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.
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