St. John Paul II, Doctor of the Human Person

by Daniel Murphy on May 13, 2014

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Canonization 2014- The Canonization of Saint John XXIII and Saint John Paul II (14037064014) Pope Prancis canonizes St. John Paul II and St. John XXIII.

On Christmas Eve in 1986 Widmer was pulling his first duty as a newly recruited Swiss Guard assigned to protect the pope. When the pope emerged from the papal apartment on his way to celebrate midnight mass he saw Widmer at his post. Widmer was young, homesick, unsure of himself, and depressed about spending his first Christmas away from his family, although he never told anyone. John Paul approached and said, “Of course! This is your first Christmas away from home. I appreciate the sacrifice you’re making for the Church. I’m going to pray for you as I celebrate mass tonight.”

Forbes leadership blog, 4-25-14

Many of us who grew up under the remarkable 27-year pontificate of St. John Paul II remember this account of his relationship with Andreas Widmer, the young Swiss guardsman who was suffering from a case of acute homesickness.

Why does this story of John Paul II’s affection for Andreas Widmer touch our hearts so deeply?

We are captivated when a person of great stature “bows down” (the attitude of merciful love) towards someone vulnerable and in need.  Our hearts immediately resonate with this gesture of profound regard for the person in trying circumstances.

Was this gesture (actually series of gestures) by St. John Paul II towards the young Swiss guardsman occasional or accidental?  The truth is—like all great virtues—personalism (seeing and acting on the inherent dignity of the human person) results from intentional awareness, a steady attitude, and repeated acts.

St. John Paul II towers as a “doctor of the human person.”  His whole life and being were in constant donation to the person and her/his true welfare.

Does St. John Paul II  qualify to be named a “doctor” of the Roman Catholic Church?

There are two crucial dimensions to each of the (currently) 35 doctors of the Church:  saintliness and extraordinary wisdom in the form of key contributions to the body of faith and morals.  The second aspect might be termed, “reliable teacher.”

The crowning jewel of John Paul II’s extraordinarily dramatic life occurred on Sunday, April 27, 2014.  Pope Francis canonized John Paul II, along with the “good” John XXIII, perhaps best known as the convener of the Second Vatican Council (1961-65).  It was also “Divine Mercy Sunday,” a designation assigned by St. John Paul II for the second Sunday of Easter.


On April 27, Pope Francis confirmed a reality that people of faith and good will have recognized and “demanded” by universal acclimation:  “Santo Subito”!  St. John Paul II’s particular “stamp”—if you will, “brand”—of holiness was marked by mercy, as Pope Francis explained in his homily on the occasion.

Saint John XXIII and Saint John Paul II were not afraid to look upon the wounds of Jesus, to touch his torn hands and his pierced side. They were not ashamed of the flesh of Christ, they were not scandalized by him, by his cross; they did not despise the flesh of their brother (cf. Is 58:7), because they saw Jesus in every person who suffers and struggles. These were two men of courage, filled with the parrhesia of the Holy Spirit, and they bore witness before the Church and the world to God’s goodness and mercy.

In his homily, Pope Francis identified St. John Paul II as a pope of the family:  “In his own service to the People of God, Saint John Paul II was the pope of the family. He himself once said that he wanted to be remembered as the pope of the family.”

Reliable Teacher of Personalism

Yes, pope of the family.  And, doctor of the human person.  After all, the family is a communion of love and life, as St. John Paul II taught powerfully, whose noble purpose is the full formation of the human person.

Much has been written about John Paul II’s “Christian personalism,” the rich, theologically and philosophically informed understanding of the person as made in God’s image and likeness, for communion, for love and never use (a means to an end).  Each of these dimensions is like a pillar of personalistic thought and action.

  1. Made in God’s image and likeness (cf. Genesis 1:27 and 2:4b ff.):  The human person is unique in visible creation, endowed by the Creator’s very image and essential capacities of intellect (thought) and will (voluntary action).

During a meditation session recently, Rabbi Joshua Boettiger, Temple Emek Shalom in Ashland, Oregon, reflected on this essential truth.  Rabbi Boettiger observed that God made all other creatures “in the plural,” as collectives, generically, if you will.  By contrast, it is as though God paused, took a deep breath, and made EACH human person uniquely in His image and likeness—with a specific desire and intention for each of us.

  1. Made for love, for communion:  “It is not good for the man to be alone” (Genesis. 2:18).  After instilling the first human person with unique dignity, “subjectivity” (to use the philosophical term), and solitude, God saw our need for communion, for love.  Rabbi Boettiger draws on Emmanuel Levinas’ rich understanding of the immense debt each of us owes others for our existence (our being) and our development (our becoming).

Life is preponderantly a collaborative enterprise; and, each of us truly stands on the shoulders and, if you will, resides in the hearts, of those who love us.  We become who we are largely through the love of others.

St. John Paul II reminded us that every person, because of her/his God-given dignity, is made for love and never use. Each of us is an “end” and never a “means” to another end.  This is subtle.  Any action that subordinates another person to our own will and “ends” is tainted, flawed, and unworthy of the status of the other person as God’s living icon.

St. John Paul II named this essential principle (love, never use) “the personalistic norm”.

  1. Made free and responsible:  A central theme in John Paul II’s philosophical and theological teachings is that our freedom—derived from our being made in the image and likeness of God—is actuated when we discern the good and act on it.

This gift is accompanied by a task:  to exercise our freedom responsibly. We are challenged to assure that our actions are aligned with what’s true and good.  Loving others in and according to truth constitutes our moral greatness—the highest application and expression of our freedom and responsibility.  No other creature is capable of this knowing, self-possessed action for the true good of the other.

Three hallmarks of St. John Paul II’s personalism make him singular in his mastery of the human person.

  • Solid foundation:  Each of John Paul II’s personalistic “pillars” is grounded biblically and developed through precise philosophical method.
  • Tested:  John Paul II’s personalism was tested in three crucibles:  Nazism, Communism, and the loss of his family members—his mother, brother, and father.  Any and all of these could have conspired to make John Paul II cynical and bitter.  Instead, these staggering sufferings mysteriously instilled an unshakable commitment to articulating and living the truth about the human person.
  • Lived with heroic integrity:  The mark of a saint is heroic (above-and-beyond) virtue; love and mercy are the spring of action.  John Paul II loved individual persons—like Andreas Widmer—with his whole being, putting his personalistic norm into luminous practice.  He was the quintessential “person for others,” the full flowering of his adherence to personalistic norm.

May Pope Francis name St. John Paul II a Doctor of the Human Person for our edification and emulation . . . “subito”!

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