Tyranny of the possible

George Weigel looks back on Pope John Paul II’s legacy a decade after his death. I vividly remember those two weeks or so of his death, the conclave, and Pope Benedict XVI’s first days.

Of course I wasn’t alive to experience it, but it feels like a lot of the vitality and enthusiasm that exists for Pope Francis probably also characterized the first decade or two of Pope John Paul II’s papacy:

…what seems most memorable about the man, at least at this historical moment, is that he refused to accommodate to the “tyranny of the possible”: the idea that some things just can’t be put right; that we’re stuck with the way things are, however much we may dislike them.

There was a lot of demoralized resignation in the Church and the world when Karol Wojtyla was elected Bishop of Rome on Oct. 16, 1978. The world from San Francisco to the Ural Mountains seemed permanently divided into two hostile, ideologically opposed, nuclear-armed camps, along a fault line defined at the end of World War II. Thirteen years after the conclusion of the Second Vatican Council, the Catholic Church seemed permanently divided, too—and perhaps condemned to the fate of mainline liberal Protestantism, which (to borrow from Richard John Neuhaus) had become the oldline on its way to becoming the sideline. Robust and evangelically vibrant Catholic conviction, it seemed, had no more place in the “real world” of late modernity than did the dream of a Europe without the Berlin Wall.

Yet John Paul II, who combined mystical insight with remarkable shrewdness, refused to bow passively to the dictatorship of the inevitable. The Lord had said to the prophet, “Come, now, let us set things right” (Isaiah 1:18): and that’s exactly what the 264th Bishop of Rome proceeded to do.

He refused to believe that Vatican II, the ecumenical council he had experienced as a powerful work of the Holy Spirit, could only lead to permanent incoherence and division in Catholicism; and by providing an authoritative interpretation of the Council, John Paul II’s pontificate energized the living parts of the Church and made Vatican II the launch platform for the new evangelization and for the Church’s rediscovery of itself as a missionary enterprise.

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