The Catholic Thing
John Paul II: Living Symbol of Culture Print E-mail
By Bevil Bramwell, OMI   
Sunday, 15 January 2012

The above title is from a speech that Václav Havel gave when John Paul II visited Prague in April 21, 1990. He called John Paul II the “living symbol of culture.” Havel then described John Paul II as “the messenger of peace, dialog, mutual tolerance, esteem, and calm understanding, the messenger of fraternal unity in diversity.”

The wise playwright turned president of Czechoslovakia highlights something precious, something even unexpected. The Catholic Vicarius Christi is a complete and integrated presence in history. Through the form of his life he points to Christ in whom “all the fullness of Deity dwells in bodily form.” (Colossians 2:9)

Now being “a living symbol of culture” is not restricted to the Holy Father. All Catholics, clergy and laity, are supposed to be a living symbol of Catholic Culture wherever they find themselves. This is rooted in the profound sense that “God himself meets the needs of man who nurtures in his heart an ardent desire to be able to see him.” (John Paul II)

This is not “seeing” in the sense of making idols to look at. The pope was speaking, on the occasion of the unveiling of the frescoes in the restored Sistine Chapel, about seeing in the physical/spiritual sense, which is to say, that our spiritual senses are active as well and they are moved by our physical senses.

We can “see” God in the beautiful frescoes or in an icon. We can “see” God in a kind word or gesture. The transcendent and the immanent are richly aligned as they generate our human experience.

Back to being the “living symbol of culture.” We are all called as an icon in our particular state of life. That word “state” has to do with where we stand. If we stand with Christ in his Church then we will be a symbol, not in the modern sense of someone choosing something arbitrarily. If we stand for Christ and his Church then good words, kind actions, wiser political judgments, deepening sensibilities to cultural values illuminated by Jesus Christ, and many other gifts will unfold from within us in a way that is in the nature of being a vessel of grace.

          Pope and president: John Paul II and Václav Havel

Now in the case of the clergy, a much more public blossoming takes place. The clergyman has taken on a public life in the culture. He is not like a mechanic operating a service station or a baker running a bakeshop – they may step away from their businesses. The clergyman is always the sign of Christ and specifically Christus caput, Christ the Head.

The clergyman is the public symbol of Catholic culture. This does not mean that he has to be knowledgeable about Brecht or Bruegel or Brahms (high culture), although that would be an added plus. But it does mean he has to know what Catholic culture is and how to build it. Put in another way, he has to be an expert in humanity redeemed and sanctified by Christ – and schooled both in Catholic teaching and how it all fits together to bring new light to any situation.

For all of us, that we can build culture and not merely be washed along by the tide has enormous consequences:

we do not live in an irrational or meaningless world. On the contrary, there is a moral logic which is built into human life and which makes possible dialogue between individuals and peoples. If we want a century of violent coercion to be succeeded by a century of persuasion, we must find a way to discuss the human future intelligibly. The universal moral law written on the human heart is precisely that kind of “grammar” which is needed if the world is to engage this discussion of its future. (John Paul II)

There is a clue:  we need to learn the “grammar” of human existence, which God has established and the Church lays out with all the necessary tools to make use of it. She keeps on bringing us the sacraments and the scriptures, grace and truth.

In our day, we can find the whole of Catholic teaching even on the Web. So we are not orphans. We can indeed – “this is your mission should you choose to accept it” – shoulder the role of being living symbols of Catholic culture.

Then we will be Havel’s “messenger[s] of peace, dialog, mutual tolerance, esteem and calm understanding, the messenger of fraternal unity in diversity.” Building a Catholic culture means seeing the unplumbed depths of human possibility because this is the humanity for which Christ died. The rivers of grace are there. And with John Paul II we can recognize that: “The heart of every culture is its approach to the greatest of all mysteries:  the mystery of God.”

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.

© 2012 The Catholic Thing. All rights reserved. For reprint rights, write to: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it

The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.

Rules for Commenting

The Catholic Thing welcomes comments, which should reflect a sense of brevity and a spirit of Christian civility, and which, as discretion indicates, we reserve the right to publish or not. And, please, do not include links to other websites; we simply haven't time to check them all.

Comments (5)Add Comment
written by Manfred, January 14, 2012
@Fr. Bramwell:

May I inject here the Rotary Four Way Test?
1. Is it the truth?
2. Is it fair to all concerned?
3. Will it bring good will and better friendship?
4. Will it be beneficial to all concerned?
Could not a Rotarian be a "messenger of fraternal unity in diversity."? The motto of Rotary is: Service above Self. Thank you for your patience but my point is Rotary is anthropocentric and not theocentric, nor should it be as a secular club. Unfortunately, some of the criticism of JP II is that some of his writings [Christ has a relationship with every man (instead of humanity)] seem anthropocentric and the wrong message results. I have had non-Catholic friends and clients insist that Vat II has recognized that all Christian faiths are different traditions while remaining in the same church. I write this in an attempt to avoid confusion. Thank you.
written by Fr. Bramwell, January 15, 2012
Hi Manfred I must be missing something. As far as John Paul II is concerned - that he can be misunderstood is always possible. I am not sure where to go beyond that. Then regarding your friends - they don't understand Vatican II. To respond to the specific point that you then make, I would suggest reading Dominus Iesus which explains Vatican II's teaching in detail on this point.
written by Michael Wiltz, January 15, 2012
I, Michael Wiltz, ask for Healing Please. Heal my Mouth, my Hands, my Body, my Spleen, the Myelofibrosis. Make me whole again.
written by Dave, January 15, 2012
Fr. Bramwell, thank you once again for a beautiful article. I particularly appreciate the quotation from Bl. John Paul II that we do not live in an irrational or meaningless world. The point is so important because so often it seems we do. Our Holy Father Pope Benedict XVI picks up something of this line of thought in his presentation of Christ as the Logos of God. The "grammar" of human existence reminds me of Bl. John Henry Newman, but it also recalls, perhaps strangely to some, the work of Paul Holmes and others at Yale (including George Lindbeck), who were working, if I may put it this way, on the intelligibility of a grammar of faith that could serve as a basis for ecumenical dialogue (using Wittgenstein rather than Aristotle or the Angelic Doctor as their philosophical starting point).

Of course the Council documents are clear that the fullness of Christ's Church subsists in the Catholic Church, and in her alone. By heeding her message and shouldering the responsibilities of culture we do fulfill Havel's wish: but supremely we fulfill Christ's, who came that we might have abundant life. This takes us light years past the Rotarians, whom we wish well as who could be opposed to such a platform and because it is propaedeutic to the fullness of Divine Revelation.
written by Dave, January 15, 2012
Michael Wiltz, count on our prayers and best wishes. May you find a way to Lourdes.

Write comment
smaller | bigger

security code
Write the displayed characters


Other Articles By This Author