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Christian leadership and Saint John Paul II

10th November 2022

Christian Leadership & St John Paul II

St John Paul II on his 1979 visit to Poland
Each era has particular challenges of its own to face. How can Saint John Paul II's papacy be a model for Catholic leadership today?

The journey of a young Karol Józef Wojtyła to the Priesthood was not an easy one. Realising his vocation, he was forced to study in an underground seminary due the Nazi occupation of Poland. But the end of World War II would not bring peace for the Church. For the next forty years, Poland was ruled by a Marxist regime that sought to eliminate the influence of the faith in society. As the state sought to assert its control over all aspects of life, the Church became increasingly constrained.

Yet some clergy, such as the future St John Paul II, spoke out. As Archbishop of Krakow, he called on the government to respect religious and political liberties. Soon after his election as Pope, he made a nine-day pilgrimage to Poland.  The tour included trips to the sites of a number of Slavic Saints, reminding those behind the Iron Curtin of their Christian heritage. Criticism of the regime could prove costly however. The Blessed Jerzy Popiełuszko was beaten to death on account of his political activity. Despite this, the Catholic Church in Poland persisted in its stand against communism, thus contributing to its collapse in 1989.

St John Paul II also devoted significant attention to changes in Western perceptions of human sexuality. He saw in these another profound challenge to human society, albeit of a different sort from a Marxist ideology. His criticism of the West’s pursuit of unfettered freedoms was coupled with his conviction that the Christian vision of marriage and family life were crucial to a healthy society. In a series of catecheses that became known as The Theology of the Body, the Polish pope elaborated an integral view of the human person. Not only did he carefully make clear the relationship between the Fall and our present human condition,  but he drew out the full beauty of two millennia of theological reflection around the nature of the human person and their pursuit of happiness. Within this, a virtue-based ethics remains key to a personal and societal betterment.

Unlike the struggle against communism, the issues related to the nature, dignity and identity of the human person remain heavily contested in today’s Western society. To say the least, the Church’s teaching is profoundly countercultural. But this is no reason to give up. On the contrary, it should drive believers to refound and reshape a society that promotes a true, Christian freedom.

St John Paul II recognised that communism stifled religious freedom and compromised human dignity. With many Catholics in the West struggling to reconcile Christian teaching with secular ideologies, he remains a figure many look to for inspiration. 

Despite the risks, St John Paul II and many other Catholics sought to promote these eternal truths. Throughout his life, he reminded those on both sides of the Iron Curtain of their Christian heritage. And on both sides, not all of his teaching was universally accepted. However, the conviction shown by Pope John Paul II, and many lay Catholics with him, is an important first step. 

This call is not just for a select few, but rather for the whole Church. In Christifideles laici, St John Paul II argued that, “it is ever more urgent that today all Christians take up again the way of Gospel renewal”. We might not all have the same position in public life, but we can learn how to use our vocation that furthers the Christian call to holiness. 

A statue of St John Paul II in the Polish city of Czestochowa

The Christian Heritage Centre aims to form Christians so they can follow this call. Our Christian Leadership Formation programme prepares young people to bring their faith into positions of leadership. The programme equips students with the skills to shape a Christian society amidst the challenges and opportunities of today. Through our work, we aim to encourage them to follow in the steps of St John Paul II as fearless defenders of moral truths.

St John Paul II, pray for us!

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A successful end to the first CLF programme

25th April 2022

A successful end to the CLF programme

Christian Leadership Formation programme
Our first cohort receive their certificates in Westminster Hall from Ruth Kelly, having successfully completed the programme.

This time last year, the 14 students above were sending in application forms and canvassing references for a programme that was newly ‘on the market’, and for which there was little to go on other than its website.

The feedback that they have provided seems to firmly vindicate their decision to apply, since the one, recurring criticism they have consistently made of the programme was that the modules were too short! More time was needed to absorb and discuss the material – as well as to socialise!

The final module fittingly took place around the Palm Sunday weekend, and was kindly hosted by Westminster Diocese’s youth retreat centre in Pinner, north-west London (as was the second module). With the theme of this module being “Applied Political Leadership”, it was most appropriate to begin with a period of retreat over Palm Sunday itself, meditating on Christ as our only, true ‘leader’ and as the One to whom all Christians are called to lead others.

The retreat was the first time that most attendees had entered into any protracted period of silence (even if only 12 hours or thereabouts), but everyone found the fruits of the meditations, prayer and liturgy to be all the greater for it.

Christian Leadership Formation programme
With Fr Dancho Azagra, in the grounds of Westminster Diocese's retreat centre in Pinner
Christian Leadership Formation programme
ADF's UK director, Ryan Christopher, gives a workshop on changing policy and culture

The sunny weather made for a beautiful experience of the centre’s outdoor Stations of the Cross, as well as the first part of the Palm Sunday liturgy, bringing to life the lovely and extensive gardens. Our particular thanks are due to Fr Dancho Azagra for his careful preparation of the retreat period.

Following some downtime on the Sunday evening, Monday saw a return to the all-too-familiar and intense pattern of prayer and study. We were delighted to have Prof. Philip Booth, Director of Catholic Mission at St Mary’s University, Twickenham, offer both some introductory input into Catholic Social Teaching as well as to pick up on the contemporary theme of challenges to the environment. His sessions, which framed this issue within the holistic and Christian perspective of the ‘human ecology’, and which tackled the question of corporate versus individual responsibilities, were greatly appreciated.

Keeping the theme of the common good firmly in sight, Dr John Snape, Associate Professor of Law at Warwick University, opened up that topic which, together with death, is the only certainty in life (cf. Benjamin Franklin): taxes. He masterfully introduced the students to both the philosophic and rationale behind taxation as well as the criteria that have been expounded over the centuries to measure the equity of the related policies.

The classroom input was rounded off by ADF UK’s Ryan Christopher, whose workshops challenged the students to actively consider the relationship between policy and culture, and offered some important principles for putting into practice their own moral and cultural leadership.

To conclude both the module and the whole programme, Tuesday morning saw the group head towards the City centre. The first stop was St George’s Cathedral, Southwark, where the group were welcomed for Mass by the Dean, Fr Francis Murphy. Armed with Pret-a-Manger sandwiches, Parliament Square was our next stop (for a picnic rather than a protest!), and from there we reported to Westminster Palace for our tour of the Houses of Commons and Lords. Having seen both chambers, we returned to Westminster Hall, the site of St Thomas More’s trial, to meet Ruth Kelly, a former Labour MP and Cabinet Minister. Conscious of the programme being under the patronage of More, Ruth spoke feelingly, yet with great encouragement, about her own difficulties in serving the government as a committed Christian and Catholic. The students had time to question her about her experiences and to seek her advice, before Ruth presented them with certificates attesting to the completion of the programme.

Christian Leadership Formation programme
Students picnic in Westminster Square before a tour of Parliament

The farewells that followed outside were certainly not the last as the group have expressed enthusiastic support for an annual conference and reunion, as well as a more regular online forum with talks and discussion.

Once again, our gratitude goes to those who have supported the programme with their time and input or financially. The places on the course have in large part been funded by generous donors, thus enabling the participation of many of the students.

The 2022 programme is currently open for application. More information and application forms are available at  https://christianheritagecentre.com/clf/

Christian Leadership Formation programme
Not protesting, but picnicking
Christian Leadership Formation programme
In Westminster Hall at the start of the tour of Parliament
Christian Leadership Formation programme
Ready to say goodbye