John Paul II: Living Symbol of Culture

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.”