Transforming culture

When Pope St. John Paul II returned to his childhood parish in 1979, he thanked his high school religion teacher. Today, sitting in his home country, eating the same cream cake he used to as an after-test reward, praying in the same chapels he did, walking the same streets he did, kneeling (no one said I couldn’t) on his childhood kneeler, hope is palpable here.

It’s a marked contrast from the anxiety in the air back home as the political conventions unfold in Cleveland and Philadelphia, and the fear everywhere of terrorism and violence. Visiting the latest sanctuary and museum dedicated to John Paul II in Krakow, his blood-stained cassock seems to cry out to all who pass by: courage!

For most of us, courage doesn’t mean laying down our lives, as it does for other Christians around the world. But our witness is no less important. No less urgent. No less the command of God himself.

When he returned as pope, John Paul II, who was once a boy called “Lolek” in these streets, said: “On the human level, I want to express my feelings of deep gratitude to Msgr. Edward Zacher, who was my religion teacher in the Wadowice secondary school, who later gave the talk at my first Mass and at my first celebrations as bishop, archbishop and cardinal here in the church of Wadowice, and who finally has spoken again today on the occasion of this new stage in my life, which cannot be explained except by the boundless mercy of God and the exceptional protection of the Mother of God.”

The boundless mercy of God. In the midst of everything — the political madness, the uncertainty, the death, the anger and the fear it exacerbates — there is this. All the talk about mercy in the air this jubilee year is not new. But it is so much harder to recognize, experience and share if it’s not nourished in the cradle. If it’s not the air we breath early on in the domestic church. If it’s not a given treasure of the culture.

That’s the overwhelming message in Wadowice. Every mother, father, brother, sister, aunt, uncle, friend, neighbor, teacher, police officer — the list goes on — has a role to play in building that civilization of love we’ve read about in encyclicals.

When John Paul II went back home, he talked about the importance of “the first years of life, of childhood and of youth for the development of human personality and character.”

He said: “These are the very years that bind me inseparably to Wadowice, to the town and the area around it, to the River Skawa and the Beskid Range. For that reason I have wanted very much to come here, in order to thank God with you for all the blessings that I have received.”

Look around, drink in the gifts we are given. Yes, even the circumstances that put us on edge, harden us and lead us to compromise, indifference, apathy or anger. John Paul II’s gratitude for his early years is in such contrast from what we’re seeing as the U.S. presidential race plays out. Voters seem to be looking for a savior to transform politics or to break up the whole system. But the process is a human one and will bring the best and the worst of us. It’s a noble thing, politics, but it’s been surrendered almost to total cynicism.

Endless rounds of gaffes, attacks, recriminations and denials are what pass for political discourse at a time when the challenges facing us are not few. We must set our sights higher.

Know and respect yourself, giving thanks for what you have been given. It is here where courage will grow and culture — and even politics — will be transformed. God did it with St. John Paul II. He can do it with us, too.

Kathryn Jean Lopez is the editor-at-large of National Review Online and co-author of “How to Defend the Faith Without Raising Your Voice” (OSV, $17.95).