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A cinematic lesson in hope

At a moment like this when there doesn’t seem to be a lot going right — ascendant authoritarianisms throughout the world; lethal violence by ideological fanatics; feckless responses to both from the democracies — it’s good to be reminded that things can be different, and in fact were different, not so very long ago. 

Recapturing those days and summoning memories of a time when the good folks won, cleanly and against all the odds, is the singular accomplishment of a splendid new documentary, “Liberating a Continent: John Paul II and the Fall of Communism,” which should be on everyone’s summer must-watch list.

It took me 19 years of research and three books (“The Final Revolution,” “Witness to Hope,” and “The End and the Beginning”) to do what executive producer Carl Anderson and writer/director David Naglieri have done in 93 minutes of gripping videography and marvelous graphics: explain how and why John Paul played a pivotal, indeed indispensable, role in the greatest drama of the last quarter of the 20 century: the collapse of European communism. In doing so, they make us think hard, again, about how this miraculous liberation took place: something no one expected on October 16, 1978, when a little-known Polish cardinal, who styled himself the pope “from a far country,” was presented on the central loggia of St. Peter’s as the new bishop of Rome.       

Central and eastern Europe weren’t liberated by conceding that the communists had a point, even if they were rather brutal and inefficient in making that point socially, economically, and politically. Nor were the countries of the Warsaw Pact liberated by churchmen and western diplomats cosseting the dictators that ran those party-states. What we used to call the “captive nations” were liberated because “good” and “evil” were “called by their right names,” as the Solidarity martyr, Blessed Jerzy Popieliuszko, used to put it.

Central and eastern Europe didn’t break free of the shackles of totalitarianism without trying, failing, and then trying again: it took a critical mass of people, determined to “live in the truth” no matter how difficult, to implode the communist culture of the lie and give a new birth of freedom to the lands Stalin claimed as his prize for helping beat Hitler.

And the countries of central and eastern Europe didn’t regain their liberties by adopting the usual 20th-century method of social change, mass violence. Understanding that people who begin by storming Bastilles usually end up building their own (as one Polish dissident said), the new freedom fighters inspired by John Paul II deployed weapons that communist brutality could not match: truth, national memory, tenacious organizing, and personal resilience. 

For those whose memories of St. John Paul reach back only as far as his last years, “Liberating a Continent” is also a powerful reminder of what a handsome, charismatic, and utterly compelling man John Paul II was at the height of his physical powers. He radiated confidence, moral strength, and the courage of a happy warrior. And because of that, those whose lives he touched felt empowered in return. 

The displacement of history by “social studies” in U.S. elementary and secondary schools has been a disaster for historical understanding. And while the new “social history,” which wants to do history from the bottom up, has taught us many things, there are still occasions when great men do bend history’s curve in a different direction; “Liberating a Continent” is also a useful reminder that John Paul II didn’t make “1989” happen by himself. But without him, a continent wouldn’t have been liberated when it was and how it was. So I’d suggest adding this terrific film to the curriculum of every Catholic (and indeed every Christian) high school in North America, to remind students what happened in their parents’ lifetimes and to inspire them to moral greatness themselves.

“Liberating a Continent” will be aired on various public television stations in the months ahead; that schedule will be regularly updated at www.jp2film.com. But while you’re checking for local airings at that site, go to the “purchase” tab, order a copy online, and settle down for an hour and a half of superb entertainment that will lift your spirits in a darkling season.  

Article written by George Weigel, Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C.
 

Synod-2015 Revisited

As I write, just before Thanksgiving, it's been over a month since Synod-2015 finished its work. Yet there is still no official translation of the Synod's Final Report into the major world languages from the original Italian (a language regularly used by 8/10 of one per cent of the world's population). That's a shame because, in the main, the "Relatio Finalis" is an impressive, often-moving statement of the Church's convictions about chastity, marriage, and the family: biblically rich, theologically serious, pastorally sensitive, and well-crafted to meet the challenge of the cultural tsunami responsible for the contemporary crisis of marriage and the family, which has left a lot of unhappiness in its wake.

It's also a shame because the unavailability of the Final Report in the weeks after the Synod has led to all sorts of spinning about its contents, and thus to no small amount of confusion, even consternation.

So while it's impossible to do full justice to the "Relatio Finalis" in a single column, let me address some of those confusions through eight bullet-points, based on the original Italian text and informed by my experience of the discussions throughout Synod-2015:

1 The Final Report reaffirms the classic teaching of the Church on the indissolubility of marriage and the conditions for worthiness to receive holy Communion, both of which are based on divine revelation and are thus not subject to change.

2 The Final Report does not endorse what has become known as the Kasper Proposal, i.e., the readmission to eucharistic communion, after a penitential period, of divorced and civilly remarried Catholics whose prior marriage has not been granted a decree of nullity by an ecclesial court.

3 In reaffirming these classics of Catholic faith and practice, the "Relatio Finalis" affirms that there can be no wedge driven here between "doctrine" and "pastoral practice," for the traditional discipline of the Church is based on the conviction that what is at stake is the integrity of individuals before the Lord: in other words, worthiness to receive holy Communion is a matter of living in the truth.

4 In its now widely-controverted paragraph 85, the Final Report emphasizes that "pastoral accompaniment" of the divorced and civilly remarried by a priest in the "internal forum" must always be undertaken "according to the teaching of the Church." Those seven words were inserted in the "Relato Finalis" in the last 24 hours of the Synod and provide the necessary anchor for any truly pastoral accompaniment in the case of the divorced and civilly remarried (or indeed in any other case). For in pastoral life, as in the gospels, truth and mercy work together.

5 The Final Report urges the Church's pastors to provide whatever canonical/legal help they can in resolving difficult and painful situations of marital breakdown. It also underscores the importance of effective marriage-preparation programs, which are urgently needed in situations where the ambient public culture's understanding of "marriage" and the Church's understanding of "marriage" are often dramatically different. Which is to say, marriage preparation should be seen as an integral part of the New Evangelization, and an important ecclesial mission of mercy among the walking wounded who are sifting through what Pope Francis has described as the post-battlefield wreckage of contemporary culture.

6 The Final Report, like Cardinal Péter Erdő's opening address to the Synod as its Rapporteur- General, makes clear that there is no analogy at all between the Church's understanding of marriage and other living arrangements among consenting adults.

7 The "Relatio Finalis" (unlike the Synod's working document) celebrates children as a great blessing, praises large families, and urges support for families with special-needs kids.

8 In all of this, the Final Report emphasizes that the Church reads the "signs of the times" through the lens of divine revelation (in this case, the unambiguous teaching of the Lord Jesus and St. Paul). The "signs of the times" do not judge the deposit of faith, although the most challenging of those "signs" can highlight the Church's failures in teaching and witnessing to the truth.

For more, see my article, "What Really Happened at Synod 2015," available at www.firstthings.com.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C.

 
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