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John Paul the Great

By George Pell - posted Wednesday, 6 April 2005

History will know him as John Paul the Great. He was not only the most politically influential pope in centuries. He was also, to the very end, one of the greatest Christian pastors in history.

He was always a disciple of Jesus Christ, Catholic and Polish, as he attempted to explain and relate eternal truths to the tragedy and muddle of 20th century life. He taught regularly, in season and out of season, that there are truths about the human situation which can be known; in them is found human flourishing.

The great body of John Paul II's teaching in faith and morals and on social questions forms a powerful and coherent whole, drawing on the dynamic of tradition and development that has made the Catholic church one of the most robust and longest surviving institutions in the world.


In everything from short homilies to solemn encyclicals he explained the scandal of the Cross and how the Church must be a sign of contradiction, while emphasising the power of reason to know the liberating effects of truth.

For John Paul II there was no easy courting of popularity and no shirking of challenges. Despite this - or indeed because of it - his teaching will continue to have an important effect on public thinking and discourse well into the 21st century.

At the centre of his work is the question of the meaning of human life, and in particular, of suffering. A principal point of difference between secular humanists and Christians is the value accorded life and suffering. The radical secularist view that suffering is meaningless, that a life of suffering is without value, is no longer enough for people.

There is more to the story than this, and John Paul II addressed this intellectually and through the public performance of his duties at such personal cost.

George Weigel, the American author of the best biography of the Pope, Witness to Hope, observed this week that John Paul II was determined to use even his own illness to challenge us with the message of the Cross.

His own very public following of the Way of the Cross, especially in the last few years of his life, showed us not only that suffering can have meaning, but that it can also have a magnificent dignity.


None of us want to suffer, but the modern world is unusual in its over-riding fear of suffering. We are tempted to ignore suffering, or to hide it away as demeaning or pointless, or to bring it to an end by eliminating the sufferer.

As a product of 20th century central Europe, John Paul II knew plenty about suffering before contracting Parkinson's Disease 14 years ago. But suffering is not the end. Christ's resurrection ensures the triumph of love over all suffering and evil.

This is the message the Pope continued to preach to us, silently at the end, through his own very personal and public witness to the truth of love's triumph. For some, this was confronting. Now he is gone, it gives all of us reason to reflect and to be grateful for the life and work of this great good man.

John Paul II ended as he began, with faith, love and courage. With these he gave a whole world new reasons to hope; new reasons to trust in God and the power of love.

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About the Author

George Cardinal Pell is Catholic Archbishop of Sydney.

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