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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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How St John Paul II placed the family at heart of his papacy

Monday 20th July 2020

The CHC @ The Catholic Universe

‘Light, joy and hope’: How St John Paul II placed the family at heart of his papacy

Mgr. Livio Melina

This year marks the 100th anniversary of Karol Wojtyla’s birth. As a priest, bishop and pope, John Paul II’s greatest pastoral concern was undoubtedly the family. Sadly, the centenary of this remarkable saint’s birth has been inevitably muted by the constraints of the Covid situation, but those same constraints have, for many, forced a greater focus on our own families. Mgr Livio Melina recalls the Pope’s words at the first World Meeting of Families. 

“Every family carries a light and every family is a light”, Pope John Paul II said, adding that it was “a light which must illuminate the Church’s path and the future of the world.”

He said those words on Saturday, 8th October, 1994 in St Peter’s Square in the Vatican. He was addressing thousands of families gathered below him for the World Meeting of Families. The piazza, recently drenched by an October downpour, glistened with the light of the candles they carried. No doubt this helped to inspire the pope’s words, which had been “improvised, dictated by the heart and sought in many days of prayer”.

His remarks were not merely an extemporisation, however. Faced with an increasing confusion around the family and “attempts to overturn the family’s meaning, depriving it of its natural reference to matrimony”, the Holy Father did not hesitate to ask this decisive question: “Family, what do you say of yourself?” 

Analogously, the Church had asked herself the same question at start of the Second Vatican Council: ‘Church, what do you say of yourself?’ The answer had been: “I am Lumen Gentium [The Light of the People], the light of the world!” The Church reflects the light of Christ; and the family, as the “domestic church” according to Lumen Gentium n. 11, must therefore also reflect the light of Christ in this world. 

St John Paul II talks to families gathered for a meeting in Rome
The would-be pontiff's parents, Karol and Emilia, with John Paul's eldest brother, Edmund. Photo Archidiecezja Krakowska

John Paul II had always loved the family in an extraordinary way. Having lost his own family early on, he had placed families at the heart of his priestly and episcopal ministry in Krakow. From holidaying in the Tatra mountains with groups of families, to his role as ‘uncle’ (a nickname to protect his identity from the communist authorities) to the Focolare Movement, this special care and concern carried over into his papal ministry. 

As Pope, he convoked the Synod on the Family in 1980, promulgated such important documents as Familiaris consortio, created the Pontifical Council for the Family and the Pontifical Institute for Studies in Marriage and Family Life, and began the World Meeting of Families. “I wish to be remembered as the Pope of the family and of life”, he once confided to a friend. 

Why this great concern for the family? The answer lies in Familiaris consortio n. 17: the family is an “intimate community of life and love… [which] has the mission to guard, reveal and communicate love, and this is a living reflection of and a real sharing in God’s love for humanity and the love of Christ the Lord for the Church His bride”. 

He well knew that “man cannot live without love. He remains a being that is incomprehensible for himself, his life is senseless, if love is not revealed to him, if he does not encounter love, if he does not experience it and make it his own, if he does not participate intimately in it” (Redemptor hominis, n. 10). 

In meditating on the mystery of the family, John Paul II defined human love as a nexus of three fundamental connections, which together guarantee its authenticity according to the Creator’s original intention. 

The first connection is that intimate and intrinsic link between love and life, which was affirmed by Pope Paul VI in a definitive and prophetic manner in his encyclical, Humanae vitae. The authentic environment of love, in which human life can worthily be received and mature, is the family founded on matrimony. Without that generous openness to life, the human love between a man and a woman becomes sterile and exposed to the danger of a hedonistic egoism, which collapses in on itself. “The family is the sanctuary of life”, as John Paul II would later affirm (Evangelium vitae, n. 92).

Second, John Paul II points to the link between love and marriage. Love is not simply a feeling or an impulse, but consists of a firm resolution of the will. In this act of love – in desiring the good of the other person – one freely commits one’s being as a gift to the other, creating a communion of persons in the marital covenant. Temporal fidelity and the social and institutional dimensions of this covenant are not extrinsic factors imposed in order to limit the freedom of love: they are intrinsic exigencies of love’s true nature.

The future St John Paul II (centre of photo) relaxes in the Tatra Mountains

The final connection is that between marriage and family. Matrimony is the sole basis for a family that is capable of safeguarding authentic love and life. When a family is detached from matrimony (understood as a stable union between a man and a woman) the bond between its members becomes very fragile; the only reference point that is left for the family is a subjective search for self-realisation. 

“This is the hour of the family”, both in the Church and in society! On that October evening of 1994, Pope Wojtyla again passionately affirmed his profound conviction: the future of humanity lies with the family. The glimmering lights on the piazza inspired the Pope to say:

“every family carries a light and every family is a light”. For ethical imperatives only follow that which is already given by God’s grace: namely a gift that is present in every family.

This affirmation does not refer to a generic reality, but to a singularly concrete one: “every” family that lives in “every” part of the world. If prophecy is characterised by the enunciation of the little seed of hope for the future that is hidden in the difficulties of the present time, John Paul II did exactly this. “Dictated by the heart” and matured in “many days of prayer”, he pointed to precisely the family as that seed of hope: as every family that is born of love and vivified by the grace of the sacrament.


Mgr Melina served as Professor of Fundamental Moral Theology at the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family Life for over 30 years, for 10 of which he also served as the Institute’s President.

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Week of St Theodore celebrations includes a deeper calling for peace

Friday 5th October 2018

The CHC @ The Catholic Universe

Week of St Theodore celebrations includes a deeper calling for peace

The Trustees of the Christian Heritage Centre (CHC) at Stonyhurst have completed the restoration of Theodore House, but is continuing to raise funds for this previously derelict 19th century Lancashire corn mill’s internal fitting.

To mark progress, and the recent feast day of St Theodore – a seventh century Syrian refugee sent by Pope Vitalian to England to become the eighth Archbishop of Canterbury – the trustees organised several events. Two were directly linked to great saints of the 20th century, St Teresa of Calcutta and St John Paul – to whom the Oratory in Theodore House is dedicated.

At Westminster Cathedral Hall, in London, the CHC hosted the launch of a new movie about the 1979 visit of John Paul II to Ireland.

Essential viewing for anyone trying to understand why over 3,600 people lost their lives during the worst of the violence in Northern Ireland, it explores how, almost 40 years ago, St John Paul sowed the seeds of the Northern Ireland peace process during that historic visit.

Fiona O’Connor and Simon Whittle with two of the participants at the first conference to be held in Theodore House and at the unveiling of the Christian Heritage Centre exhibition on St Theresa of Calcutta.

Following in the footsteps of John Paul the movie criss-crosses Ireland but the defining moment is at Drogheda when he begged the men of violence to end the killing. “On my knees, I beg you to turn away from the paths of violence and to return to the ways of peace. You may claim to seek justice. I too believe in justice and seek justice. But violence only delays the day of justice. Violence destroys the work of justice.”

During the movie, the Protestant DUP MP, Jeffrey Donaldson, explains, that this was a watershed moment after which no one could claim that terror and violence is sanctioned by the Catholic Church.

John Paul reached over the heads of those preaching sectarianism and hatred clearly stating: “To Catholics, to Protestants, my message is peace and love. May no Irish Protestant think that the pope is an enemy, a danger or a threat… Let history record that at a difficult moment in the experience of the people of Ire- land, the Bishop of Rome set foot in your land, that he was with you and prayed with you for peace and reconciliation, for the victory of justice and love over hatred and violence.”

In another moving interview, the courageous former SDLP MP, Seamus Mallon, reminds us that IRA killings were responsible for more Catholic deaths than any other source. He also recalls how, years later, John Paul was able to repeat to him the exact words the Pope had spoken at Drogheda.

Artwork for the new movie about Pope John Paul II's visit to Ireland

The movie includes other powerful interviews – one with a former IRA bomber who says that John Paul’s witness led him away from violence and another with Northern Ireland’s Baroness (Nuala) O’Loan.

Following the screening, the CHC and Knights of Columbus hosted a discussion with the Polish Ambassador, HE Arkady Rzegocki, and David Nagieri, one of the film’s directors. Further screenings will follow in Ireland and the DVD will be available in November.

Later in St Theodore’s week, the CHC held a well-attended open day at Theodore House. It began with the launch of a new exhibition on the life of St Teresa of Calcutta – staged in partnership with the advocacy organisation, Alliance Defending Freedom.

It includes some of St Teresa’s best known sayings: ‘I wanted to become a mother to the poorest of the world’s poor’; ‘The greatest destroyer of peace is abortion’; ‘works of love are works of peace’; ‘if you can’t feed one hundred people then feed just one’; ‘I alone cannot change the world, but I can cast a stone across the waters to create many ripples.’

During the Open Day, talks were given to visiting groups about the vision that underpins Theodore House and the CHC – and many who came from parishes and schools across three northern dioceses ex- pressed interest in using the facilities for retreats, conferences and events.

Theodore House also staged its first young people’s conference. Organised by one of the trustees, Deacon Sam Burke OP, it focused on the contribution which Catholics can make to public and political life and speakers included Francis Davis and Christopher Graffius. During the week, the trustees presented a new medal to the Keeper and Curator of Commemorative and Art Medals at the British Museum, Philip Attwood.

The Thomas More medal

Commissioned by the trustees and struck by the Catholic jewellers the Fattorini family, the medal commemorates St Thomas More, the Patron saint of the CHC project. The medal is awarded, along with the God’s Good Servant Fellowship, to singular individuals who have contributed to the work and objectives of the charity.

The week concluded with trustees welcoming Nicholas Braithwaite to Theodore House. Nicholas is the great nephew of Georg Mayer-Marton, a Jewish mosaic artist whose entire family were killed in the Holocaust. Georg reached England, where, after the war, he undertook several important mosaics – one of which is in a decommissioned church in Oldham.

The trustees of the CHC have been entrusted with the mosaic by Bishop John Arnold – who hopes they can provide a new home and use it for educational purposes. Bishop Arnold says: “I would be delighted if it proves possible for this important piece of work, by this Jewish artist, whose family perished in the Holocaust, to stay within the Salford diocese. “I also believe that if it becomes the focal point of a learning hub that examines anti-Semitism, the Holocaust, and contemporary religious and ethnic persecution, it will assume a new and wider significance as we seek to combat new forms of hatred.” The idea has received support from the Holocaust Educational Trust.

The Mayer-Marton mosaic that the CHC is trying to save

Bishop John’s words, and the Trustees’ vision, is directly linked to the stories of both St John Paul and St Theodore. After refusing to renounce his faith, Theodore became a victim of religious hatred, while, as a young man, St John Paul witnessed the Holocaust. In 2000 he placed a prayer in Jerusalem’s Western Wall that read: “God of our fathers, you chose Abraham and his descendants to bring your name to the nations. We are deeply saddened by the behaviour of those who, in the course of history, have caused these children of yours to suffer.”

In these days of rising anti-Semitism and religious hatred, the trustees also pray that Theodore House can play a small part in opening hearts and forming minds. Anyone interested in supporting this endeavour should contact the charity.