Pope John Paul II: social teaching reinvigorated the faith

Pope John Paul II: social teaching reinvigorated the faith

By Stephen F. Schneck
This Sunday, May 1, we celebrate the beatification of Pope John Paul II. May 1 is also the traditional feast of St. Joseph the Worker. Even more specially, this year May 1 is Divine Mercy Sunday, an observance inaugurated by John Paul II himself. The confluence of coincidence is perhaps more than coincidence and I’m confident that the former pontiff would be charmed.

The Feast of St. Joseph the Worker honors the vocation of working men and women, with particular attention to the contribution of the working class to the common good of all. Traditionally, it’s a day when Catholics in unions and guilds around the world gather in our churches and parish halls to draw parallels between the divine work of creation and the rights and justice associated with the work of human hands. The Epistle for that Mass (Colossians 3:14) begins…

Over all things put on love, that is the bond of perfection. And let the peace of Christ control your hearts, the peace into you were called in one Body.

John Paul II’s theology was ever about the exuberant overflowing of divine love being what ought unite all humankind in peace and solidarity. This was a hallmark of his preaching in his native Poland—it’s no accident that Solidarity, a workers’ union, after all—became the inspired name of the movement there to challenge communism.

Divine Mercy Sunday offers a similar message. It is a special observance of the infinite openness of divine love that should inform Christian life. Inaugurated by John Paul II (in homage to the Polish St. Faustina), the day also holds up the ideal of the life of the apostles and disciples of the early church as a model for the earthly imitation of divine mercy. John Paul II died in 2005 on the vigil of this Sunday. The scriptural readings the pontiff selected for Divine Mercy Sunday utterly complement those of the Feast of St. Joseph the Worker. Here, for example, is a well-known excerpt from the first reading for Divine Mercy Sunday (Acts 2:44) which Catholics around the world will hear this week.

All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their property and possessions and divide them among all according to each one’s need.

The readings from both liturgies reflect what are called the church’s “social teachings”—teachings much beloved in John Paul II’s writings. These teachings preach the moral imperatives of Christian social commitment and love for those in need. The pontiff’s first two encyclicals bear out the combined messages of the Feast of St. Joseph the Worker and Divine Mercy Sunday. Dives in Misericordia (1980) reflects on the boundless well of divine love and mercy. Laborem in Exercens (1981) reflects on the holiness of work and the special dignity and rights of workers. Together these inform what many believe is the most important of John Paul II’s encyclicals, Centesimus Annus published (again not coincidentally) on May 1, 1991, which is a glorious exposition of the church’s teachings regarding social responsibility for the poor in light of the common good. These encyclicals wonderfully capture what will be celebrated with his beatification.

Indeed, John Paul II catapulted Catholic social teachings into the 21st century and reinvigorated them in his own theological reflections. Ancient Christian teachings about the common good rather than selfishness, about solidarity rather than private interest, about preferential attention to the poor, about understanding the goods of this world as divine gifts for our care and stewardship, and so forth were preached by John Paul II as founded upon the superabundance of divine love overflowing into the appointed work of humankind in the world. And he lived this theology. It was such an understanding of divine love that informed his breathtaking humility, his gentleness, his humor, his infectious optimism, his youthful buoyancy, and all else that we remember from his papacy. What else can explain a man who visited his assassin to forgive and bless him, who sought to breach the divides among the world’s religions with good will and friendship, and whose humble words and prayers surely played some role in hastening the peaceful fall of the Iron Curtain?

John Paul II’s reinvigoration of the church’s social teachings continues to build in momentum and looks to have far reaching consequences, not the least perhaps for the Church itself. The reinvigoration of these teachings is especially evident among today’s youth, in whom the pontiff himself placed so much hope. It’s evident in the many new movements within the Church that he encouraged and here in the United States it’s evident too in the of the growing immigrant communities now transforming the Church in America. Arguably, it’s this reinvigoration of the social teachings which will be his greatest legacy. No doubt John Paul II is tickled that his beatification coincides with the Feast of St. Joseph the Worker and his own Divine Mercy Sunday.

Stephen F. Schneck, Ph.D., is director of the Institute for Policy Research & Catholic Studies at The Catholic University of America.

By Stephen F. Schneck | 01:53 PM ET, 04/29/2011