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Karol Wojtła: Bishop Print E-mail
By Bevil Bramwell, OMI   
Sunday, 06 November 2011

One book that I read each year is George Weigel’s biography of Karol Wojtyła, Witness to Hope. A remarkable person – and the holy man who would become Blessed John Paul II – shines through the clear narrative, but also a remarkable bishop. Wojtyła became auxiliary bishop of Krakow in Poland (1958), archbishop of Krakow (1963), and then pope and bishop of Rome on October 16, 1978.

He was first a bishop under the cloud of the Communist oppression of his country. Yet in the midst of that vicious situation, he took the truth with him into everything. As Weigel puts it:  “For him, the episcopate is preeminently an office of preaching and teaching.” His episcopate is striking because he took the Incarnation so terribly seriously. The Word had to become flesh in every circumstance.

By long practice and with much effort Wojtyła integrated in himself and understood for himself his role in the intellectual and cultural life of the city of Krakow:  “He was a Polish patriot in a city where the nation’s history was enshrined in the cathedral church.” He was a writer and he “was a priest and bishop in a city of great witnesses to the faith.” He lived out the integration of Church and country and he understood it intellectually. He needed to embody that living integration for his people because, if he did not do it, then who would?

The Incarnation integrated God and human history. In Wojtyła, a human being lived out that integration in an exemplary way. He knew that he was successor to “great witnesses to the faith, [Saint]Stanisław; the model for his successors . . . .Piotr Skarga sixteenth century preacher of national renewal through spiritual renewal. . . . Adam Stephan Sapieha,” his saintly predecessor. They all lived an integration of devotion to the saints and to the intellectual life. In Wojtyła the integration arose because of his spiritual discipline:  “Wojtyła was a bishop who governed his diocese (and did his philosophy and theology) ‘on his knees’ – or at a desk in the sacramental presence of his Lord.” And he managed to achieve all this in a diocese with 1.5 million Catholics.

Wojtyła kept in constant contact with the intellectual community with whom he could speak as an equal. He connected with the parishes, the university students, and the workers in the city. When the authorities would not allow a church to be built in the new town of Nova Huta, he began to celebrate Christmas Midnight Mass there each year. The authorities were ultimately worn down and the church was dedicated in 1977. He said at the opening Mass: “This is not a city of people who belong to no one, of people to whom one may do what one wants. This is a city of the children of God.”

A stunning, perhaps even surprising perspective, but it shows his profound sense of the actual solidarity amongst the children of God even while they were embroiled in the hostile and brutally secular – I won’t call it a culture – way of life contrived by the communists. Communist rule was one of divide and conquer. Instead, Wojtyła brought unity to diocesan life, the practical implementation of the Body of Christ. He lived it out himself and expressed it at every opportunity. His stance was rooted in the Church’s dogma of the assumption of human nature by the Divine Son. And it was manifested at hundreds of Eucharists, Eucharistic processions, Opłatek celebrations at Christmas, and on and on.

Ironically, it helped that Wojtyła had lived through the horrendous Nazi occupation. He started early learning how to do his job no matter what. It’s a lesson we need to learn here in America. Government interference in Church life and an aggressive secularism have rapidly increased in recent decades. But a courageous and complete response has yet to happen.

Wojtyła took part in every session of the Second Vatican Council and not only made formidable contributions, but then made sure that his diocese studied and understood precisely what the Council had to say. During the council he made several addresses by radio to Krakow. He also worked with Polish journalists, encouraging them to dig more deeply into truly understanding the Council, unlike their western counterparts. Many of the study groups that he started still continue to this day. In Krakow, there was never the rupture and disorder after the Council, which occurred in many parts of the world.

For the future Blessed John Paul, the Council was a “great gift to the Church, to all those who took part in it, to the entire human family.” In Wojtyła there was no concession to the bland materialism and growing secularism that is drowning us in the west. The incarnate Word is the incarnate Word. A real bishop stands by that Word with no apologies. Wojtyła showed both that it can be done, even in unfavorable circumstances, and how to do it.


Bevil Bramwell, priest of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, teaches theology at Catholic Distance University. He holds a Ph.D. from Boston College and works in the area of ecclesiology.


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written by Manfred, November 06, 2011
I too have read Mr. Weigel's pieces on JP II and I think history is going to be much harsher on this pope than many believe. JP II became pope in 1978 at the death of JPI, but it became clear to many, including Cdl Law, that so much novelty had been introduced into all aspects of the Church by the Pope and others , that a Catechism had to be prepared so that the hierarchy, priests and laity would know what Catholicism taught! The Catechism of the Catholic Church was finished in 1992. The last time a catechism had to be prepared was at the time of the Reformation (the Roman Catechism from which came the Baltimore Catechism)for the same reason: WHAT DOES THE CATHOLIC CHURCH REALLY TEACH?
The second major cleanup, especially after Assisi and In Nostra Aetate, was DOMINUS JESUS which was written by Cdl Ratzinger as Prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith under JP II in 2000. The nonsense which taught that the Jewish Covenant still obtained and they did not have to convert in order to be saved, that Protestants had churches which implied a continuity with Catholicism (they have "ecclesial communities")all had to be corrected. The uproar whih followed the release of that document was enormous. Catholics and non-Catholics had really believed all the pap they had been told for the previous forty years. And BTW, it was Ratzinger who warned the pope about Fr. Maciel and who removed him just before JP II died. Take my word for it: If you truly believe your destiny is to save your soul, and you have the choice of JP II and Benedict, I would choose Benedict, while he is not perfect, hands down.
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written by Dave, November 06, 2011
Thank you, Fr. Bramwell, for this excellent article. What stands out to me, again, is Wojtla's academic prowess. Perhaps as Pope Benedict XVI continues the correct implementation of the Council, we may hope and pray that he will appoint more great intellectuals to the archiepiscopacies; though with George in Chicago, Gomez in Los Angeles, and Chaput in Philadelphia, things are looking up. And let us remember Cardinal Wuerl, too, whose devotion to the New Evangelization and to the Sacrament of Confession is changing Catholic culture in Washington and beyond.
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written by Fr. Bramwell, November 07, 2011
I focused the column on his episcopate because there are some great themes there. The history of the pontificate is a whole different story because it is so much more complicated because he works through the curia. This is the material for a professional historian who has done all the research.
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written by Achilles, November 07, 2011
Fr. Bramwell, thankyou for the beautiful essay. You have found your professional historian, more Catholic than the Great Pope himself and able to reduce the entire pontificate to a few traditional catch phrases. I don't see it, but I guess we will just have to take it on faith that this professional historian does know everything. How do we vote this guy in?
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written by Fr. Bramwell, November 09, 2011
I am not sure what you mean by "vote"? I am speaking of an historian being the one who can best describe Wojtyla's pontificate. Historians get the complexities often better than untrained people. They work out plausible chains of causation, for example.
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written by Achilles, November 10, 2011
Fr. Bramwell, I am sorry I was being facetious. I was joking about making Manfred the Pope because he has had some pretty condemning words for John Paul II. It was uncharitable of me. My comment made little sense and was especially inappropriate because your articles are always honest and edifying. Please forgive me and keep up the excellent work. You are one of my favorite writers on here and that is saying something with all the wonderful contributors. Blessings, Achilles

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