Funeral of Pope John Paul II. Wikimedia Commons

The Story of a Friendship

Five years ago, John Paul II was succeeded by Benedict XVI. What is it that profoundly links them? We asked Msgr. Albacete, columnist and author, and Dr. David Schindler, Provost Dean of the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and the Family, for help.
Antonio Lopez

On the occasion of the 5th anniversary of the death (April 2nd) of Pope John Paul II and of the beginning of the papacy (April 19th) of Benedict XVI, we have asked Msgr. Lorenzo Albacete, columnist, author, and chaplain of CL in the USA, and Dr. David Schindler, Provost Dean of the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and the Family, to highlight some main themes of the continuity between the two papacies–like that particular way of understanding the faith: passion for Christ and for the human person. While the political waters of public opinion were calmer with John Paul II, the climate has become stormier with the recent incendiary New York Times attacks on the Church, and on this Pope in particular. We are helped to see that which the media misses, that which both popes worked and work to highlight, at the heart of the Christian and the Church, what Albacete calls “the novelty of Christ that is not percieved.”As Schindler observes, “Whatever cultural problems Benedict XVI is dealing with, even ecclesial problems, at the heart of it is the recovery of the memory of God.”

What do you think about the question of continuity between this great pope and his successor?Albacete: I find that most people have not made up their minds about the question of continuity. Is John Paul II’s leadership and contribution to the life of the Church, shaping of the Church, essentially over, and now we have something new? I myself have been impressed with the continuity. Obviously, the styles are disconnected, but the continuity is awesome. Perhaps some do not see the continuity because the novelty of Christ is not perceived. The Church has made an effort to overcome that division.

Schindler: I agree that the continuity is profound. First of all, like all the great men of the Church, they witness to the Gospel, and the unity of the Gospel. Their unity can be seen in that Benedict XVI repeatedly emphasizes that the fundamental problem today is forgetfulness of God. At the heart of every cultural or ecclesial problem he is dealing with is the recovery of the memory of God. John Paul II said something similar in Crossing the Threshold of Hope: the 21st century will be a century of religion, or it will not exist at all. And I think that’s really the heart of their unity: the recovery of the religious sense and the memory of God as concretely revealed in Jesus Christ.

How do they perceive the world? What do they mean when they try to retrieve an adequate sense of secularity?
Schindler: One thing that has really struck me with Benedict’s emphasis on the secular–for instance, when he met the leaders of France–is his insistence that we need to recover an adequate understanding of the secular. The secular for our culture means being silent about God, whereas Benedict’s whole point is to recover a notion of the secular at the heart of which is the search for God, the desire for God. At the Collège des Bernardins, he gave that wonderful lecture underscoring the essentialness of St.Benedict and of monasticism in the formation of Europe, demonstrating that the quest for God at the heart of monasticism is essential for any authentic human culture. Thus, at the heart of the secular is first the desire for God and, secondly, a restless desire that isn’t fulfilled or complete except in the encounter with God as He is revealed in history, which is in Jesus Christ.

Albacete: Exactly. There would be no secularity if there was not the God of Christ. What passes for secularity, the separation from God or the spiritual, is not a secularity at all. Real secularity is possible only through the God of Jesus Christ.

Albacete: Because it is He who brings together the divine and the human in a way laid out in the Council of Chalcedon in 451. I think this is one of the most important things to come out in that lecture at the Collège des Bernardins. Without Christ, there is no secular.

Can you say a little bit more about Benedict’s insistence on monasticism and why it is not a reduction of the Church to a “spiritual” life away from the world?
Schindler: To me, the point is that every day in its inner reality, every day and every aspect of every day, is the dies Domini. Every day is the Day of the Lord. The nature of the human being is liturgical.

Albacete: And remember how he says it there: the first fruit of this search is to build a library.

Schindler: And to work!

Albacete: And to work, exactly. Ora et labora.

Schindler: And there is the dignity of the humble. Manual labor has a great dignity in that context. In a sense, only a Christian can take seriously manual labor. The Incarnation, in other words, is Heaven and Earth brought together. The point of our engagement with Earth is to realize Heaven, although we can’t do it completely in this life. In Jesus, Heaven came to Earth so that Earth could go to Heaven. The point is that, with Jesus, we are participating in that unity of Heaven and Earth. Therefore, every time, place, and space can be given their dignity finally only inside Christianity, only inside the revelation of Christ. Today, we have such a limited conception of work, as if it were merely an instrument to achieve something else. This is also true, but work is an activity that is a participation in God’s own creativity, in God’s incarnate activity.

One of the problems is that the contemporary understanding of work is the separation between the state of life and what one does at work. What’s new about what Pope John Paul II and Benedict XVI say about the unity between the state of life one is in, and what one is doing?
Albacete: All of these separations are manifestations of an original one. It is the loss of the experience of the Christian God. All of them are various ways of showing that dualism.

Schindler: At the core of bringing together the idea of vocation and work is a recognition that freedom is realized only in saying “forever.” Freedom is really ordered to a love that takes the form of a vow that is possible only and finally through the insertion of God’s own relation to the world, manifested in Jesus Christ. The crucial point is simply to recognize that freedom is meant to say “forever” to God, liberated through Jesus Christ in a way that includes God’s own relation to the totality of things, in service to them.

Both John Paul II and Benedict XVI insisted on man’s freedom and they tried to defend it. In almost all of his encyclicals, John Paul II quoted Gaudium et spes, no. 22: Christ reveals God to man and man to himself. Christianity, for Benedict XVI, reveals the mystery of the human person: every person is relation with the Mystery, and is free inasmuch as he recognizes this dependence and lives for another. Does not this concept fly in the face of the contemporary one that understands freedom as “creativity,” “autonomy,” and “equality”?

Albacete: There is nothing wrong, in principle, with all that… But freedom isn’t creative without Christ. Why? Eventually, everything collapses, and moves on, and death is not overcome. Empires come and go; great works and achievements disappear.

Schindler: Ratzinger has a wonderful way of putting things. When he talks about sacrament he says that it is giving what one does not possess. It seems to me that the key to all human action is that it is pre-sacramental. In other words, what I pass on I am never first the absolute origin of. And therefore, if we want to talk about this in terms of fatherhood and sonship: we want to be creative, as origins; we want to be fathers of our own acts, and in a sense of course that is true. But, as creatures, we can be true fathers only through sonship. At a deeper level, we always are recipients of the power that we pass on, even though we really participate in it. We do have autonomy, but it is the autonomy that is proper to a gift that we have been given and in which we participate. This is also Ratzinger’s beautiful way of speaking about sacrament: I really participate in power, but I am never first the possessor of it. I participate in power as a receiver of power.

Much of the papacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI is a “radiation of fatherhood” and a defense of the depth of the mystery of fatherhood. What is lost in today’s crisis of fatherhood?
Albacete: To me, it is not an accident or a cultural qualification that the name of the Christian God is “Father.” This is not casual–every gesture and word of the Lord is revelatory, and Jesus calls God “Father.” This means that the first place the loss of orientation–that we as human beings have to the Infinite–will show itself is precisely in the loss of the sense of fatherhood. To participate in God’s life is to participate in the life of the Father, is to be like the “shadow of the Father” as in Karol Wojtyla’s play, Radiation of Fatherhood. That play is about St. Joseph, as the shadow of the Father. The inability to understand whether Joseph really fits into this demonstrates that a break has already occurred.

One of John Paul II’s major contributions is his Wednesday Catechesis now published in English as Theology of the Body. He presented a very refreshing view of human love in terms of nuptiality. What are some of the new, essential elements of this teaching?
Albacete: Here I would like to tie it to the loss of sacramentality, because marriage is the primordial sacrament. Had there been no sin, there would be no sacraments, only this one. That is, marriage is the revelation of God’s intention in creating out of nothing. It is not just fatherhood, because fatherhood is inseparable from motherhood and a nuptial relation–all of those are lost. John Paul II offered a tremendous help to retrieve the unity between all of these elements that define human love. Otherwise, human love is like a building collapsing; it is like 9/11. It stands for awhile and there is a fire and you think the big problem is controlling the fire and suddenly the building falls on top of you.

Schindler: It seems to me that what both popes really want to say is that there is something about a man as apt for fatherhood and a woman as apt for motherhood, and a child, that reveals something essential about the nature of human love. In our culture, we tend to think that you have these human, abstract agents, who only happen to be male, female, or children. But if we lose the distinctiveness of the man, we lose an essential feature of love. If we lose the distinctiveness of the woman, we lose something essential about the meaning of love. And if we think of children as little adults that will grow out of it, we lose something essential regarding the meaning of human love. Regarding the latter, there is something especially beautiful in the fact that God revealed Himself in Christ in the form of a child.This is not just temporary. He is the Son of the Father from all eternity. Thus, sonship, being a child, is not something we are just meant to grow out of.

Albacete: Unless you become like one, you are not moving toward your destiny.

*F.S.C.B. Assistant Professor of Theology at the JP II Center for Marriage and Family.