What Ever Happened to the Third Millennium?

Quick question: What is the most important event in the life of the Church in the last sixty years? If you said the Second Vatican Council (1962-5), St. Pope John Paul II might be inclined to disagree with you. He might have said it was the turning of the Third Millennium.

Of the many amazing facts about JPII, perhaps the most amazing was his prophetic understanding of his own papacy. He was elected in 1978 and, immediately, in his first encyclical (Redemptor hominis), he spoke of being entrusted with leading the Church into the new millennium. He was a relatively young man and a sportsman in good health. Still, for him to have remained Pope through 2000 would have implied one of the longest papacies in modern times.  Humanly speaking, it might have seemed unwarranted to speak as he did. And yet what he said turned out to be true.

The opening lines of that encyclical: “The redeemer of man, Jesus Christ, is the center of the universe and of history. . . .In fact, this time, in which God in his hidden design has entrusted to me, after my beloved Predecessor John Paul I, the universal service connected with the Chair of Saint Peter in Rome, is already very close to the year 2000.” Twenty-two years is “very close”?  Apparently, for a Church which thinks in centuries and lives life in millennia.

But could it really matter that the millennium changed? One might just as well ask: Could it really matter that it’s your birthday? Or why bother celebrating seasons like Christmas?

A millennium is the Lord’s “day,” as the Psalmist teaches: “For a thousand years in thy sight are as yesterday, which is past.” (90:4)  The first pope was even more emphatic: “But of this one thing be not ignorant, my beloved, one day with the Lord is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. The Lord delayeth not his promise, as some imagine, but dealeth patiently for your sake, not willing that any should perish, but that all should return to penance.” (2 Peter 3:8-9)

Because of the Incarnation, JP II taught, Christians are not free to treat time as if it were a meaningless convention. “Eternity entered into time: what ‘fulfilment’ could be greater than this?” (Tertio millenio adveniente)  It follows that, “in Christianity time has a fundamental importance. . . .From this relationship of God with time there arises the duty to sanctify time.” Actually, we must “sacrifice time” to God. He refers to the liturgical year, and the observance of the Lord’s day, and points out that, at the Easter vigil, the celebrant inscribes the numerals for that year on the Easter candle and says: “Christ yesterday and today. . .all time belongs to him.”

John Paul II viewed his pontificate precisely as the discharging of the Church’s duty to sanctify time having the measure of millennia. Councils come and go. Vatican II was the tenth of the second millennium, and there were about ten councils too in the first. A millennium is more important, not of course as presenting any teaching (it presents none), but as marking a milestone in the life of the Church.

Now here is a remarkable fact about JPII. His pontificate presented the Church with an authoritative and stabilizing interpretation of the Second Vatican Council. After all, he took the name “John Paul” from the two popes of the Council. Nearly every footnote in every document from his magisterium refers to conciliar documents. Simply as a personal matter no one outdid him in love for the Council and understanding of the Council. His many magisterial documents expounded every area dealt with in the Council and even others left unaddressed (such as Veritatis Splendor, on moral theology).

And yet he is disposed to see this great Council as a preparation for the new millennium. In 1994, he wrote as regards the approaching millennium, “From this point of view, we can affirm that the Second Vatican Council was a providential event, whereby the Church began the more immediate preparation for the Jubilee of the Second Millennium.”

“A scribe in the kingdom of heaven brings out of his storehouse things both new and old.”  JPII was not inclined to downplay the newness of the Council. But since he placed the Council in the context of the millennium, he regarded his pontificate as bringing forward an entire 2000 years of pious and doctrinal tradition.

The phrase “hermeneutics of continuity” typically means interpreting the Council with regard to the more recent past. This was almost instinctual with JP II: “The Second Vatican Council is often considered as the beginning of a new era in the life of the Church. This is true, but at the same time it is difficult to overlook the fact that the Council drew much from the experiences and reflections of the immediate past, especially from the intellectual legacy left by Pius XII. In the history of the Church, the ‘old’ and the ‘new’ are always closely interwoven.” (Adveniente 18)

But what was even more impressive about him was his piety towards the 2000 years of the Church’s inheritance, shown in the first instance through his choice of names: “Through these two names and two pontificates I am linked with the whole tradition of the Apostolic See and with all my Predecessors in the expanse of the twentieth century and of the preceding centuries. I am connected, through one after another of the various ages back to the most remote, with the line of the mission and ministry that confers on Peter’s See an altogether special place in the Church.”

JP II left the Church with a comprehensive guide to a “new springtime of evangelization” in the new millennium. (Tertio millenio ineunte)  I am left wondering whether an event so significant before the fact does not remain equally significant after the fact.

Michael Pakaluk, an Aristotle scholar and Ordinarius of the Pontifical Academy of St. Thomas Aquinas, is a professor in the Busch School of Business at the Catholic University of America. He lives in Hyattsville, MD with his wife Catherine, also a professor at the Busch School, and their eight children. His acclaimed book on the Gospel of Mark is The Memoirs of St Peter. His most recent book, Mary's Voice in the Gospel of John: A New Translation with Commentary, is now available. His new book, Be Good Bankers: The Divine Economy in the Gospel of Matthew, is forthcoming from Regnery Gateway in the spring. Prof. Pakaluk was appointed to the Pontifical Academy of St Thomas Aquinas by Pope Benedict XVI. You can follow him on X, @michael_pakaluk