Today, in light of the recently announced beatification of Pope John Paul II, Robert Mixa reflects upon this central figure of Catholicism and the birth of an evangelical Catholic culture.
At Mass last Sunday, the retired bishop who presides at my parish gave a homily in which he told a story of an aspiring artist who took an art class. Believing he could get an easy A because of his superb drawing skills, he was surprised when the art teacher took his drawing and ripped it up, saying, "I know you can draw, but if you want to be an artist you must learn how 'to see'." This story brought to my mind the story of the rich young man who followed the law but, when encouraged by Christ to give all his possessions to the poor and come follow him (the “next-step” that was “fitting” to his spiritual development), he became discouraged. His extrinsic behavior was perfect, but his whole self was not radically based in the source that gives and makes one ‘see’ --- namely, Christ. He realized that he was holding onto something that was hindering his spiritual vision– so he became frustrated and sad, knowing the contradictory nature of his desires. Like the aspiring artist he was a good draftsman (the moral life), but he did not yet open himself to the Light that would help him see (the spiritual life). Like the rich young man, all of us desire the infinite source that is God. We are never ultimately satisfied with the things of this world. So in order for us not to become frustrated in the journey towards God, we must clear ourselves of anything that impedes our dedication to our true ultimate concern. Only by making this step and focusing our eyes on the icon of Christ will we have the vision to see God who has been revealed not as a thing, but a way of being: Gift. The problem with our culture is that it bases itself in things and typically sees God as a thing to be avoided, denied or submitted to. However, an authentically Christian culture does not view God this way. Instead, with the profound insight that God is Trinitarian Love and Being itself, a Christian culture bases its creative expression in the source of glory, the Incarnation. Only then will all of creation take on a heavenly aura. John Paul II (JP II) saw this and encouraged all cultures to turn to Christ as the source of their flourishing. I believe that JP II is our era’s great teacher who tears up our drawings and encourages us to see with Christian eyes.
JP II lived in pursuit of the source of our immortal longing -- God. He found Christ to be the way to the source; and, grounding of his life in him, beauty, truth and goodness poured out through him. As a young man, JP II wrote beautiful plays that reflect the biblical narrative. While studying philosophy, he approached the thought of philosophers with Christo-centric eyes, never shying away from any system of ideas, but affirming those aspects that lead to Christ and warning against those that lead away from him. He recognized that a culture that forgets the source, Christ, will eventually shrivel in spiritual atrophy.
I believe that JP II will serve as a bridge and catalyst for an eventual flourishing of a Catholic Culture. In many respects, Catholic culture (a culture first disrupted and then transformed by an encounter with Christ) has disappeared – it could be argued that such a culture never truly existed on a large scale. Nevertheless, it is safe to assume that secularism has become culturally dominant. In such an environment, people easily lose awareness that all of their desires are directed towards God. JP II knew this and strived to counter this trend. His life is a witness to this.
JP II is a guide to future generations on how to properly lay the grounds of a Catholic Culture - a community of disciples that finds its origin, sustenance, formation and destiny in the self-gift of God in the Eucharist (Christ immediate presence). His example will encourage Catholics living in a secular environment to be counter-cultural in that they will have cultivated the awareness that their flourishing is dependent upon him. Here is what I think he would have us do: First, encounter Christ, gathering yourself around him. Get to know him through prayer, the liturgy and Eucharistic adoration, seeing these activities as the grounds for social regeneration in all forms of community. See that Christ - the face of God- is the goal of your deepest desires precisely because he is the Good itself - the Good that gives itself to the other in self-abandon. He shows us God; hence, showing us in his person what we are called to be: self-gift. It is from this formation of persons in Christ through the Church that the culture will be transformed.
The goal for Catholics now is to form individuals whose lives are so dedicated to the truth, good and beauty (believing that it is found in the particularity of Jesus of Nazareth) that their lives take on a creative expression of self-gift ever striving for the infinite. The problem with much of Catholic culture today is that we have lost faith in, or have become indifferent to, Catholicism's potential for forming beautiful lives. Hence, discipleship no longer seems desirable. Too many have looked to find ultimate meaning outside of the tradition centered on Jesus Christ, congratulating themselves for being "open-minded" and escaping so-called forms of "sectarian thinking" while being unaware that human thinking always conforms to some tradition. Their motivation often is to liberate themselves from the confines of "traditionalist" thought for something greater. But if thought is always embedded in some tradition the question then becomes which tradition they are embedded in; there is no neutral space. On the other hand, there are some who are so caught up with correcting those not living in conformity with the Gospel and the Church's teachings that they live in constant anxiety. Both approaches have hampered the potential for Catholic culture to grow – at least this is what I have experienced. I believe this is so because they both form their identities as somehow in conflict with the "other". If the "other" disappeared, their identity would collapse. But JP II, aware of the deviances from Christ and the narrowness that hinders venturing into the splendor of Christ, did not base his discipleship on the "other". Rather, he radically based himself in Christ, the one thing necessary. He gave up all things to follow him. Think of the cultural change that would occur if Christians based their culture on following the God who presents himself to humanity as Gift and Mystery! This was the hopeful vision of the late pontiff. Let’s make it ours.
Robert Mixa is a Research and Sales Assistant at Word on Fire Catholic Ministries.