Saturday, 26 April 2014

The Ark, Edith Stein and martyrdom as unity: a reflection for the canonisation of John Paul II

The canonisations of Pope John Paul II and Pope John XXIII tomorrow have somewhat caught up with me before I have really had time to reflect on their significance. Perhaps that's a good sign - I do have a "real life" to live.

I do not really feel that I "know" Pope John XXIII in the same way that I "know" John Paul II. I do have Meriol Trevor's life of John XXIII on my bookshelves, so I have some wherewithal to correct that.

As I have asked myself this morning what particular thoughts I feel that I take away from the ministry of Pope John Paul II, three things have come to mind. They are intensely personal, and do not represent any systematic appreciation of Pope John Paul.

The first thought has been my memory of a visit to the Church of the "Ark of the Lord" in Nowa Huta, Krakow, many years ago. As Archbishop of Krakow, Karol Woyjtla consecrated this Church. It was built by hand by the people, against the opposition of the Communist authorities, who had built the Nowa Huta suburb of Krakow as an "atheist" town focussed around it's giant steel works and intended to be without religious presence of any kind. The Church is designed to look like the Ark - hence the boat shape of its roof and the general shape of the building. Perhaps more fundamentally than its influence on the opposition of the Polish people to Communist rule, the Church stands as a sign of the presence of God, made flesh in the person of Jesus Christ, in the midst of a God-less world. It's significance therefore abides, long after its original historical context has disappeared. Again, one can see a political dimension to much of Pope John Paul's ministry, particularly with regard to his pastoral visits to then-Communist countries. But fundamentally, should we not see that ministry - and the pastoral visits that were so much a part of it - as being a witness to the presence of God in our world, a presence here, where each individual nation and people lives?

The second thought that comes to me is being in St Peter's Square on 11th October 1998 for the canonisation of Edith Stein. I travelled to Rome for the canonisation after an aside remark made to me. It still comes to my mind as one of the highlights of my ecclesial experience. Something of my experience of Edith Stein is reflected in this post, just encountered as a result of a Google search. I have my own copy of the booklet for the ceremony in front of me as I post. The philosophical affinity between the two is one thing; the experience of living under persecution is another. Edith is by far and away my favourite saint. A good friend has a quite distinct way of smiling whenever I refer to her ..... Whilst the Christian message is never tied to one particular philosophical outlook, it can nevertheless find a particular expression within different philosophical frameworks. In a post-modern world, where pre-conceived frameworks are rejected as starting points, realist phenomenology appears to me to offer a potentially powerful way to open up access to reality. Would the contemporary advocacy of "gender theory", for example, really stand up to the eidetic enquiry of a realist phenomenology? Pope John Paul II's encyclicals and apostolic constitutions are resplendent with a phenomenological style.

The third thought is a short passage tucked away in the encyclical Ut Unum Sint, n.84. It occurs to me quite regularly. It goes neatly with the emphasis on the reality of the imperfect communion that exists as a result of baptism that I recall noticing in Pope Benedict's address to leaders of other Christian communities during his visit to Cologne in 2005. It indicates that, in martyrdom, there exists already in reality that unity among Christians of different denominations that is the aim of ecumenical endeavour. My emphasis added in bold:
In a theocentric vision, we Christians already have a common Martyrology. This also includes the martyrs of our own century, more numerous than one might think, and it shows how, at a profound level, God preserves communion among the baptized in the supreme demand of faith, manifested in the sacrifice of life itself. The fact that one can die for the faith shows that other demands of the faith can also be met. I have already remarked, and with deep joy, how an imperfect but real communion is preserved and is growing at many levels of ecclesial life. I now add that this communion is already perfect in what we all consider the highest point of the life of grace, martyria unto death, the truest communion possible with Christ who shed his Blood, and by that sacrifice brings near those who once were far off (cf. Eph 2:13).
While for all Christian communities the martyrs are the proof of the power of grace, they are not the only ones to bear witness to that power. Albeit in an invisible way, the communion between our Communities, even if still incomplete, is truly and solidly grounded in the full communion of the Saints—those who, at the end of a life faithful to grace, are in communion with Christ in glory. These Saints come from all the Churches and Ecclesial Communities which gave them entrance into the communion of salvation.
It is interesting that, though we are now into the second papal ministry since the death of Pope John Paul II, all three of these themes have retained their resonance through changing political and social circumstances.

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