Wednesday, April 13, 2005

a review of Memory and Identity by John Traffas

A very ill John Paul II saw fit to bring out his last book mere weeks before he died, Memory and Identity. Conversations at the Dawn of a Millennium is the re-working of discussions the Pope had with two Polish philosophers in 1993. On display in the book is the Holy Father's prowess in discussing most important questions with philosophical, theological, historical and literary finesse. Since the book is the product of John Paul the cultured European man, not formal teaching by the Vicar of Christ, it has no binding doctrinal character. However, Memory and Identity invites the reader to ponder the depths of the Christian faith under the guidance of one of the principal architects of the Vatican II Church and a major protagonist in contemporary history.

Worldly commentators often acknowledge John Paul's pluck in surviving Nazism and helping to overcome Communism in Europe. However, they usually view the Holy Father as just another political actor among many. While the challenge of twentieth century totalitarianism is the jumping-offpoint for Memory and Identity, the book is actually a sustained meditation upon salvation history generally. As such, this topic occasions some of the Pope's most striking suggestions.

Pope John Paul was not just a Pole who was proud of his country the way any citizen might be. Instead, he found Polish history to have profound significance for all of Europe and, thereby, for the whole world. And he didn't merely ascribe a general importance to his being a Polish cardinal who became the successor of Peter. When John Paul meditated on providence, he thought with the greatest specificity. One might summarize the Pope's argument in Memory and Identity with a series of theses.

1) The twentieth century saw several abominations: Nazism; communism; and, in democratic societies, a shallow conception of freedom that authorizes even abortion (p. 11).

2) The evil that was nazism and communism was overcome, limited, in Europe by a greater good. "The limit imposed upon evil by divine good has entered human history, especially the history of Europe, through the work of Christ" (p. 15).

3) The truth of man's redemption through Christ's death and resurrection isn't just a fact frozen in time 2,000 years ago. "The entire twentieth century was marked by a singular intervention of God, the Father who is'rich in mercy'--dives in misericordia (Eph 2:4)" (p. 50).

4) In His wisdom, God used the Polish nation in two ways in the twentieth century to manifest his merciful will. First, through the private revelations to Sister Faustina Kowalska about the Divine Mercy, Christ taught that "'Evil does not have the last word!' The Paschal Mystery confirms that good is ultimately victorious, that life conquers death andthat love triumphs over hate" (p. 55). Second, the resistance to Communism of the Church in Poland, through sacrificial suffering rather than the resort to force, was successful and "seems to me to have a universal value" (p. 55).

5) In a further "scandal of particularity," the Holy Spirit installed a Polish cardinal as leader of the Catholic Church. And when evil manifested itself in the attempted assassination of Pope John Paul in 1981 (May 13, the feast of Our Lady of Fatima) by the Turk Mehmet AliAgca--who "knew how to shoot, and he certainly shot to kill"--"it was as if someone was guiding and deflecting that bullet" (p. 159).

6) Even the Pope's suffering and near death were not simply evil. "Thereis no evil from which God cannot draw forth a greater good" (p. 167).

In Memory and Identity Pope John Paul didn't hold himself up as the vehicle through which God has drawn great good from evil. We may make that inference by recognizing in him a pre-eminent example of one upon whom evil was visited "so as to awaken our love, our self-gift ingenerous and disinterested service to those visited by suffering" (p.168). The self-gift of John Paul--as vigorous world traveler or speechless teacher--was a providential confirmation that gloria Dei vivens homo--the glory of God is man fully alive (p. 25).

John Traffas holds a M.A. in Theology from the University of Dallas (UD) and his master's thesis was on Fr. John Courtney Murray. He studied along side a fellow student and friend at UD by the name of Michael Waldstein who is now the President of the International Theological Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family in Gaming, Austria.

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