I am one of the millions — hundreds of millions — of Catholics absolutely delighted that John Paul II has been declared blessed. I started work in Catholic journalism a month after he was elected, and it was a privilege and a great blessing to watch his work closely. He taught so much. He will go down in history, after his canonization, as John Paul II the Great.
I saw him three times in Rome in June 1980, before the assassination attempt, up close and personal, and one of the most moving experiences of my life was when I saw him in Denver for World Youth Day in August 1993, at a special event for Vietnamese Catholics, many of whom — it not all — were “boat people” and their children. As a photographer, I stook about 15 feet away from him while he addressed his audience. I felt like he spent the whole time looking at me. It was an awesome experience.
Here is a piece I did, reflecting on one year of his 27 year papacy, 1991, 20 years ago:
Looking back 20 years….
A YEAR IN THE LIFE
OF CHURCH & JPII
by Paul Likoudis
As the date of May 1, International Solidarity Day and the beatification of Pope John Paul II, approaches, it seems the number of the late pope’s critics saying “not opportune” is increasing, among both liberal and conservative Catholics, in the printed press and on Internet news sites and blogs.
The basic criticisms of John Paul II’s pontificate were outlined by Dr. Donald DeMarco in an editorial in last week’s Wanderer; what this reporter would like is for his critics to step back a bit and revisit just one year in the life of this remarkable pontiff, 1991.
That was 20 years ago, and John Paul II, 70 going on 71, was still going strong.
A brief overview of that year gives a hint of his amazing activity. There were the pastoral visits: four days to Portugal in May; eight days to Poland in June; eight days to Poland and Hungary in August for World Youth Day; and ten days to Brazil in October.
Between the visits he led numerous special assemblies bishops and cardinals on the Middle East, on the “threats to life,” on the economic problems of the Holy See, the “special assembly on Europe,” as well as greatly expanding the diplomatic relations of the Holy See, including the Vatican’s opening towards diplomatic relations with the Russian Federation and various countries of the former Soviet Union.
On May 1, 1991, the Holy Father released, Centesimus annus, his commemoration of the 100th anniversary of Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum.
As 1991 opened, as a look back at The Wanderer’s coverage shows, John Paul II appeared pre-occupied with diplomatic activity on the international stage to prevent a U.S. attack on Iraq in Gulf War I. By Christmas 1990, the Holy Father had already spoken against the war 40 times, most strongly in his Christmas message of 1990, when he warned world leaders in his Urbi et Orbi address that war in the Persian Gulf would be “an adventure with no return.”
“For the area of the gulf, we await with trepidation for the threat of conflict to disappear,” he said. “May leaders be convinced that war is an adventure with no return. By reasoning, patience and dialogue with respect for the inalienable rights of people and nations, it is possible to identify and travel the paths of understanding and peace.”
In that address he also called for a “more just world ethical and economic order,” saying “only effective and respectful cooperation between the rich countries and the emerging
people can prevent the contrast between North and South from becoming a widening
abyss that will increase the already vast and disturbing archipelago of poverty and death.”
After the brief six-week war, John Paul II convoked a summit of bishops from the Middle East and western nations to discuss the consequences of the war, condemned by the Chaldean Patriarch Raphael I Bidawid as “a crime,” and its impact on Christian-Muslim relations.
In addition to the ongoing troubles in the Middle East, the Holy Father was dealing with the breakup of Yugoslavia, ongoing warfare in Africa, especially the genocide in Rwanda.
THE SPECIAL CONVOCATION
April 199 saw the Holy Father preside over a special convocation of the world’s cardinals to discuss two main problems: threats against life, especially abortion, and the proselytization of Protestant sects in traditionally Catholic countries.
THE VISIT TO POLAND
Looking back, one of the most heart-wrenching talks the Holy Father delivered that year was on his eight-day visit to Poland in June 1991. On the third day of his fourth visit to his homeland, he departed from his prepared text on the Fourth Commandment, “Honor Thy Father and Mother,” and reproached his countrymen for their lack of respect for the unborn.
While avoiding the word “abortion,” the Holy Father asked his countrymen to examine their consciences: “All of you who lightheartedly approach these matters, you must understand that I cannot but be concerned about these matters, that I cannot but be hurt.
“You should also be hurt,” he said, as lightning flashed through a cloudy sky.
Thrusting the air with his fist, he thundered, “Land of my brothers and sisters! How can we continue to destroy the Polish family. We cannot speak hear of a liberty which makes man a slave….I cannot be indifferent to this crisis. I, too, am a son of this land.”
The next day, the Pope berated his countrymen for “debauched” morals and criticized the country’s parliament for failing to ban abortion. He compared abortion to the Nazi extermination programs, saying that “cemetery of the victims of human cruelty in our century is extended to include yet another vast cemetery, that of the unborn, of the defenseless whose faces even their mothers had not seen. What human institution, what parliament,” he asked, “has the right to legalize the killing of an innocent and defenseless human being? What parliament has the right to say: ‘You are free to kill,’ or even, ‘killing is in order,’ where the biggest efforts should be made to protect and help life in the first place.”
IN THE USA
Already, by 1991, The Wanderer was reporting with regularity the problem of clerical sex abuse as court cases around the country started proliferating. Taking up considerable ink were reports involving the late Bishop of Honolulu Joseph Ferrario, not only civil cases in the Federal courts, but also Ferrario’s attempt to excommunicate his lay critics who were publicizing his alleged crimes.
This was often against a backdrop of such stories involving gay clergy and religious who were increasingly criticizing the Church’s teaching on homosexuality, such as that under the headline in the April 25, 1991 edition of The Wanderer, “Homosexual Clergy and Religious Meet to Discuss ‘Homophobia” In The Church.”
The Holy Father was most likely aware of these developments, as he was serious problems in the U.S. episcopate. In 1991, the Holy See took various actions against the rebel Archbishop of Milwaukee, Rembert Weakland, OSB; for example, blocking Weakland’s reception of an honorary doctorate from a Swiss university, and ordering Weakland to stop the widespread practice in his archdiocese of general absolution.
On June 17, 1991, the rebel Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen of Seattle announced that the Holy See had accepted his resignation, tendered just three days earlier; he was 70, five years short of the official retirment age. He said it was his own decision, but few in Seattle bought that explanation.
On the liturgical front, on April 19, Augustin Cardinal Mayer, president of the Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei wrote a letter to the US bishops asking them to “facilitate” Tridentine Masses.
Looking back twenty years, the U.S. bishops were a much more sharply divided body than they are now, and it was unclear how far the Americanizing tendencies in the U.S. Church would go in breaking with Rome.
This was evident at the plenary meeting of the U.S. bishops in Washington, where one of the “action items” on the agenda was the abolition of holy days of obligation.
A proposal to eliminate six holy days failed to obtain the three-quarters vote necessary, but nearly half of the bishops agreed with Archbishop John Quinn of San Francisco that the Church “should not burden the consciences” of the Catholic people, a view seconded by Archbishop Thomas Kelly, OP of Louisville.
But an indication of a gradual change was shown by the interventions of Cardinals James Hickey, Bernard Law and Anthony Bevilacqua, who stressed the importance of maintaining the holy days, “as an opportunity to love our faith.”
That 1991 meeting was also significant in that it showed the “Bernardin Machine” was jealously guarding its power. Nevertheless, the president of the then-USCC/NCCB, Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk, opened the meeting with his presidential address, suggesting the U.S. bishops were entering a period of introspection.
No sooner had he finished his speech than he offered Action Item Number One, a proposal to cut the time each bishop had to speak from ten minutes to five.
That item was opposed, most dramatically, but the late Auxiliary Bishop of New York, Austin Vaughan, who argued the bishops needed more time, not less, to discuss conference action items, because the bishops had become “mere rubber stamps” to the bureaucracy.
In his intervention, Bishop Vaughan lamented that the bishops spend time “on things with no impact,” while failing to address important issues, such as the decline in religious life, the way contraception is addressed in the confessional, the catechetical disaster, the decline in religion on Catholic campuses, the decline of a Catholic presence in the media, the problem of family breakdown, the crisis in the seminaries, the problem of so-called Catholic sex education, and the problem of Catholic politicians.
“We’ve got the problem of two counter-magisteriums now,” said Vaughan, “the dissenting Catholics theologians and the dissenting Catholic politicians who are now telling Catholics it is all right to be pro-abortion.”
That 1991 meeting was especially significant, The Wanderer reported at the time, because it showed the “bishops were at a crossroads.”
The bishops rejected a document put forward by the Pastoral Practices committee that would have allowed for lay preaching.
For the first time, too, there was sharp criticism of ICEL, the International Commission for English in the Liturgy, for failing to even acknowledge proposals by bishops concerning the way certain prayers were translated. The 1991 meeting attracted widespread media coverage for proposed renditions of readings for children’s Masses, especially for the rendering the Nativity’s “manger” for “feedbox.”
While it may appear that the bishops have not yet handled adequately the problem of dissent in the Church, in retrospect the level of open dissent is far less than it was in 1991, perhaps due in some measure for a document the bishops did approve, The Teaching Ministry of the Diocesan Bishop.
The document was prepared by the late Avery Cardinal Dulles, Fr. Benedict Ashley, OP and John Alessandro at the request of the USCC’s docrtine committee, then headed by Archbishop Oscar Lipscomb of Mobile, and was a direct result, Lipscomb, of John Paul II’s message to the US bishop during his 1987 visit here to address the problem of dissent — although, he admitted, as early as 1985 bishops were appealing to the conference for guidelines on how to deal with dissenting theologians.
The Wanderer closed its detailed report on the debate of the document with his sentence: “Archbishop Lipscomb said he hoped the media would publicize the document, and open it up to public scrutiny — which could be his way of saying that he wants dissenters to see the time for dissent is over.”
The beatification of John Paul II on May 1, 20 years after he issued Centesimus Annus, should be a time for all Catholics to appreciate the achievements of this pontiff in one of most difficult eras for the Church in its history.
At his general audience of May 1, 1991, John Paul II announced the pending release of his ninth, and latest, encyclical, and offered a brief review of it, explaining it was motivated not only by the failure of the Marxist system, but the “existential confusion” in western commercial societies whose peoples cannot “experience properly the meaning of life.”
He concluded that audience, still the best summary of that remarkable encyclical, saying:
“Dear brothers and sisters!
“A great commitment on the political, economic, social and cultural level is necessary to build a society that is more just and worthy of the human person. But this is not enough! A decisive commitment must be made to the very heart of man, to the intimacy of his conscience, where he makes his personal decisions. Only on this level can the human perosn effect a true, deep and positive change in himself that is the undeniable premise of contributing to change and the improvement of society.
“Let us pray to the Mother of God and our Mother in this month dedicated to her, that she will support our personal efforts and our joint commitment and will thus help us to build more just and fraternal structures in the world for a new civilization — a civilization of solidarity and love.”
Any Catholic who can read “the signs of the times” should be able to see that prayer is more timely than ever — as is the beatification of John Paul II.
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