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BRIGHTON — As part of an ongoing lecture series, noted Catholic author and papal biographer George Weigel shared his reflections on the greatest accomplishments of Pope John Paul II with a capacity crowd at St. John’s Seminary, Nov. 23.
Prior to his speaking engagement, Weigel had spent two days visiting at the seminary. During his stay, he participated in morning and evening prayer, eucharistic adoration and spent time speaking with seminarians.
In his opening remarks, Weigel gave glowing report of his experience.
"For all of you who care about the future of the priesthood in the United States and the future of priests in formation here in the Archdiocese of Boston, let me say you have a great, great deal to be encouraged by through what is going on here at St. John's Seminary," he said.
Beginning his formal talk, Weigel told the audience, which included Archbishop Seán P. O’Malley and rector of St. John’s Father John Farren, OP, that the beginning of Pope John Paul II’s legacy can be traced to the time when the world’s bishops were preparing for the Second Vatican Council.
Most bishops expected to vote on minor changes in canon law — routine “housekeeping” — and sent a laundry list of topics to address. It was striking how few changes were anticipated, Weigel said.
But one bishop from Poland, Karol Wojtyla, whom “very few people in Rome had ever heard of” wrote something different, he said.
"He did not send in a laundry list. He sent in a philosophical essay," Weigel said. "The essay was built around the question, 'What happened?' Why did the 20th century, which began with such enormous anticipation in the great advance in human civilization and culture produce within 50 years two world wars, three totalitarian systems, the Cold War, oceans of blood, mountains of corpses and the greatest prosecution of the Church in its history?"
Bishop Wojtyla then gave the beginnings of an answer, writing that defective ideas about the human person had been set lose in society and culture — a kind of “Western humanism,” said Weigel.
The answer he proposed to the crisis of world civilization was “Christian humanism,” a theme that marked all of the accomplishments Weigel highlighted.
"That theme has given this pontificate remarkable and spiritual consistency," he said. "That letter is a preview of the great trust of this great pontificate from the beginning."
The first of the pope’s accomplishments Weigel noted was that the pope has renewed the evangelical roots of the office of Peter in the Church.
"The world and the Church now expect a pope who will take the Word to the world, who will be a witness to the truth of Christ," said Weigel.
Pope John Paul II understood Vatican II as a way to prepare the Church for a new moment of evangelical possibility, a new Pentecost inspired by the Holy Spirit. The reforms are a way to tell the world the truth about itself and explain that self-giving, not self-assertion leads to discovering the self, he said.
The pope has also advanced dialogue between Catholics and other Christians, Jews and people of other faiths, Weigel said. He has made the quest for unity and understanding a priority.
"In the minds of most Catholics around the world the quest for Christian unity is something like dessert. It's nice. It makes you feel good, but it's really not the meat," Weigel said. "That is not the Holy Father's view."
"It is not with out consequence, I suggest, that the growing end of world Protestantism, the evangelical Protestants, widely recognizes in John Paul II the great Christian witness of our time and sees in him the embodiment of a Christ-centered man," he added.
The pope also has made progress and has much hope for Jewish-Catholic relations, he said.
"The pope, I think, believes that faithful Jews and faithful Christians could be on the verge of a new theological conversation of the sort not seen since the parting of ways" in 70 A.D., Weigel said.
Weigel also cited the catechism of the Church as an another accomplishment that furthered dialogue about the “truth,” especially among Catholics.
"The catechism is the embodiment of the Church's conviction that you can still speak meaningfully about truth," said Weigel. "Human beings cannot live indefinitely with incoherence."
Weigel outlined two of the pope’s great “public” accomplishments: his pivotal role in the revolution of 1989 that brought down the Berlin wall and saw a collapse of communism and his challenge to countries in light of that revolution to form “free and virtuous societies.”
Weigel also noted Pope John Paul’s “theology of the body,” calling it a creative response to the sexual revolution.
The pope has maintained that “sexual expression is an expression of self-giving love — not a use of the other as a temporary gratification — and is the only sexual activity worthy of human beings,” he said.
"The Bishop of Rome -- often assumed to be the custodian of a tradition deeply scared by the Manichaean devastation of human sexuality -- has articulated the deeply humanistic response to the sexual revolution that says to the readers of both Playboy and Cosmopolitan, 'Human sexuality is far greater than you know,'" he added.
Weigel concluded his list of the pope’s accomplishments, citing Pope John Paul’s challenge to all people to “live without fear” and live beyond this life.
According to Weigel, amongst the “tsunami of words” penned on this pontificate, the wisest thing was written by a French journalist, Andre Frossard, on the day of Pope John Paul’s inauguration in 1978: “This is not a pope from Poland,” wrote Frossard, “This is a pope from Galilee.”
Weigel stressed that the pope is bringing Catholics back to the evangelical origins of the Church and has been, like Peter, a witness.
"He has been a witness to hope, hope it is important to underscore is not optimism," Weigel said. "Hope is born of faith, faith that, as the pope has said, Jesus Christ is the answer to every question of human life."
Seminarian David Marcham said Weigel’s talk was a great recap of the pope’s accomplishments that “both gave me a lot to think about and a sense of hope in the future.” He said he hopes to be able to preach on the topic someday and encourage Catholics “to live courageous lives as Christians.”
"One of the tasks of the priest is to remind people of who they are, made in the image and likeness of God," he said.