The Witness of Hope is not only the title of an extensive biography about John Paul II by George Weigel but also an apt summary of the pope’s life. This term was used by the pope himself in a speech at the UN headquarters in New York in 1995: “I come before you as a witness: … a witness to hope, a witness to the conviction that the destiny of all nations lies in the hands of a merciful Providence” – he said then.
Hope is an important message that he left to the Church and humanity. It is a hope for a life worthy of man and for a more human world but also a Christian hope for conversion and salvation connected with God’s Providence guiding the fate of humanity and with God’s Mercy, to which we entrust ourselves. The pope was convinced that the world would be more human when it became more Godly and Christly. This conviction arose from the experience of the dramas that the 20th century brought and which he witnessed.
He Survived to Be a Witness to the Good
Karol Wojtyła was born during the Polish-Bolshevik war. On August 15, 1999, referring to his recent visit to the Radzymin military cemetery, he said: “I always think what would be if there had not been this Radzymin, this Miracle on the Vistula. This event, this day, are deeply inscribed in my personal history, in the history of all of us”. He considered his growing up in an independent homeland to be a fruit of the dedication of his countrymen and courage of soldiers in 1920, as well as an act of God’s providence. Similarly, the decision to be a priest ripened in him in connection with the experience of the horror of the Nazi occupation. “In the face of the spread of evil and the atrocities of the war, the meaning of the priesthood and its mission in the world became much clearer to me” – he confessed in the book Gift and Mystery. He was aware that he had survived to direct his life and lives of others, “in the context of the great evil” brought by the 20th century, towards the good. He was faithful to this task during his service in communist Poland, maintaining the faith of people subordinated to the ideology of atheism. Also during his pontificate, as a pope, he brought hope to the oppressed, to a world threatened by the Cold War and nuclear extermination.
He demanded the presence of a spiritual and moral dimension in wealthy societies, in which the signs of the spread of the civilization of death, excluding the weakest, the unborn and the elderly from the “banquet of life”, were more and more noticeable. He taught that in every situation the measure set for all manifestations of evil is the good, confirmed finally by the death and resurrection of Christ. One should always refer to the good, look for it, create it, multiply it. He showed that following Christ meant “crossing the threshold of hope”, i.e. enlarging the space of good in everyone’s life, in the history of people, of the world, and of the Church. He saw the third millennium as a call to hope, as a chance for change, to learn lessons from the past, and to build a world that would be home to everyone.
The Threshold of Millennia and the Saving Power of the Gospel
He knew that the history of the 20th century, marked by wars, totalitarianisms, divisions, but also by the doubt and despair of many people, by the ideologies of delusion, and by the deification of money, power and egoism, could not threaten the future. Picking up the encyclical Dominum et vivificantem, or the apostolic letter Tertio millennio adveniente, we see how meticulously John Paul II defined areas of the growth of good and of raising hope, creating a long-term program of preparations for the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000, and at the same time showing the direction of action in the third millennium.
People’s history is not only a clock of history or pages from a calendar filled with names and events, but also a scene where life goes on and the fight of good against evil and grace against sin takes place, in which the future is forged. John Paul II pointed to the “saving power of the Gospel” which allows us to cross the threshold of millennia, seeing in it “the threshold of hope” because Christ is with us. In order not to stumble over the threshold of epochs, it is necessary to draw conclusions from what happened, make an examination of conscience, change the current hierarchy of values in order to make the good increase. He explained that the acceptance of the Gospel’s demands meant “affirmation of humanity” and to see its beauty and weakness in the light of God’s power. He emphasized it, among others, in the book Crossing the Threshold of Hope. However, in his apostolic letter Novo millennio ineunte, summarizing the Jubilee, he presented the opening millennium as a vast ocean on which “we shall venture, relying on the help of Christ” and on the power of the Holy Spirit that comforts us with reliable hope.
The Centenary Is not Only the Anniversary, But Chance
We celebrate the centenary of the birth of John Paul II during a pandemic. Therefore, many scheduled celebrations have been postponed. The coronavirus has reminded us how fragile human life is. We are looking to the future with fear, being afraid of the consequences of the economic crisis. The centenary we are celebrating in these circumstances paradoxically can help to focus more attention on the message of hope left us by Saint John Paul II. From his birth throughout his life, despite adversities and dramatic events, he was a witness to hope for the victory of good. The more he remains a witness to hope, the more followers of his mission there are. The witness to hope is not a sower of cheap optimism, but a guardian of faith that, like fire, consumes the sting of evil and suffering. The more manifestations of the banalization of evil surround us, the more often human suffering is denied in the public sphere, or the more numerous the cases of despair are, the more we need such witnesses. It is worth to live for this task, believing in God’s help. At the end, it is worth quoting the Holy Father’s statement, taken from the book Memory and Identity, that thanks to faith in Christ we can open the door of hope in every situation. “I live with the conviction that in everything I say and do in connection with my vocation and mission, with my service, something is happening that is not only my initiative. … Will people draw conclusions from these dramatic “lessons” history has given them? … The believer knows that the presence of evil is always accompanied by the presence of good, the presence of grace. … There is no evil from which God could not derive greater good. There is no suffering that He could not make the way to Him.
Rev. Andrzej Dobrzyński