Misery, Mercy and Mission: Blessed John Paul II’s legacy in Pope Francis

Today, October 22, the liturgy offers us the memorial of Blessed John Paul II. It will be the last time this optional memorial is celebrated before his canonization this April. One may ask what themes of John Paul the Great’s pontificate are still alive and well in the new pontificate of Pope Francis.  I think three themes show the strong continuity between these two Successors of Peter: an understanding of the human person in his greatness and in the misery of his fallen state, the proclamation of God as rich in mercy, and the missionary impulse born where these two realities meet.

I am certainly not saying that Pope Benedict is outside this thematic continuity. He certainly is, but for today I am focusing on John Paul and Francis.

Both Bl. John Paul II and Pope Francis speak often of the dignity of the human person. John Paul II’s first encyclical “The Redeemer of Man,” was central to his thought and his whole trajectory as pope. The pastoral initiatives of the Jubilee Year of the Redemption, the Jubilee of the New Milennium, the encounters with young people and so many papal trips and visits, all revolve around the understanding of human beings in their greatness and in the mystery of sin and the Fall. At the core of John Paul’s writings is the deep truth of the reality of man’s plight and his radical need for a Redeemer.

For Francis, this is seen in his constant outreach to fallen humanity which has further fallen from the care and even the notice of fellow humankind: the marginalized, the forgotten, the drowned refugees of Lampedusa. And for the well-off of the West, the prioritizing of wealth and of creature comforts over the care of the destitute is seen by Pope Francis as a sign and consequence of the lack of faith, which alone provides a solid basis for a society where people truly care for each other.

“Human unity would be conceivable only on the basis of utility, on a calculus of conflicting interests or on fear, but not on the goodness of living together, not on the joy which the mere presence of others can give. Faith makes us appreciate the architecture of human relationships because it grasps their ultimate foundation and definitive destiny in God, in his love, and thus sheds light on the art of building; as such it becomes a service to the common good.” (Lumen Fidei, 51)

This deep comprehension of the heights which man can scale together with the abyss to which he has fallen contrasts, in both John Paul and Francis, with a conception of God as primarily merciful. Mercy is God’s answer to the Fall, and that mercy has a name: Jesus Christ, God Incarnate.

John Paul the Great’s second encyclical was an extended meditation on God the Father as “rich in mercy.” His canonization date, Divine Mercy Sunday, recalls his push for this feast day, (as had been requested by St. Faustina whom he canonized) and his dying on the eve of Divine Mercy Sunday in 2005. God, “rich in mercy” is mentioned in the opening prayer of the Mass celebrated today for Bl. John Paul.

Pope Francis’ preaching and example are based on the central imperative of imitating Christ through mercy to others. And this in turn is based on a concept of God as merciful Father. All other concepts of God, creator, law-giver, judge, are to be understood in the light of merciful love. The fundamental content of faith is a belief in a God of love. This frames the entire first chapter of Lumen Fidei. Pope Francis rarely speaks without mentioning God’s love and mercy.

For both John Paul II and Francis, the missionary imperative is born from a deep understanding of God’s love and man’s need. Jesus is God who saves, who is the Incarnation of God’s love, come down to save us from our sin and restore us to greatness. Our sin and fallenness is not the end of our story; human life is not a tragedy; the most amazing and unexpected thing has happened: God Himself has paid our infinite debt to divine justice in the currency of human suffering.

Our mission as a Church is to proclaim that Good News, celebrate it in the liturgy, be nourish by its never-fading freshness in the sacraments, and live it in such a joyful and inviting way that others will be drawn into the depth of the central truth of our salvation. Whenever that happens, the name for that place where Christ’s Word is proclaimed, his Body consecrated, his Grace shared, his love extended to all is the Church, whether it is done in a building or through the hands of a volunteer on some forgotten mission field. We are Christians only insofar as we embody the mission of Christ and share God’s mercy with all whom we meet, men and women, like ourselves, in dire need of God’s grace.

John Paul’s encyclical which followed upon the fall of communism, Centesimus Annus, has a whole chapter on man as “the way of the Church.” The missionary impulse goes way beyond preaching sermons. God’s Word must become flesh as well in just political and economic systems. In October, 1978, the former Karol Cardinal Wojtyla had begun his pontificate telling all “Be not afraid” of opening wide the doors to Christ, the doors of our hearts but also the doors of political and economic systems. For Bl. John Paul II, living a life where we all help all we meet to be better is both a virtue and a social principle: solidarity.

For Pope Francis, too, this is the core of the Church’s mission. Any reform, any naming of a bishop, any action whatsoever by the Vicar of Christ, is judged by one ultimate criterion: will this decision help the Church live Christ’s mission better? He does not want bodies in the pews as much as he wants dynamic apostles beyond the Church parking lot. Those engaged in bringing Christ to others need to return to prayer and the sacraments unceasingly in order to draw water from the Fount of Life. (The insufficiency of merely filling the pews may be behind Pope Francis’ distaste for the term “proselytism,” when it does not imply a true conversion of life.) For Pope Francis, Christianity is a profound encounter with the Lord that leads us to encounter others and lead them to experience the joy and fulfillment that comes from Christ alone.

Differences in style and personality aside, the heart of these two pontificates is extremely similar. In many ways it is the embodiment of the heart of the Second Vatican Council called for by Bl. John XXIII.

Pope Francis learned his theological mathematics from Bl.  John Paul the Great:  Misery + Mercy = Mission.

Edward Mulholland

Dr. Edward Mulholland is the Sheridan Chair of Classics at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas, where he co-directs the program: Great Books: The True, the Good and the Beautiful. Born in the Bronx, New York, he earned his master’s degree in classics from the University of London, England, and received both a licentiate and a Ph.D. in philosophy from the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. From 1996-1998 he served as the head of the Humanities Department and the dean of the Journalism School at the Centro Universitario Francisco de Vitoria in Madrid, Spain. From 1998-2005, he was Professor of Philosophy at Our Lady of Thornwood Education and Training Center in Thornwood, New York and Professor of Classical Languages at the Center of Humanities in Cheshire, Connecticut. From 2005-2011 he headed the Departments of Catholic Formation and Classical Languages at Pinecrest Academy in Atlanta, Georgia.