Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of February 4, 2002
Pope John Paul's wisdom enthrals
The Wisdom of John Paul II: The Pope on Life's Most Vital Questions, compiled by Nick Bakalar and Richard Balkin. Vintage Books. Random House: New York, N.Y. 2001. 150 pages. Papercover.
Review by WAYNE HOLST
Special to the WCR
This book provides a broad overview and a clear, simple distillation of Pope John Paul's thinking, vision and hopes for these momentous times. It is the first paperback edition of a volume that appeared in hardcover six years ago and includes significant new and updated material.
The Wisdom of John Paul II is divided into subject categories that grow out of the large body of his writings, sermons and addresses (the latter two of which alone add up to some 20 volumes) with an editorial backgrounder introducing each theme. He speaks on such topics as the modern world, morality, faith, family, the poor, peace, women, science and religion.
The superb work of the book's editors provides a representative sampling of pertinent passages with the intention of capturing the essential mind, spirit and soul of the pope in his own words.
On the subject of contemporary spirituality (p. 2), for example, John Paul says: "When individuals and communities do not see a rigorous respect for moral, cultural and spiritual requirements, based on the dignity of the person and the proper identity of each community, beginning with the family and religious societies, then all the rest - availability of goods, abundance of technical resources applied to daily life, a certain level of material well-being - will prove unsatisfying and in the end contemptible."
John Paul believes the Church can learn from contemporary movements in spirituality but he also advocates strongly on behalf of the experience of the past two millennia of Christian tradition. Modern Christians face the challenge of meeting new, complex needs, while simultaneously holding fast to their Biblical heritage.
In ecumenism and interfaith relations the pontiff has not only reached out significantly to other Christians but to persons of other living faiths. He has visited the religious sites of Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Shintoists, Hindus and followers of primal religions all over the world and embraced religious diversity and dialogue with animation provided by the Second Vatican Council.
He has emphatically called for an end to religious prejudice, racial antagonism and xenophobia in a way that speaks clearly and passionately to world developments in light of the terrors of Sept. 11.
He opposes proselytising in favour of a broad acceptance of other faiths, acknowledging that God loves and accepts all believing humankind. Yet, the pope has been a tireless advocate for Christian witness.
Periodically, John Paul has stirred up controversy with his stands, and sometimes Christians and non-Christians alike have misinterpreted his words. As a philosopher and theologian, committed as he is to the traditional creeds and precepts of Roman Catholicism, he remains open to rethinking his own positions, looking for new ideas, and encouraging dialogue and reconciliation with all faiths and religious positions.
During a 1995 dialogue with Muslims he said: "All the motives and expressions of the phenomenon of fundamentalism must be examined. The analysis of political, social and economic situations shows that the phenomenon is not only religious, but that in many cases religion is exploited for political ends or, indeed, to compensate for problems of a social and economic nature. There can be no really lasting response to . . . fundamentalism as long as the problems that create or sustain it are left unresolved." (pp. 107-8).
If there is a weakness in this book, it is not in the quality of what is presented. Rather, it is in the limitations dictated by available space and subject areas to be addressed.
Truly, this pope has been universal and encyclopedic in his interests and commentary. Here is a handy compendium, carefully selected, from a man about whom Time magazine once declared: "He has helped to define the political and social fabric of our times."
(Rev. Dr. Wayne Holst is a writer who teaches religion and culture at the University of Calgary.)