To obey God, to obey the Council, to obey man: this was John Paul II’s great and constant concern as one who was called to the Chair of Peter not to be served but to serve and to give his life for the Church and for the world.
It is well known that a Pope is above human obedience. Everyone surrounds him with obedience, beginning on the day he presides at his first liturgical celebration at the solemn start of his ministry as universal Pastor of the Church. Everyone is reverent, docile and respectful to him. But above the Pope is Christ himself, the God-man who obeyed the Father, giving himself day after day, for the salvation of humanity.
The whole Magisterium of John Paul II was marked by the sign of obedience to the will of God.
They were prophetic, those words which Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski, Archbishop of Warsaw-Gniezno, Primate of Poland, uttered from his heart to the newly elect John Paul II: “You must guide the Church into the third millennium”. It was the same Polish Pope who entrusted his fellow Poles with this “prophecy” at the Angelus of Sunday, 29 May 1994, the Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity. The still convalescent Pope opened his heart to the faithful with these words full of trust: “The Pope had to find himself at the Gemelli Hospital, he had to be absent from this window for four weeks, as he had to suffer 13 years ago, so too this year. I meditated and thought again on all of this during my recovery in the hospital. Once again I found next to me the figure of Cardinal Wyszynski, Primate of Poland. At the beginning of my Pontificate, he told me, ‘If the Lord has called you, you must bring the Church into the third millennium’.
“He himself had led the Church in Poland into the second Christian millennium. This is what Cardinal Wyszynski said to me. And I understood that I must lead the Church into the third millennium with prayer, with various initiatives, but I have seen that it is not enough. I must lead it with suffering, with the attempt 13 years ago and with this new sacrifice”. “Why now?” he rightly asked, “why in this year of the family?” And he responded: “exactly because the family is threatened. The family is assaulted. So the Pope must be assaulted, must suffer, so that every family and the world can see that there is a gospel, which, I would say, is superior: the gospel of suffering, by which the future is prepared, the third millennium of families, of each and all families”.
Obedience and election therefore meant obedience to the gospel of suffering, to the gospel of the family. Pope Wojtyła’s horizon of obedience widened ever since the dawn of his Pontificate. And he himself in the “Roman Triptych” explains to us with poetic and evocative words the price of this obedience to the election of the Chair of Peter.
For him obedience was a vow made to God and to the community. John Paul II obeyed God like Abraham when on the occasion of the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000, he made a pilgrimage to the holy places tied to the history of salvation. From Ur of the Chaldeans, today’s Tal al Muqayyr in the south of Iraq, the city in which, according to the biblical narrative, Abraham heard the word of the Lord which tore him from his land, from his people, and in a certain sense from himself, to make of him an instrument of salvation that embraced the future people of the covenant and even all the people of the world.
From Ur of the Chaldeans, he went on a spiritual pilgrimage to Mount Sinai in the steps of Moses, and to the Holy Land in the footsteps of Jesus of Nazareth.
For John Paul II, who had obeyed throughout his life, the conclusion of the Second Vatican Council became the compass of the new evangelization of the world.
For John Paul II, to obey the Council meant putting into practice all the teachings of Vatican II. Inculturation, the promotion of human rights and religious freedom, dialogue with the contemporary world, ecumenism, the social doctrine of the Church, the value of life from conception in the maternal womb to natural death, the value of the family founded on matrimony: all these commitments flowed from the Council, and in the sign of obedience, they were brought to fulfilment in the law, in the educational proposals and in the praxis of life.
John Paul II had an obedient heart. I remember the time when he received Mother Teresa in audience. I was present at the meeting, and he asked me to write a brief article for L’Osservatore Romano. He also asked me: “Is it Mother Teresa who is granting an audience to the Pope, or is it the Pope who is granting an Audience to Mother Teresa?” When obedience and humility walk together, even the giants feel little because they know how to be obedient (that is, to do the will of the Father) first to God, then to men.
He instilled the virtue of obedience above all when he spoke to priests, to men and women religious. In the Apostolic Exhortation Redemptionis Donum of 25 March 1984, addressed to men and women religious concerning their consecration in the light of the mystery of redemption he wrote: “The evangelical counsel of obedience is the call which derives from this obedience of Christ ‘unto death’. … In the counsel of obedience they desire to find their own role in the Redemption of Christ and their own way of sanctification. … Through the vow of obedience consecrated persons decide to imitate with humility the obedience of the Redeemer in a special way”. Again, obedience “is a particular expression of interior freedom, just as the definitive expression of Christ’s freedom was his obedience ‘unto death’” (13).
To give new sustenance to religious life he convened the Ninth General Ordinary Assembly of the Synod of Bishops that from 2-29 October 1994, deepened the theme: “Consecrated Life and Its Mission in the Church and in the World”. A year and a half later, on 25 March 1996, he promulgated the post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Vita Consecrata, that is the “magna carta” of the consecrated soul of the 20th and the 21st centuries.
John Paul II was obedient to today’s humanity when he made himself a pilgrim on the streets of this world and went to meet peoples and nations to confirm all of them in obedience to the law of God and the law of Caesar. John Paul II the Great spoke from his heart, and in visits to the parishes of Rome, to the diocese of Italy, to the youth of the world and to the peoples of various continents, he confirmed that “God is love” and to this gift of love one needs to be faithful and obedient even to the shedding of blood.
The heritage of obedience John Paul II bequeathed reaches beyond the hearts of consecrated persons and embraces also those who have made of the Christian life a heroic and exemplar choice of love for God and for others.
Christian ascetics, dear to John Paul II noted that it is better to obey than to command. The one who obeys never errs, but the one who commands can also err. This was wisdom that John Paul II loved to link with the “sapientia cordis” [wisdom of the heart] of his own life devoted to the service of others, always!
Fr. Gianfranco Grieco, O.F.M.