In Washington today and tomorrow on a short work trip. Ducked out of a conference session earlier this afternoon to visit the Saint John Paul II Shrine, run by the Knights of Columbus that’s adjacent to Catholic University’s campus.
I’ve visited this place before—but only the parking lot, and before he was recognized as a saint, and before it was a shrine. It was great to explore their permanent exhibit on John Paul’s life, from his childhood and the role of his parents (which isn’t often remarked upon) to the more well known aspects of his public life. The shrine’s chapel is particularly beautiful in its grand but intimate way.
At one point in the exhibit I was struck by the relationship that Cardinal Wojtyla and his fellow Polish cardinal had in dealing with the Soviets after World War II. It was noted first that the Soviets gave their necessary approval of Wojtyla as cardinal because they saw him as as simple a “poet,” basically harmless. This rather beautifully illustrates the problem with totalitarianism. That is essentially the problem of dominating the spirit.
Another point was that Wojtyla’s precedessor cardinal has successfully bargained with the Soviets to preserve “Catholic education, church property, and seminaries.” I remember walking the streets of Paris a few years ago, and remarking to my secular friend how amazing it was that here in France, an ostensibly democratic people had so wiped out (through its late 19th and early 20th century secularization laws) the ability for the French to be Christian by wiping out most of institutional Christianity. That rupture has created a serrated sort of curriculum that cuts and fragments by rendering theology as something fundamentally different from (or opposed to) philosophy, mathmatics, science, art, etc.
The Soviets, too, sought to conquer by atomizing daily life and the experience of individual life, but it was strangely in communist Poland that the Church preserved itself more effectively than against the enlightened secularism that today is leading to things like scientism rather than science, and seems to be fueling the fires of a new nationalism in so many nations.
In any event, I think it’s turning out that Western secularism is as atomizing and corrosive as so much of what we fought in the last century, and we’ll need Christian voices to help recover and rebuild for whatever comes next.
We’re likely talking not in terms of decades or years, but rather in centuries.