One of the many remarkable features of the pontificate of John Paul II has been his prodigious output as an author. Foremost are his (to date) 14 great encyclicals, plus numerous apostolic letters and other documents. Then there are the seven or eight volumes collecting the catecheses given at his Wednesday audiences, which together form a searching commentary on the Creed and the prayer of the Church, as well as the profound and still too little-known Theology of the Body. All of these represent theological work at its most serious. In addition to this hefty output, and various collections of sermons, talks, and addresses (not to mention poetry), he has produced, thus far, four more popular books: Crossing the Threshold of Hope, general reflections on Christianity and the world today; two volumes of autobiographically based meditations, Gift and Mystery and Rise, Let Us Be On Our Way; and now, latest of these, Memory and Identity.
The core of the book is a series of conversations held at Castel Gandolfo in 1993 between the Pope and several Polish academics. Superficially, this is a similar arrangement to that which gave rise to Crossing the Threshold of Hope, where his collaborator was the renowned Italian journalist Vittorio Messori. Here, too, the collaborating hands are visible only in the questions that open each of the 25 chapters (the last chapter is a special case, as we shall see). The material, however, has clearly been worked over and reshaped by the Pope so as to make it a book, rather than a collection of unconnected essays or table talk. His themes are grand ones: the role of the Church, of the Christian in history, especially recent history; the place within a Christian social ethic of patriotism, the historical destinies (a strong word, but justified) of particular nations, and of Europe both in itself and within the world; the shocking eruption of evil in recent history and its presence in societies today.
Writers in English are, these days, typically shy of overarching analyses, preferring sociological particularism or professional uncertainty; no one now reads Spengler, or Toynbee, or even Ruskin, or would dream of imitating them. We are not used to thinking in these terms. Even before I read this book, I did not think this was good for us. The Christian, surely, is fundamentally committed to an eschatological hope: to a strong belief that, in the very contingencies and confusions of history, there is a meaning and a promise, which derive from the historical fact that God Himself entered into time, into history, so as to redeem it. This ought to be in the mind and heart of any Christian writing or reflecting on history.
The Pope, in this book, explicitly reads history as illustrative of the workings of salvation, of God’s action within the world. His great model is the history of Israel in the Old Testament. At times, as he readily acknowledges, God’s workings are mysterious and, on the surface, shocking.
Each chapter gives a characteristically rich meditation on an aspect of the Church within time. The central role of culture in national identity is highlighted by the example of Poland, a nation that survived despite having for centuries no independent political identity. Cultures are transformed by the Redemption; the Gospel “gave a new meaning to the concept of native land”. Without evacuating its temporal content, it reorientates our patrimony – what we receive from our parents – towards “the eternal homeland” of our promised life with God.
The Holy Father traces the subjectivist and relativist aspects of contemporary thought, which have had such marked and deleterious consequences in the moral and ethical spheres, back to the 18th-century “Enlightenment”. He also sees, however, much that is positive arising from this period: a rational culture allowing Christian humanism to develop its proper expression; and the democratic model of government, despite its imperfec tions and its potential, like all political systems, for becoming corrupt.
Some fuss was made before this book’s publication about a comparison it allegedly makes between the Holocaust and the contemporary practice of abortion. In fact, the Pope’s point is not a comparative one. Discussing modern democracy, he reminds us that Hitler rose to power in a democratic system that gradually granted him the authority and capacity to pursue the policy that led to the death camps. This, the Pope argues, was a direct result of an elected parliament permitting ordinances that overstepped the bounds of natural law and thus of the competence of any human government. From this perspective, “we must question certain legislative choices made by the parliaments of today’s democratic regions. The most immediate example concerns abortion laws.” These gravely infringe both natural law and the law of God. The Pope does not comment on the magnitude of the evil, or offer comparative judgment; he merely notes that both arise from an analogous context, one of democratic dysfunction.
Why “memory and identity”? The answer lies in the chapter on “The Maternal Memory of the Church”. Like the Virgin Mary “who treasured all these things in her heart”, the Church has a memory, which grows as she does, is constitutive of Tradition, and thus of her very identity: “the memory of the new People of God is intimately associated with Mary’s memory”.
Those who know only the Pope’s earlier philosophical books may have been put off by their dense prose and unfamiliar technical vocabulary, the jargon of the phenomenologicalpersonalist-Thomist tradition of the Catholic University of Lublin. There is none of that here; the style is conversational and lucid, expansive without being exactly chatty. Nor, although its theological content is at times profound, is his thought as concentrated and at times elliptical as in his great encyclicals. None of this means dilution, however: his message is as heady as ever and it is still, as in the first days of his papacy, “Do not be afraid!” The last chapter makes a moving and fittingly personal close to these reflections. It is a dialogue with his secretary, Archbishop Dziwisz, on the assassination attempt of 1981, an event that (as is well known) the Pope links with the message of Fatima. The shooting occurred at the exact day and time the Virgin first appeared to the visionaries. The Pope comments: “Agca knew how to shoot. He shot to kill.” He attributes his survival, and his continuing pontificate, to Mary’s maternal care in turning aside the bullet. What do we make of this? For the Christian, surely, nothing happens by chance. The burden of explanation, I would say, lies with those who would explain these things away.
Whether this book is the Holy Father’s valedictory is in surer hands than ours; his mind and his passion for truth are demonstrably undimmed. This book, in fact, may well serve as much as an introduction to his thought and teaching as a coda to it. For his spiritual vision, as well as all his other startling qualities, he is by anyone’s standards the outstanding figure of our age.