenni