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WOJTYLA/ Scola: I’ll tell you about the John Paul II that I knew


Benedict XVI will beatify John Paul II on Sunday, the day that JPII himself wanted to call the Day of Divine Mercy and that will be marked by a large celebration of the faith. “I think that Wojtyla was the Pope of freedom and the Saint of freedom” said Angelo Scola, the Patriarch of Venice about John Paul II. “A freedom that, however, continuously needs to be freed”. And only faith in Christ can free it. This faith, Scola explains in this interview with, “became, in the arc of his life, his primary factor of knowledge of himself, others and God”.

Your eminence, what personal memories do you have of John Paul II?

The first time I went up on the altar with him, in 1979, I was struck by the way he celebrated. John Paul II was a “mystic” Pope. He lived a relationship of extraordinary immediacy with God. It is not surprising that people called for his sainthood starting the day he died. It was enough to see him pray. When we went to lunch with him, we went first to the chapel to say the Angelus. All of us thought that it would take about thirty seconds. Instead, sometimes it took so long that we could no longer remain on our knees on the floor. The Pope was truly immersed in prayer, and for him space and time no longer existed. You could see it by the movement of his lips. In his prayers I perceived—I could see—a profound dialogue with God, uninterrupted. Like a breath, the Pope let out sounds like the gurgles of a river that never ends. It was amazing.

“They try to understand me from the outside, but I can only be understood from within”, Karol Wojtyla said. What unifies the philosopher, the poet, the priest and the man, in one of the richest personalities of the 20th century, the Pope?

Certainly his faith. His intense, in the fullest sense, faith, as the total reliance on Christ Jesus that opened him up to a full understanding of the human person. John Paul II’s personality, his various life experiences, and his versatility (he was in fact a poet, philosopher, theologian) fed him from his infancy through liturgy, prayer, his passionate sense for relationships, his openness and curiosity about reality, and his total gift of self. This faith, which he breathed from his parents, became, in the arc of his life, his primary factor of knowledge of himself, others and God. Everything began within for him and, after passing through basically all of reality, returned, strengthened, to his heart.

How did you draw near the personality of Karol Wojtyla, and how did your encounter with the teachings of John Paul II deepen over time?

I had the opportunity to meet Karol Wojtyla briefly in the international editing circle for Communio, but our relationship deepened after his election to the papacy. As I told you earlier, the first time I met him as Pope was when I concelebrated mass with him, as well as with Monsignor Giussani and Monsignor Camisasca in February 1979 in his private chapel, followed by breakfast. We later collaborated mostly because I was teaching in the John Paul II Institute for the Study of Matrimony and Family, as a Consultant to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and as the Rector of the Pontifical Lateran University, known as the University of the Pope. I was thus able to deepen his teaching in the celebrated catechism on man-woman and the human body, in Mulieris Dignitatem, and more generally about the problems of matrimony and the family. This led me to study Wojtyla’s philosophical and anthropological works (especially Persona e atto) and to compare them to the masterpiece Love and Responsibility and with the celebrated volume Alle fonti del Rinnovamento. My work on Wojtyla’s thought continued with the encyclicals on the Trinity, with his moral and social teachings. I concentrated my debt to him, which is human before being doctrinal, in the work Elementary Experience, published a few years ago.

One of the most diffuse clichés about John Paul II is that he was the “Great Communicator” (just as Benedict XVI is thought of as the theologian, the guardian of orthodoxy, as if Wojtyla was not). Do you think that behind the partial truth of that hasty simplification there is sometimes an ideology working?

Every man falls into ideology, whether he wants to or not. Because of this, we  need to free ourselves by turning to self-criticism, in the same way that we need to free ourselves from inevitable prejudices. The simplification you referred to is, as a simplification, ideological. We must get rid of it. It is true that there is a difference between the personalities and carisms of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, but on the other hand, there is the profound unity and continuity in their exercise of the ministry of Peter. A point of view that is free and purified of ideology, cannot but recognize this unity and greet the originalities of these two Popes as a great gift for the Church.

Experience plays a fundamental role in the philosophical and pastoral method and teachings of Wojtyla, as well as in his writings. Can you explain what the centrality of experience consists in?

It consists in the fact that every man in every time and place, culture and religion participates in a “common experience” the same as everyone else. Wojtyla deeply reflected on this common experience. There is a decisive passage in Persona e atto, from which all of his actions were inspired. In this passage, he strongly affirms that beyond the great diversity that characterizes men and beyond the opposing philosophical and cultural visions that characterize thought, there is a common experience that every person has upon which one can build both a method for a good life and adequate philosophical and religious reflection. In fact, theology is nothing more than the systematic and critical reflection on the experience of faith in the Christian community. Obviously the history of thought shows that the category of experience is very delicate and should be treated with particular care.

“Man’s redeemer, Jesus Christ, is the center of the cosmos and of history”. What did this announcement, which opened the first encyclical of John Paul II in 1979, mean for the Church and for contemporary man?

I will talk about what it meant for the world starting from the situation in Italy at the time. We were just coming out from the distressing year of 1978, with the tragedy of Moro and the death of Paul VI. With that decisive affirmation “Jesus Christ in the center of the cosmos and of history”, John Paul II gave content to the extraordinary cry which opened humanity up to hope on the first day of his papacy: “Do not be afraid”.

John Paul II bet a lot on the lay faithful, the baptized, to make Christ contemporary for today’s man. In fact, in 1998 he spoke of the coessentiality of movements and institutions to the mission of the Church. What did this directive mean for life in the Church?

Certainly the Pope, who had been a student, worker, actor, ardent friend to Jews, energetic and intelligent objector both to the Nazi and Marxist utopias, as well as extraordinary teacher and priest, lived a fullness of humanity. Meeting him, one immediately perceived that he was first of all a man and this highlighted even more the priestly dimension of his person. This kind of Pope was, therefore, able to perceive the decisiveness of vocation and mission in the lay faithful.  It must be underlined that, in Christifideles laici, the Pope does not speak about just “lay” people, but “lay faithful”. This means a Christian who is called, in every area of human existence, to make the renewing beauty of the encounter with Christ visible in his face.

And the movements?

The question of movements and institutions needs much more space to reach a conclusion. One thing I can say is that the two essential things in the Church are the institutional gifts and the charismatic gifts. The first (the Eucharist illuminated by the Word of God, the teachings of the Apostles, Communion) are those that Jesus established as indispensable foundations for the existence of the Church. The second expresses the fantasy with which the Holy Spirit “persuades” man in every era to cling to the Church as the place for the fullness of human life. Obviously both are gifts of grace. Any opposition between the institutional gifts and the charismatic gifts is without foundation.

John Paul II was devoted to Mary. What does this devotion teach the Church of our time?

It is a font of beneficial humility for every Christian. In fact, Mary is the most powerful expression of the Immaculate Church and teaches all of the faithful, men and women, that Christ the Bridegroom is the incomparable gift for the Church Bride. With Him, everyone is first and foremost “passive”, in that we receive. Also, Mary, the paradigm of maternity, is the one who, in every circumstance, even the most unfortunate, walks with Jesus. She is virgin and mother. Because of this, I love to define Mary as “the woman”.

The last part of the papacy of John Paul II was marked by a difficult, inwardly hard-fought, relationship with the truth (and with the leadership of the Church), especially because of his sickness. The giant who so deeply left his mark on the history of the world was not afraid to show himself in all his limits. What can the Blessed Wojtyla teach us as a man and as the successor of Peter?

In the last phase of the life of John Paul II, he incarnated the great Pauline affirmation “When I am weak, then I am strong”. “Your grace is enough”, says Paul in the Second Letter to the Corinthians. The way that John Paul II wore his suffering exalted the Petrine ministry because it showed that the power of governing the Church—but not only for the Church—is never at the mercy of the one who possesses it. It comes only and always from God.  We must pray every day that those who are responsible for leading the Church live this way.

How is John Paul II a contemporary saint? To what profound human question does his sanctity of life respond?

In my opinion, his sanctity is visible in a luminous way in his passionate commitment to freedom. I think Wojtyla was the Pope of freedom and the Saint of freedom. A freedom that, however, continuously needs to be freed. As the Gospel of John says, those who follow Jesus “will be truly free”.

(Federico Ferraù)

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