Rorate Caeli

Remembering John Paul II and the 'New Evangelization'

To celebrate fifteen years of John Paul II's papacy, the Pope agreed to sit down for a television interview with the Italian journalist Vittorio Messori, author of the Ratzinger Report, the classic series of interviews with then-Cardinal Ratzinger. John Paul II cancelled the television interview at the last minute. But he told Messori that he still wanted to answer his questions in writing. The written interview was published, without edits, as Crossing the Threshold of Hope (the title was suggested by the Pope himself) and became an international best-seller.

Looking back, the book was amazingly perceptive. Less than four years after the fall of Communism, John Paul II recognized that Western consumerism and atheism were far bigger threats than Communism ever had been. From a contemporary review by Fr. Ian Boyd:

One of the more curious features of the book is the Pope's ambivalent attitude toward the Western world. He refers to the struggle against God in the West, and he asserts that, for three centuries, the life and thought of the West has been characterized by the "systematic elimination of God." Even the Marxist collectivism under which he and his people suffered such hardship is dismissed contemptuously as being no more than a "cheap version" of this same antireligious plan. More than that, he sees Western consumerism as a force more powerful than communism in undermining religious faith and traditional morality. At the same time, in spite of his many references to the need to evangelize the consumerist society of the West, he is critical of social movements that attempt to undertake this task: in his view, those who are engaged in an intense dialogue with contemporary culture are in constant danger of being overwhelmed by it, and, in any case, since individual holiness is the key to all effective action, no social action has any value which does not proceed from prayer. There is scarcely a word about strategies for the evangelization of contemporary culture. On this question, as on all others, his thinking remains uncompromisingly supernatural. In a passage of great eloquence, he says that every civilization, including Western civilization, is saved only by its hidden saints, and he then proudly lists the victims of the Nazi death camps and communist gulags as the heroes of our century. 


The lessons for today are plain and hardly need be spelled out. John Paul II's warnings about the limits of "intense dialogue with contemporary culture" are being proven each day by the failures of the current papacy. And his stirring defense of the faith in this interview marks a telling contrast with Pope Francis's notorious Scalfari interviews.

John Paul II's vagueness on the specifics of his 'new evangelization,' but insistence on its firm grounding in faith and prayer, is also telling. The current movement for the Traditional Latin Mass -- which hardly existed in 1994-- may be seen as fully consistent with what John Paul II had in mind. In the quiet witness of families re-embracing Catholic tradition and seeking to live lives of holiness, indeed, we may perceive a glimmer of hope for the West and its future.