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"Man is the way for the Church." That short, yet profound, statement illustrates the complexity of Karol Wojtyla, the man called to serve the Church as Pope John Paul II 25 years ago.
The pope used that phrase in his first encyclical, Redemptor hominis, published only four months after his election.
In that encyclical the pope outlined his vision of the task ahead, as the Church approached the new millennium. In it, he stressed the need to focus on Christ, the redeemer of man “because there is salvation in no one else but Him, the Son of God.”
Christ’s work of redemption took place through His incarnation, through His becoming man. “By His incarnation, He, the Son of God, in a certain way united Himself with each man,” the pope wrote.
If Christ united Himself with each person, then the mission of the Church comes through recognizing the presence and the dignity of Christ in each person. In Christ, each “man is the way for the Church.” For this reason, nothing that affects humanity is alien to the Church.
The way for the Church is intrinsically tied to the way of humanity. Whether caring for the spiritual or material welfare of the individual, the Church must share their joys and sufferings because, through Christ, the whole human reality has been redeemed.
The Church, therefore, must accompany each person in his material troubles, sufferings or injustices. The Church must become a voice for social justice that proclaims the inalienable human dignity of each person.
Equally important, this inherent dignity is given through the redemption of Christ, not just for Catholics but for all people. Because of this, the Church has the duty to preserve the Deposit of Faith and present it to humanity in its fullness, without compromise. All of humanity has the right to be presented with the truth. Every person is entitled to the redemption of Christ. The mission of the Church is to advance that awareness of the love of God to each person.
If “man is the way for the Church”:
The quest for social justice becomes fundamental. If individuals are treated unjustly, such as the way the poor are sometimes victimized by the wealthy, the Church has every right to concern herself with rectifying the situation.
The potential suffering of civilian populations due to war or political upheaval deserves to be considered alongside other political or economic factors. Many times entire populations and nations are treated as pawns in a global chess game.
Each person, no matter who he is or what he has done, has the potential to change, to convert, to be redeemed. Rather than simply be seen as "guilty," perpetrators may also be seen as somehow "deceived," victims of their own histories. The goal of justice, therefore, should not only be rightful punishment, but also the redemption of the individual who may come to know the love of God for him.
The religious experience in every culture reflects the quest for God, a quest the Church respects. Christianity cannot be imposed on persons, but must be proposed to them. Interfaith events, such as those hosted by the pope in Assisi, Italy, are signs of that respect. At the same time, the Church proposes to humanity the unicity and salvific universality of Jesus Christ and His Church.
The elderly or terminal patient is entitled to the same ordinary means of treatment as any other patient.
Human sexuality has to be presented in accordance with the plan of God, with its complementarity and the inseparable meanings of the conjugal act -- unitive and procreative.
The structure of society should reflect the needs of individuals. While Marxist materialism reduces the individual to a cog in the larger economic machine, "unbridled capitalism" places efficiency and power above all other considerations.
The life of the innocent -- the unborn, the elderly -- must be staunchly defended. At the same time, the Church calls for mercy for those on death row who have themselves taken innocent lives.
In the first 25 years of his papacy the Holy Father has advanced all these causes — and many others. For many, these teachings may seem contradictory. His focus on the infinite love of God for each individual confounds all human categories, all human ideologies. However, underneath it all, the pope has simply been announcing the fundamentals of our faith: Love God with all your heart, with all your mind and with all your strength and love your neighbor as yourself.