Fr Billy Swan
The feast day of St John Paul II (22nd October) recalls the impact of one of the greatest lives to influence the Church and the world in the 20th century. He was a charismatic leader, speaker and visionary who inspired millions in a way that led to social change, most notably the fall of communism, the break-up of the Soviet Union and the peaceful transition to democracy in many Eastern block countries including his native Poland.
The strategy that John Paul II employed that enabled him to have this influence and success, centered on the truth of the human person and the radical nature of the Christian life. Take for example, his first visit back to his native Poland as pope in 1979. The communist authorities were understandably nervous about what he would say, fearful of rebellion among the hundreds of thousands who came to see and hear him, fearful of possible incitement. They were expecting him to directly attack the communist regime and lack of democracy. Instead, John Paul II choose what seemed like a more insipid message about who the human person is. What he said during that visit amounted to something like this: “Here is what they say you are; I will tell you who you really are”. He then went on to present a vision of the human person with an exalted dignity, a creature created by a God who knows them and loves them individually and personally; a human being with a divine destiny and a mission to fulfill in the time they spend on this earth. He presented a vision of the human person as a social being, called to communion and friendship with God and others as part of the community of the Church and family of the nation. If the communist authorities were relieved at the time that John Paul’s words were less subversive that they expected, their relief was short lived. His words, homilies and speeches during that visit to Poland led to a non-violent revolution that would eventually lead to the fall of communism in the late 1980’s.
Closely coupled to this powerful message of who we are as human beings was his insistence that the Christian life is beautiful and noble but requires a radical choice that costs nothing less than everything. He was particularly clear and vocal about this message to young people. For example, consider these words he spoke to thousands of young people gathered in Rome for World Youth Day 2000.
“It is Jesus that you seek when you dream of happiness; He is waiting for you when nothing else you find satisfies you; He is the beauty to which you are so attracted; it is He who provoked you with that thirst for fullness that will not let you settle for compromise; it is He who urges you to shed the masks of a false life; it is He who reads in your heart your most genuine choices, the choices that others try to stifle. It is Jesus who stirs in you the desire to do something great with your lives, the will to follow an ideal, the refusal to allow yourselves to be ground down by mediocrity, the courage to commit yourselves humbly and patiently to improving yourselves and society, making the world more human and more fraternal.”
For many young people, this Gospel call to heroism and idealism is precisely what they are waiting to hear. Far from putting them off by the high price to be paid, opened up before them is a path to follow that lead to fulfillment, purpose and deep joy. In recent years, one could argue that this youthful idealism has been dampened by scandals, loss of faith in institutions and a huge shift in Western culture to the primacy of the individual’s freedom. And so, what matters most is not so much what is true and good but my freedom to choose what I want.
One person who has become an ardent critic of this shift is the Canadian Psychologist Jordan Peterson. In 2018, his book 12 Rules for Life, propelled him to global prominence as a best-selling author, international speaker and one of the leading commentators on Western culture. He laments the loss of the importance of truth as an objective reality to which we must conform if we are to avoid delusion and immaturity. In fact, one of the pivotal chapters in the book 12 Rules for Life is named: ‘Tell the truth or at least, don’t lie’.
Peterson insists that the most important question to ask about the moral teaching of any religion or philosophy, including Christianity is not: ‘Do I like or agree with the teachings?’ but rather, ‘Are they true?’ ‘I don’t like them because they are at odds with my lifestyle and choices, then they must be false’ may be the anthem of our age but it remains an argument that does not make sense. So rather than dismiss certain truth claims because they challenge me, the path towards maturity leads us towards discerning whether something is true or false and living according to that truth discerned.
This is Peterson’s argument in 12 Rules for Life. He insists that truth and love are not things that we can define to suit ourselves but present standards before us to follow and be conformed to. For Peterson, authentic love is not fundamentally about desire and even less about feelings. Rather it is about seeking what is good for yourself and others. Such a pursuit takes us out of ourselves, causing us to grow up, take responsibility and to embark on a spiritual adventure that fulfills our potential for greatness. In Peterson’s own words:
‘You could be more than you are. When you dare aspire upward, you reveal the inadequacy of the present and the promise of the future’. For Peterson, this message is radical and counter cultural. Yet, it is a message that thousands are flocking to hear and millions have read in his books. It is a message that calls us to greatness – not by feeling good but by being good; not by deciding what’s true but surrendering ourselves to what’s true.
So then, what do St John Paul II and Jordan Peterson have in common? Both saw that the true measure of greatness and human nobility lie in more than giving people what they want. Like any good parent, it is not by spoiling them that children grow but by lovingly mentoring them towards a life that is ready for adventure, that requires sacrifice and discipline but promises fulfillment and joy. Both men see that the call to heroism is not one we should be scared of but welcome and propose to all. Jordan Peterson’s route to this realization came about through psychology but notably, he says that ‘I try to live as if God exists’.
For John Paul II, his route to this conclusion was via his strong Catholic Christian faith that assured him that God does exist and living according to this truth. It was this faith that assured him that every human being is made in the image and likeness of God and that each of us are called to heroic greatness as we step out on the journey of life by responding to God’s call to become all we can be.
To conclude. Some say that the Church needs to make less demands of people, especially the young and if that happened then more people would be attracted to the life of faith. I believe the opposite is true. If the Church loses her idealism and waters down the radical challenge to live as a Christian today, then we will have less people, not more. The Church, and Jordan Peterson, call us to heroism – to be all God has called us to be. So let us not be afraid to respond to the demands of love. Let us desire to be saints. The only tragedy in life is not to become one.
ST JOHN PAUL II, PRAY FOR US!