Contact Us

The legacy of John Paul II

30 November, 1999

The theologians who wrote the essays for this book have done theology a great service. They have shown how Pope John Paul II in the twenty-six years of his pontificate progressed and developed the way the Church thinks on a wide range of themes: revelation, suffering, the Holy Spirit, communism, final judgment, petrine and marian ecclesiology, moral theology, the theology of the body, ecumenical dialogue, Judaism and Islam. The book appreciates and critiques John Paul II’s contribution on all these themes.

274 pp. To purchase this book online, go to www.continuumbooks.com


List of Abbreviations 
Participants in the Conference 

1. John Paul II and the Development of Doctrine Gerald O’Collins, S.J.
2. John Paul II: the Man and His Ideas Edward Stourton
3. John Paul II and Hans Urs von Balthasar Brendan Leahy
4. John Paul II and His Ecclesiology John McDade, S.J.

Response to Chapters 3 and 4 Brendan Leahy and John McDade S.J.: Peter and Mary:
Some Rahnerian Reflections Philip Endean, S.J.

5. John Paul II and Moral Theology David Albert Jones
6. The Legacy of Pope John Paul II: Ecumenical Dialogue Archbishop Kevin J. P. McDonald

Response to Chapter 6 Archbishop Kevin McDonald: The Legacy of Pope John Paul II: Ecumenical Dialogue Rt Revd Christopher John Hill

7. John Paul II and Lutherans: Actions and Reactions Jared Wicks, S.J.
8. John Paul II and Islam Christian W. Troll, S.J.

Response to Chapter 8 S.J.’s Christian Troll paper John Paul II and Islam Simonetta Calderini 

9. John Paul II and Catholic-Jewish Dialogue Margaret Shepherd, nds 
10. ‘Mohammed – Prophet for Christians also?’ Christian W. Troll, S.J. 

Index of Names



During a programme for Polish television aired on 16 October 2005, the anniversary of the election of Pope John Paul II in 1978, Pope Benedict XVI said: ‘I consider it my essential and personal mission not so much to produce many new documents but to see to it that [John Paul II’s] documents are assimilated, because they are a very rich treasure, the authentic interpretation of Vatican II.’ We too have found a rich legacy in those documents, which repeatedly expressed and reflected not only the pastoral activity of the late Pope within the Catholic Church but also his outreach to innumerable other groups and individuals.

Three years after the death of John Paul II in 2005, it seemed worthwhile to gather experts in various fields with a view to exploring collaboratively some major aspects of his legacy. The conference, which was held at St. Mary’s University College, Twickenham (UK) 25-26 March 2008, brought together a group of scholars, pastors and writers from Germany, Ireland, the United Kingdom, and the United States. To promote discussion, advance scholarship and establish stronger connections between the different contributions, we encouraged those presenting papers to circulate them in advance to all those attending the conference.

This volume in no way aims at being comprehensive. It does not, for instance, take up the late Pope’s teaching on sacraments, science and religion, and social issues – in particular, his three encyclicals, Laborem exercens (Performing Work) of 1984, Sollicitudo rei socialis (Concern for Social Matters) of 1987, and Centesimus annus (The Hundredth Year [since Leo XIII’s groundbreaking encyclical Rerum novarum (Of New Things)]) of 1991. Nor do we examine, for example, the apostolic exhortations that he issued in the aftermath of the special synods for the bishops of five continents: the Assembly for Africa (1994), America (1997), Asia (1998), Oceania (1998) and Europe (1991 and 1999). Rather than attempt anything like total coverage, we decided to limit our evaluation to aspects of his theological legacy and set ourselves to probe the lasting value of his life and teaching in certain areas.

In Chapter 1, Professor Gerald O’Collins, S.J., presents three areas in which the official teaching of Pope John Paul II proved innovative and has contributed to the healthy development of Catholic doctrine. First, while maintaining the Vatican II teaching on divine self-revelation, he went beyond the Council by helping to illustrate how God’s self-disclosure enters human experience. Second, no previous Pope had ever developed so much teaching on the redemptive and revelatory value of suffering and martyrdom. Third, when considering the cultures and religions of the world, he highlighted the presence and activity of the Holy Spirit. To be sure, John Paul II broke new ground in other areas of his teaching, as will be explained in several other chapters in this book (especially in chapters by professor David Albert Jones, Sister Margaret Shepherd, professors Christian Troll and Jared Wicks). This chapter limits itself to exploring three major areas in which the late Pope left valuable teaching that continues to invite further assimilation.

In Chapter 2, ‘John Paul II: the Man and His Ideas” Edward Stourton traces the relationship between the late Pope’s unusually intense experiences as a young man and the theology and ecclesiology that informed his thinking as an archbishop and later as Pope. It focuses particularly on the period of the Nazi occupation of Poland – which was marked by especially brutal repression, even by the standards of the time – and uses his early writings to examine the way he responded to an immoral and capricious authority. The chapter also suggests that John Paul II’s understanding of the relationship between the Church and the world was profoundly influenced by the way he experienced the Catholic Church during this period, which coincided with the formation of his vocation.

In Chapter 3, ‘John Paul II and Hans Urs von Balthasar’, Professor Brendan Leahy traces the extent to which the paths of two great figures of the twentieth century (one a bishop and then Pope and the other a major theologian) crossed. How far did Balthasar influence John Paul II? This chapter argues that, in terms of material content, there are some grounds for saying that Balthasar exercised an influence on the Pope’s theology.

Nevertheless, the theology of John Paul II was shaped primarily through encounter with other teachers and by different experiences. Above all, the late Pope was very faithful to the agenda set by Vatican II, an agenda that had shaped his theological outlook. Balthasar was above all very faithful to his Ignatian formation and to his encounter with Adrienne von Speyr’s mission that proved the prism through which he reread the vast cultural, philosophical and theological insight he had gained through his studies.

Both the Pope and the theologian came to prominence in the last 25 years of the twentieth century. They admired each other’s fidelity to the mission assigned to them by God. Some distinct aspects of the Swiss theologian’s cross the horizon of the intuitive, charismatic Pope’s writings and actions. Nevertheless, the panoply of influences that shaped Karol Wojtyla, both before and after being elected Pope, establish that, despite a certain convergence of thought and interests, Balthasar was but one, limited influence upon John Paul II. That takes nothing away, however, from the great esteem in which the late Pope held the Swiss theologian and the degree to which he proposed Hans Urs von Balthasar as a model theologian at the service of the Church.

In Chapter 4, ‘John Paul II and his Ecclesiology’, Dr. John McDade, S.J., complements the previous chapter by exploring the Marian centre and the Petrine authority that characterize the Church.

In Chapter 5, ‘John Paul II and Moral Theology’ Professor David Albert Jones argues that, in the development of Roman Catholic moral theology at the end of the second millennium, John Paul II left an important legacy. To establish this claim, Professor Jones must first explore briefly the history of moral theology and its current state. Against this background, one aspect of the late Pope’s moral theology is cited to demonstrate his distinctive contribution: his use of the Scriptures. In his fundamental moral theology and on specific moral issues, John Paul II used the Scriptures, not just as ‘proof texts’ for conclusions provided by the tradition or established by natural reason, but to ‘do the work’. Engaged in a sustained exegesis of scriptural passages, he was attentive to what they teach on moral issues. An Anglican moral theologian, Oliver O’Donovan, has appreciated the way the Pope used the biblical passages – ‘not quoted as a proof but teased out as a way of framing a question in scriptural terms’. O’Donovan draws attention to ‘the unforgettable treatment of the rich young ruler at the beginning of Veritatis splendor, or of Cain and Abel in Evangelium vitae‘. In order to appreciate John Paul II as a theologian (without either excessive deference or excessive defensiveness), it may be helpful to ‘forget’ that he was Pope. Now that he is dead, we can appreciate better the extent of his legacy precisely as theologian.

In Chapter 6, ‘The Legacy of John Paul 11: Ecumenical Dialogue’ , Archbishop Kevin J. P. McDonald recalls an integral part of the late Pope’s pontificate: ecumenism. Building on the theological foundations laid by the Vatican II and the practical steps taken by Pope Paul VI, John Paul II joined leaders of the Oriental Orthodox Churches in signing common Christological statements; he also set up the Catholic-Orthodox dialogue with the Byzantine Orthodox Churches. He made significant progress in the dialogue with the Churches and Ecclesial Communities of the West (see the chapter by Jared Wicks S. J.). On his travels, Pope John Paul II consistently met and prayed with the leaders of other Churches and Ecclesial Communities, and reiterated his commitment to Christian unity. On their visits to Rome, he welcomed many other Christian leaders and made such visits highly significant and deeply appreciated. Apropos of the difficulties on the road to Christian unity, he was realistic and clear that it must be based on unity of faith.

The revival of Eastern-rite Catholic Churches after the fall of Communism occasioned fresh problems with the Orthodox. Despite promising developments in the dialogue with Anglicans, the ordination of women created a fresh obstacle. Yet Pope John Paul II always remained positive and hopeful about ecumenism and handed on a rich legacy to his successor.

In Chapter 7, ‘John Paul II and Lutherans: Actions and Reactions’, Professor Jared Wicks, S.J. shows how the late Pope became a major ecumenical figure, by underscoring, for example, Catholic-Lutheran agreement on fundamental truths about God and Christ. He included central truths about justification as shared by Catholics and Lutherans, while continuing to make observations about differences remaining in ecclesiology. John Paul II’s forthright assertions of doctrine and discipline led to some Lutherans putting him in bad light. Other Lutherans, however, saw deeper, as when one theologian singled out for praise his theological anthropology. His personal contacts with Lutherans were marked by a religious tone and his encouragement of ecumenical processes was already underway. In 1989 he accepted that the Catholic Church should look towards a possibly binding reception of the results of Lutheran-Catholic dialogue; this led to the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification of 1999.

In St. Peter’s Basilica, Lutheran episcopal primates three times joined him at the high altar in presiding at Vespers to commemorate St. Bridget of Sweden. But he regularly said that common participation by Lutherans and Catholics in Holy Communion must wait until there is a full consensus in faith.

In Ut unum sint (1995), John Paul II confirmed what Vatican II had taught about the ecclesial character of churches, like the Lutheran Church.

They are in real but imperfect communion with the Catholic Church, in spite of such communities lacking some ecclesial elements and there still being areas of doctrinal difference to be clarified. In the same encyclical the Pope formulated essential Catholic terms for a broad ecumenical discussion of the disputed Petrine ministry of universal oversight and service of unity.

In Ut unum sint, John Paul II set forth the Catholic vision of the ecumenical goal of unity, which, however, some Lutherans have challenged, especially after Dominus Iesus (2000). They hold that doctrinal differences may continue to exist in ecclesial communion, even without or before working out reconciled diversities – as was done in the Lutheran-Catholic Joint Declaration on Justification.

In Chapter 8, Professor Christian W Troll, S.J. focuses on John Paul II’s theological outlook on Islam as a distinct religious vision and as a body of normative practices and beliefs. He perceived the reality of the worldwide Muslim community – in its wide and constantly changing spectrum of sects, movements, tendencies and ideological trends. Hence this paper leaves to one side John Paul II’s (1) innovative initiatives in the field of Christian-Muslim relations, and (2) his perception of dialogue and its relation to mission and proclamation. The chapter analyses some highly significant statements about Islamic faith to be found in the late Pope’s Crossing the Threshold of Hope (1994). It then draws on papal addresses to highlight those elements of Muslim faith and practice to which John Paul II attributed special theological significance: faith, spiritual and ethical core values, and the ideal of sanctity. The Pope conjured up a specifically Islamic collective religious identity, called to form with Christian and other collective religious identities a global religious identity, made up of different religious identities that support each other and thus contribute to the common good of all people. The chapter concludes with brief comments on two recent Muslim esssays concerned with the very theme of this chapter.

In Chapter 9, ‘John Paul II and Catholic-Jewish Dialogue’, Sister Margaret Shepherd, n.d.s., shows how the late Pope fostered and developed a new relationship between Catholics and Jews. His personal history had formed him for this role, since right from childhood he had close Jewish friends.

During the Second World War he witnessed the fate of Jews at the hands of the Nazis. As Pope, he repeatedly recalled the Shoah and condemned Anti-Semitism in the strongest terms. He focused on the unique bond between the Church and the Jewish people. Two key moments demonstrated the power of gesture to convey John Paul II’s convictions: his 1986 visit to the Synagogue of Rome, and his visit in 2000 to Israel and the Palestinian Territories. In his speech in the Rome Synagogue he dwelt on the essential relationship between Jews and Catholics and pointed to the truth that God’s covenant with the Jewish people is irrevocable. In the Holy Land in 2000 two iconic moments were his visit to Yad Vashem and the Western Wall, where he placed a prayer expressing the significant shift that had taken place since Vatican II’s 1965 document, Nostra aetate – a shift that was further developed in the 2001 document of the Pontifical Biblical Commission, The Jewish People and their Sacred Scriptures in the Christian Bible.

In Chapter 10, Professor Troll adds a chapter that raises a key question and answers in the negative: ‘Mohammed – Prophet for Christians also?’ It is significant that John Paul II never applied this title to Mohammed.

As the summaries offered above indicate, this volume contains nine presentations and an additional chapter (by Christian Troll). Each presentation was followed by a response that initiated the discussion of that particular paper. To avoid making this book too long, we have included only three responses. Given the high importance of his field, we have also included as an additional chapter a second paper by Christian Troll S.J.

We are most grateful to all those who participated in the conference. Our special thanks go to the Derwent Consultancy for its generous support and to St. Mary’s University College, Twickenham (UK) for hosting the conference.

We also want to thank Robin Baird-Smith for his encouraging interest in our project and for accepting the papers for publication by Continuum. We express our deep gratitude to Marie Fernandes, Carol Lourdas and Mark Murphy, whose generous work made the conference run smoothly and helped in the preparation of this volume.

Michael Hayes and Gerald O’Collins, S.J. 13 May 2008 St Mary’s University College, Twickenham



List of Abbreviations

AAS Acta Apostolicae Sedis
DV Dei verbum
EV Evangelium vitae
GS Gaudium et spes
LG Lumen gentium
NA Nostra aetate
UR Unitatis redintegratio
UUS Ut unum sint
VS Veritatis splendor







In a papacy that lasted for over 26 years (October 1978 – April 2005), John Paul II left behind an enormous legacy. It included well over 70,000 pages of teaching, found in encyclicals, apostolic exhortations, apostolic letters, homilies, addresses, letters and other published texts. His teaching took up a very wide range of themes: from the self-revelation of God, through the sacramental life of the Church, relations with other Christians and the followers of other religions, questions of social and sexual morality and on to basic elements in the Christian spiritual life.

As one would expect, this teaching often recalled and applied traditional teaching of the Catholic Church. At times, however, John Paul II broke new ground and developed some fresh lines of thought and practice for Catholics and, indeed, for other Christians. In this chapter I want to single out and explore several themes which prove, at least partly, innovative and will contribute to a healthy development of doctrine.

In particular, what the late Pope said about divine revelation, human experience, suffering and the role of the Holy Spirit deserves retrieval. His teaching on these themes can vividly illuminate and nourish belief and behaviour for Catholics and other Christians and sometimes for those who follow other religions. Some of these themes (for instance, the universal role of the Holy Spirit for the salvation of human beings) have drawn the attention of commentators, but other themes (for instance, John Paul II’s uninhibited appeal to ‘experience’) have been, in effect, ignored.

In an interview for Polish national television that was broadcast on 16 October 2005, the anniversary of the election of John Paul II in 1978, Pope Benedict XVI said: ‘I consider it my essential and personal mission not so much to produce many new documents but to see to it that [John Paul II’s] documents are assimilated, because they are a very rich treasure, the authentic interpretation of Vatican II: One could add that at times the teaching of John Paul II represented an official reception of the texts of Vatican II that was not only faithful but also creative. Let us begin with one striking example – in the area of divine revelation. This illustrates how he received and developed doctrine, thereby leaving a legacy that can in turn be received and developed by others (1).

Divine revelation and human faith
Divine revelation aims at arousing or strengthening the faith of human beings. In other words, revelation and faith are reciprocal terms and realities. God reveals and human beings believe. Revelation is not reducible to faith, but without the human response of faith, divine revelation does not happen. Let me first recall four themes from Vatican II which provide the background for the creative fidelity of John Paul II’s teaching on revelation.

(1) The Constitution on Divine Revelation, Dei verbum (the Word of God), understood revelation to be primarily the self-revelation of God, to which human beings respond not only with an intellectual assent but also with the commitment of their whole person (no. 5). In the history of revelation/salvation, this divine self-communication reached its fullness with the incarnation, life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, followed by the outpouring of the Holy Spirit (no. 4).

Through personally encountering the Son of God and receiving the Spirit, the first Christians came to know more truth (for example, that God is tripersonal). Such revealed truths make up the ‘deposit of faith’ or ‘treasure of revelation’ (nos. 10, 26), transmitted through tradition and the inspired scriptures. But revelation remains primarily an encounter with the ‘Mystery’ or deep and inexhaustible truth of God manifested in the person of Jesus Christ.

(2) The dense opening chapter of Dei verbum uses the terms ‘revelation’ and ‘salvation’ more or less interchangeably. The ‘economy’ or history of revelation is inseparably the history of salvation, and vice versa. The text of the Constitution shuttles back and forth between the two terms (for example, in no. 2).

(3) Dei verbum speaks of the divine self-disclosure not only in the past tense, as something completed with Christ and the gift of the Spirit, but also in the present tense. Revelation is a dynamic, present event that calls now for human faith: ‘The obedience of faith … must be given to God as he reveals himself’ (no. 5). The Constitution associates revelation as it happened then and as it happens now in the Church: ‘God, who spoke in the past, continues to converse with the spouse of his beloved Son’ (no. 8).

(4) But there is also a ‘not yet’ of revelation which the New Testament highlights. Drawing on 1 Tim. 6.14 and Tit. 2.13, Dei verbum points to what is still to come at the end of all history: the definitive ‘glorious manifestation of Our Lord, Jesus Christ’ (no. 4).

On all four points John Paul II followed Vatican II with fidelity and also with creativity. That creative reception showed itself most of all when he introduced the theme of experience. Let us look at four texts: his first encyclical Redemptor hominis (the Redeemer of the Human Person) of 1979, his second encyclical Dives in misericordia (Rich in Mercy) of 1980, his apostolic exhortation Catechesi tradendae (Handing on Catechesis) of 1979, and the encyclical of 1998, Fides et ratio (Faith and Reason).

Like Vatican II, John Paul II understood revelation to be, in the first place, the self-revelation of God through the whole Christ-event, which comprises everything from his incarnation to the resurrection and the gift of the Holy Spirit. He followed the lead of Vatican II by respecting the precedence of the revealed Mystery or Truth (also in upper case and in the singular) over the particular revealed mysteries or truths (in lower case and in the plural). Thus Redemptor hominis spoke 65 times of the ‘Mystery of Redemption’, the ‘Paschal Mystery’ and so forth, but never of the (revealed) ‘mysteries, and only once of ‘the truths [plural] revealed by God’ (no. 6).

Right from that first encyclical, John Paul II also indicated that the divine revelation and the ‘Mystery of Redemption’ are inseparable (for instance, no. 9). By a clear margin, his favourite biblical source was John’s Gospel, which he quotes or to which he refers 48 times. (Paul’s Letter to the Romans comes in second, with 24 references and quotations.) John Paul II appreciated how, in John’s Gospel, Christ is inseparably the Light of the world (revelation) and the Life of the world (redemption) and ‘full of grace [redemption] and truth [revelation]’ (Jn 1.14).

The Pope also presented the divine self-revelation (and redemptive activity) not only as completed in the past but also both as a dynamic, present activity and as something to be definitively consummated in the future. Thus he wrote: the ‘revelation of the Father and outpouring of the Holy Spirit, which stamp an indelible seal on the Mystery of Redemption, explain [present tense] the meaning of the cross and death of Christ. The God of creation is revealed [present] as the God of redemption’. Citing Rom. 8.18-19, John Paul II recalled the divine love which is ‘always looking for “the revealing of the sons of God”, who are called to the glory “that is to be revealed [future]… “(no. 9). He went on to write of ‘the Mystery of Christ, hidden for ages in God, ‘to be revealed in time [past] in the man Jesus Christ, and to be revealed continually in every time [present]’ (no. 11).

Redemptor hominis also shows how ready John Paul II was to recognize the human experience of the divine self-revelation. Here he went beyond Dei verbum, which introduced sparingly the language of ‘experience’ (nos. 8, 14). This and other documents of Vatican II still reflected a certain unease about the language of ‘experience’. One can ascribe that inhibition to the long shadow cast by the condemnation of  ‘Modernism’ in the decree Lamentabili and the encyclical Pascendi of 1907. In condemning ‘modernists’, St. Pius X and his collaborators showed a certain blindness to historical developments in Christianity, but were right on other scores. Some ‘modernists’ were going astray in overemphasizing religious experience. Misuse of this category should not, however, lead to ruling it out or downplaying its value. Yet for many years that was the case in Catholic circles in many countries. Seminarians, in particular, were trained to be suspicious of ‘experience’, as if it were private, emotional and dangerously subjective.

But with his background in the phenomenology of Edmund Husserl, Max Scheler and others of this philosophical school that aims at describing the way things, as they actually are, manifest themselves, John Paul II had no such aversion to ‘experience’ and the language of ‘experience’ as such (2). In Redemptor hominis he used the noun ‘experience’ four times and the verb ‘experience’ twice. In Dives in misericordia, he introduced ‘experience’ as a noun twelve times and as a verb five times. One can easily justify the Pope’s terminology. If the divine self-revelation does not enter our experience (to arouse or strengthen our faith), it simply does not happen as far as we are concerned. Non-experienced revelation makes no sense.

Of all the texts that John Paul II left us on revelation, easily the fullest is Dives in misericordia, which took as its theme ‘the revelation of the mystery of the Father and his love’ (no. 1). In the 1980s commentators latched onto the central theme of ‘mercy’ or else onto the encyclical’s contribution to Trinitarian teaching. Where Redetnptor hominis focused on the Son of God, Dives in misericordia focused on God the Father. The Holy Spirit was to be the central theme of a 1986 encyclical Dominum et vivificantem (Lord and Giver of Life). What commentators regularly overlooked was the importance of Dives in misericordia as a source for teaching on revelation. The language of the entire document repeatedly recalls this central theme. Over 80 times it uses the verb ‘reveal’ or the noun ‘revelation’ Other revelational terms like ‘manifest, ‘make known’ and ‘proclaim’ turn up constantly (3). Where Redemptor hominis reflects on the condition of human beings to whom Christ is revealed and who are saved by Christ, Dives in misericordia highlights the revelation of the divine mercy that ‘responds’ to our primordial needs and remains a living, present reality.

To be sure, Dives in misericordia begins by portraying the divine revelation as something completed in the past: ‘It is God who is rich in mercy whom Jesus Christ has revealed to us as Father; it is his very Son who … has manifested him and made him known to us’ (no. 1). Yet the same encyclical repeatedly proclaims the present nature of this revelation, referring, for instance, to the cross that ‘speaks and never ceases to speak of God the Father, who is absolutely faithful to his eternal love for human beings’ (no. 7). The ‘genuine face of mercy has to be ever revealed anew’ (no. 6). John Paul II named the reason for the Church’s ongoing existence as being ‘to reveal God the Father who allows us to “see” him in Christ’ He prayed that ‘the love which is in the Father may once again be revealed at this stage of history and that, through the work of the Son and Holy Spirit, it may be shown to be present in our modern world and to be more powerful than evil, . . . sin and death’ (no. 15). No other document published by the late Pope has more to say on the theme of revelation in Christ, the living Word of God who spoke to us in the past and who continues to address us in the present (4).

The same approach to revelation as being both a past and a present reality had already turned up in the 1979 apostolic exhortation, Catechesi tradendae. John Paul II wrote of ‘the revelation that God has given of himself to humanity in Christ Jesus’ (no. 22). A ‘simple revelation of a good and provident Father’ is something, however, that happens now when ‘the very young child receives the first elements of catechesis from its parents and the family surroundings’ (no. 36). In a telling question about catechesis for the young, the Pope presented divine revelation as something which has happened and which continues to happen:

In our pastoral concern we ask ourselves: How are we to reveal Jesus Christ, God made man, to this multitude of children and young people, reveal him not just in the fascination of a first fleeting encounter but through an acquaintance, growing deeper and clearer daily, with him, his message, the plan of God that he has revealed [past tense], the call he addresses [present tense] to each person, and the kingdom that he wishes to establish in this world [future] . . .? (no. 35; italics mine).

That same apostolic exhortation also presented faith as a journey toward ‘things not yet in our possession’, while ‘as yet we see only “in a mirror dimly”‘ (no. 60).

The text which John Paul II quoted here from 1 Cor 13:12 would turn up again in his 1998 encyclical, Fides et ratio (Faith and reason). ‘The believing community’, he wrote, must

proclaim the certitudes arrived at, albeit with a sense that every truth attained is but a step towards that fullness of truth which will appear with the final revelation of God: ‘For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully’ (no. 2)

In other words, any theology of revelation should respect the fact that the definitively full revelation of God has not yet taken place.

Earlier I outlined four themes from Vatican II’s Constitution on Divine Revelation. It would, however, be a mistake to look only to Dei verbum for the Council’s teaching on revelation. The other 15 conciliar documents fill out the Council’s teaching on God’s self-disclosure, even if they have normally been neglected as sources for a comprehensive view of revelation (5). John Paul II himself was repeatedly drawn, especially in the early years of his pontificate, to cite a paragraph from the Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et spes (Joy and Hope) about the light that ‘the mystery of the incarnate Word’ threw on ‘the mystery of human beings’ (no. 22). In his penultimate encyclical, Fides et ratio, the Pope returned to this theme of Christ revealing the otherwise ‘insoluble riddle’ of human existence. John Paul II aligned himself with those who think in terms of a correlation between the questions raised by the human condition and the answers provided by Christ the Revealer: ‘Where might the human being seek the answer to dramatic questions such as pain, the suffering of the innocent and death, if not in the light streaming from the mystery of Christ’s passion, death and resurrection?’ (no. 12).

Characteristically John Paul II concentrated here on the questions raised by human suffering. Few Popes had ever had such a direct experience of so much human suffering, and he set himself to discern that experience in the light of the scriptures. No previous Pope had ever developed so much teaching on the theme of suffering and, in particular, suffering with Christ and in the light of Christ (6).

Over and over again John Paul II took up the theme of suffering and the mysterious value it possesses for those united with Christ. In a 1980 discourse to senior citizens in Munich, he linked the trials of the elderly and dying with the crucified Christ. On that occasion he said:

I do not want to belittle the anxieties of old age, your weaknesses and illnesses, your helplessness and loneliness. But I would like to see them in a reconciling light, in the light of our Saviour … In the trials of old age he is the companion of your pain, and you are his companions on the way of the cross … through your suffering you cooperate in his salvation.

He spoke of ‘becoming old’ as ‘a slow taking leave of the unbroken fullness of life’ (7).

These words proved to be a prophetic sketch of what he himself was to experience in the final stages of his life, when the inroads of Parkinson’s disease left him weak, helpless and, finally, speechless. As his health began its very public decline, he witnessed personally to the revealing and redeeming power of Christ’s suffering that shines through those who devoutly let Christ incorporate their sufferings in his passion. The paradox of Christ’s power actively present in human weakness (2 Cor. 12.9-10) was re-enacted in the last years and death of John Paul II.

The attempt on the Pope’s life on 13 May 1981 prompted a remarkable radio broadcast from his hospital bed the following Sunday, when it was still not clear that he would survive. In a message addressed, in particular, to those gathered in St. Peter’s Square for midday prayer (the Regina Coeli or ‘Queen of heaven’), John Paul II said, slowly and in obvious pain:

Praised be Jesus Christ! Beloved brothers and sisters, I know that during these days and especially in this hour of the Regina Coeli you are united with me. With deep emotion, I thank you for your prayers and I bless you all. I am particularly close to the two persons wounded together with me. I pray for that brother of ours who shot me and whom I have sincerely pardoned. United with Christ, priest and victim, I offer my suffering for the Church and the world. To you, Mary, I repeat: ‘Totus tuus ego sum (I belong entirely to you)’ (8).

The Pope recovered and was led by his close brush with death to write an apostolic letter, Salvifici doloris (Of suffering that saves) about those who unite their human sufferings to the salvific suffering of Christ’ (9).

It is Christ, John Paul II declared, who

reveals to the suffering brother and sister this wonderful interchange, situated at the very heart of the mystery of the redemption. Suffering is, in itself, an experience of evil. But Christ has made suffering the firmest basis of the definitive good, namely the good of eternal salvation.

The Pope drew together three values that have been conferred on suffering: Christ is present in all suffering; he reveals through it the deepest truth of redemption, and he acts through it to transform human existence. John Paul II wrote:

[S]uffering cannot be transformed and changed by a grace from outside, but [only] from within. Christ through his own salvific suffering is very much present in every human suffering, and can act from within that suffering by the power of his Spirit of truth (Salvifici doloris, no. 26).

John Paul II set out the universal value that Christ’s passion and death have given to human suffering wherever it occurs. Each human being ‘is called to share in that suffering through which the redemption was accomplished . . . and through which all human suffering has been redeemed’. By ‘bringing about the redemption through suffering, Christ has also raised human suffering to the level of the redemption. This means that, whether they are aware of it or not, all human beings in their sufferings can also become ‘sharers in the redemptive suffering of Christ’ (Salvifici doloris, no. 19). In other words, ‘the weaknesses of all human sufferings are capable of being infused with the same power of God manifested in Christ’s cross’ (no. 23). As the Pope was to write a few years later in his 1995 encyclical Evangelium vitae (The Gospel of Life), ‘suffering, while still an evil and a trial in itself, can always become a source of good. It becomes such if it is experienced for love and with love through sharing’ (no. 67) (10).

Among the striking new features that John Paul II introduced into the Jubilee Year of 2000 was the ecumenical commemoration of those who in the twentieth century had heroically witnessed to the faith. The ceremony was held on 7 May 2000 at the Coliseum, a place that vividly evokes the witness of faith given by early Christian martyrs. The ceremony brought together Anglicans, Catholics, Orthodox and Protestants to acknowledge the heroic example of countless men and women who bore witness to Christ in all parts of the world and so left an extraordinary example to the present and future generations of Christians. In his 1994 apostolic letter Tertio millennio adveniente (The Arrival of the Third Millennium), John Paul II had prepared the way for the celebration of May 2000: ‘in our own century the martyrs have returned, many of them nameless, “unknown soldiers”, as it were, of God’s great cause. As far as possible, their witness should not be lost to the Church:

He added with reference to the coming celebration: ‘This gesture cannot fail to have an ecumenical character and expression. Perhaps the most convincing form of ecumenism is the ecumenism of saints and martyrs. The communio sanctorum (communion of saints) speaks louder than the things that divide us’ (no. 37). A year earlier the Pope had reflected on the witness of martyrdom in the 1993 encyclical Veritatis splendor (The splendour of Truth) (nos. 90-93). In the 1995 encyclical Ut unum sint (That they may be one), he took up again the theme of martyrdom in an ecumenical context (nos. 1, 74).

When he spoke at the Coliseum in May 2000, John Paul II remarked:

The experience of the martyrs and the witnesses to the faith is not a characteristic only of the Church’s beginnings but [also] marks every epoch of her history. In the twentieth century, and maybe even more than in the first period of Christianity, there has been a vast number of men and women who bore witness to the faith through sufferings that were often heroic (11).

The ceremony itself included a number of long testimonials written about or by such witnesses who had suffered in different parts of the world and who had belonged to a variety of Christian communities.

By the end of his life John Paul II had canonized or declared to be saints 482 men and women and ‘beatified’ – a stage before possible canonization – a total of 1,338. The majority of those canonized and beatified had died a martyr’s death, and very many of these suffered in modern times: such as the 103 Koreans whom the Pope canonized during his visit to Seoul on 6 March, 1984, the 459 beatified and 12 canonized who were martyred during the Spanish Civil War (1936-39) and the 120 canonized on 1 October 2000, who had been martyred in China between 1648 and 1930 (12).

In what he said, wrote and did, John Paul II proved thoroughly innovative about Christian martyrdom. Right from the first centuries, to be sure, a number of Popes taught and did things to help Christians to appreciate and learn from the examples of courageous martyrs. St. Damasus (Pope 366-84), for instance, saw to it that the tombs of martyrs were adorned and had a church erected on the Via Ardeatina at the catacombs of two martyrs, Sts. Marcus and Marcellianus, as well as building a church to honour St. Laurence (a deacon martyred in 258), the titular church of San Lorenzo in Damaso. But John Paul II gave martyrdom a fresh visibility and value – not least by highlighting its ecumenical significance and doing so in the course of celebrating the great Jubilee of 2000. His own life, and not least the 1981 attempt on his life, disclosed characteristics of the modern martyrs whom he consistently wanted to recall and honour.

The Holy Spirit
In several ways John Paul II’s creative fidelity contributed to a development of doctrine on the Holy Spirit. His 1986 encyclical Dominum et vivificantem (Lord and Giver of Life) was the first papal encyclical to be devoted to the Holy Spirit since Leo XIII’s Divinum illud (That Divine [Office]) of 1897. In Dominum et vivificantem John Paul II introduced new terminology into official teaching by calling the Holy Spirit ‘the Self-communication of God’ 12 times. Over lunch a few years later I thanked him for introducing that term, which has a fairly rich background in modern German theology, both Catholic and Protestant. ‘I didn’t take it from Karl Rahner,’ he said with a smile, obviously thinking that as a Jesuit I had that great Jesuit theologian in mind. He then explained his intention: ‘I wanted to use some fresh language that might help build bridges with Orthodox Christians’. He thought of the difficulties which Greek, Russian and other Orthodox Christians have with the way that Catholics talk (or fail to talk) about the Holy Spirit’s place in the eternal life and historical mission of the tripersonal God. Sensitive to the complaints from the Orthodox about Catholics making the Holy Spirit subsidiary in the Trinity, the Pope stressed the importance of the Spirit and, in particular, reached out to the Orthodox with some new language.

Three years before Communist regimes across Europe ‘officially’ fell in 1989, through his encyclical the Pope looked ahead in the hope of healing an ancient rift and promoting vigorous collaboration between Catholics and Orthodox in building a more Christian Europe. Sadly that was not going to happen. Ugly religious clashes were to occur in what was then the USSR and over 200,000 people died in the breakup of Yugoslavia.

In a remarkable address to the aboriginal peoples of Australia a little later in 1986, John Paul II developed the theme of the mysterious presence and activity of the divine Spirit in the culture and religions of those peoples (13). That theme was very much in line with what he had written in Dominum et vivificantem about the Holy Spirit being active not only in the life of the Church but also in the whole world. According to God’s plan of salvation, the ‘action’ of the Spirit ‘has been exercised in every place and in every time, indeed in every individual’ – an action that, to be sure, is ‘closely linked with the mystery of the incarnation and the redemption’ (no. 5). At the end of the year, in an address to the Roman Curia on 22 December 1986, the Pope took up again the universal activity of the Holy Spirit: ‘every authentic prayer is called forth by the Holy Spirit, who is mysteriously present in the heart of every person’ (14). Here he echoed and extended a dictum which went back many centuries and was used 18 times by St. Thomas Aquinas (‘every truth, no matter who says it, comes from the Holy Spirit’) (15).

Four years later in the encyclical Redemptoris missio (the Mission of the Redeemer) John Paul II insisted that, while manifested ‘in a special way in the Church and her members, the Spirit’s ‘presence and activity’ are, nevertheless, ‘universal’. He understood the Spirit to operate ‘at the very source’ of each person’s ‘religious questioning. He went on to write: ‘the Spirit’s presence and activity affect not only individuals but also society and history, peoples, cultures and religions’ (no. 28; italics mine) (16). These were two momentous statements.

First of all, the Holy Spirit is actively operating in and through the questions which sooner or later arise for everyone: where do I come from? Where am I going? What is the meaning of life? What are suffering, sin and death, and what do they mean? What will come after my death? Who is the God in whom I live and move and have my being (see Acts 17, 28)? As far as John Paul II was concerned, the Holy Spirit is actively present and operating not only when anyone prays authentically but also whenever anyone faces the profound religious questions of life (17). No human being exists outside the powerful presence of God the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is the mysterious companion and religious friend in the life of every human being.

Second, the late Pope appreciated how the presence and activity of the Holy Spirit also affect wider human ‘society’ and all human ‘history, peoples, cultures and religions’. In other words, the Spirit acts in and through the cultures and religious traditions of our world. This activity of the Spirit is inseparable from the salvation which Christ has brought about; it is an activity which aims at bringing all people, sooner or later, to Christ. But in the meantime the Spirit is present and operative in and through all that is true, good and beautiful in various cultures and religions around the world.

This essay has singled out three areas in which Pope John Paul II proved innovative in developing Catholic doctrine. (1) He maintained the teaching of Vatican II on divine revelation being primarily the self-revelation of God that reached its unsurpassable fullness with the whole Christ-event and the outpouring of the Spirit, that remains a vital, present reality, and that will be consummated at the end of human history. He went beyond the Council by using the language of experience and helping to show how God’s revelation enters human experience. (2) No previous Pope had ever developed so much teaching on the redemptive and revelatory value of suffering and martyrdom. (3) John Paul II took Catholic teaching forward by his insistence on the presence and activity of the Holy Spirit in all individuals, cultures and religions.

Obviously one could recall from the teaching of the late Pope further items, where he also left an important legacy. He broke new ground, for instance, in a discourse pronounced in 1980 when he made reference to ‘the People of God’ of the First Covenant, ‘which has never been revoked (cf. Rom. 11.29)’ (18). This official recognition of the enduring value of the covenant God made through Moses has proved a highly significant step in Jewish-Catholic dialogue and relationships.

This chapter does not pretend to give an exhaustive account of all that John Paul II contributed to the reception of Vatican II and the development of doctrine. It has aimed to explore three areas in which he left valuable teaching that continues to call for assimilation and will help Catholics (and, indeed, other Christians) in their life of faith.

Note. Denis Edwards has drawn my attention to the way in which the themes I have examined in the papal teaching of John Paul II enjoy rich parallels in the theology and preaching of Karl Rahner (1904-84):
(1) The human experience of the divine self- communication, and (2) human suffering. As for the third theme, what the late Pope taught (in his 1990 encyclical Redemptoris missio) about the Holy Spirit operating ‘at the very source’ of each person’s ‘religious questioning’ can easily evoke what Rahner wrote about the ‘supernatural existential’, or the way in which, as a result of Christ’s redemptive work, God has positively preconditioned human beings even before they exercise their freedom in accepting (or rejecting) divine grace. In his first encyclical (Redemptoris hominis of 1979) John Paul II moved somewhat close to this language by writing of ‘the inward mystery of the human being’ (no. 8) and of the way in which, right from the very moment of their conception, ‘Christ has united himself for ever’ with all human beings. Hence even before they make any free decisions, they share in Jesus Christ and ‘the mystery of the redemption’ (no. 13).

One might ascribe two of these three parallels to the fact that John Paul II and Rahner were both exposed to common philosophical and theological currents (for the theme of human experience of the divine self-communication) and to the same grim history of Europe (for the theme of suffering). Moreover, Juan Alfaro (1914-93), a friend and collaborator of Rahner, admitted to me that he was consulted by John Paul II when the Pope was preparing Redemptor hominis for publication. Alfaro (who had a passion for John’s Gospel) may have been responsible not only for the remarkable use of that Gospel in the encyclical (see above) but also for the echo of Rahner’s supernatural existential in the two passages I mentioned (nos. 8, 13).




  1. On the development of doctrine see the bibliographies provided by J. H. Walgrave, ‘Doctrine, Development of, New Catholic Encyclopedia, vol. 4 (Washington: Catholic University of America, 2nd edn., 2003), pp. 803-09; J. Drumm, ‘Dogmenentwicklung’, in W Kasper and K. Baumgartner (eds.), Lexikon fur Theologie and Kirche, vol. 3 (Freiburg: Herder, 3rd edn., 1995), col. 295-98. On the reception of doctrine and, in particular, the reception of Vatican II, see O. Rush, Still Interpreting Vatican II. Some Hermeneutical Principles (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2004).
  2. Since his doctoral studies involved St. John of the Cross, the future Pope was also able to appropriate the experience of love expounded by the mystics.
  3. Here I rely on the versions of the encyclical in English, Italian and other modern languages. The official Latin version that appeared in Acta Apostolicae Sedis 72 (1980), pp. 1177-1232, uses a variety of elegant variations for ‘reveal’ and `revelation’, and in doing so introduces some lesser known Latin terms. An official Latinist at the Vatican, Fr. Reginald Foster, did the translation. I know this because I challenged him over introducing various elegant variations into the papal text and he cheerfully admitted that he was the translator. ‘Reggie’, I told him, ‘in a hundred years time someone will work on the Latin text and credit John Paul II with a massive development in the basic terminology for revelation’.
  4. On revelation as past and present, see G. O’Collins, Retrieving Fundamental Theology (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1993), pp. 87-97.
  5. See ibid., pp. 63-78.
  6. In his major document on suffering, the 1984 apostolic letter Salvifici doloris (see no. 9 below), John Paul II has nothing to quote from previous official teaching on suffering. On the theme of suffering in the life and teaching of John Paul II, see E. Stourton, John Paul II. Man of History (London: Hodder, 2006), pp. 39-70.
  7. ‘Address to Senior Citizens in Munich (19 November 1980), in The Pope Speaks 26 (1981), pp. 257-64, at 260, 262.
  8. Tape recorded message broadcast in St. Peter’s Square (17 May 1981), in Origins 11: 2 (1981), p. 17.
  9. Acta Apostolicae Sedis 76 (1984), pp. 201-50; Origins 13: 37(1984), pp. 609-24; The Pope Speaks 29 (1984), pp. 105-39.
  10. One is reminded here of how St. Thomas Aquinas stressed that love inspired Christ in his passion and death (e.g. Summa theologiae, 3a, 48, 3 resp.).
  11. ‘Address at the Coliseum (7 May 2000), in AAS 92 (2000), pp. 677-79; Origins 30: 1(2000), pp. 4-5.
  12. The 120 were made up of 87 Chinese and 33 foreign missionaries; they included laypersons, priests, seminarians, women religious and six bishops. The majority died in the 1900 Boxer Uprising.
  13. ‘Address to Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders of Australia (29 November 1986), in AAS 79 (1987), pp. 973-79; Origins 16:26 (1986), pp. 473-77.
  14. AAS 79 (1987), p. 1089; Origins 16:31 (1987), p. 563.
  15. Like his contemporaries, Aquinas thought the saying came from St Ambrose of Milan. In fact, it went back to an anonymous fourth-century author now known as Ambrosiaster and his comments on 1 Cor. 12.3 (PL [Patrologia Latina] 17, col. 245B; CSEL [Corpus Scriptorum Ecclesiasticorum Latinorum] 81, par. 2, 132).
  16. Redemptoris missio is found in AAS 83 (1991), pp. 249-340, at 273-74; in Origins 20:34 (1991), pp. 541-68, at 549; in The Pope Speaks 36 (1991), pp. 138-93, at 151.
  17. Nostra aetate (no. 1) and Gaudium et spes (no. 10) both remark on the basic questions that arise for human beings, but without attributing this profound questioning to the activity of the Holy Spirit.
  18. AAS 73 (1981), pp. 78-82, at p. 80. On ‘the covenant never revoked, see J. Dupuis, Toward a Christian Theology of Religious Pluralism (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1997), pp. 228-33; see also the chapter in this volume by Sr. Margaret Shepherd.


Tags: ,