JPIIs Square Ring

The Legacy of the Encyclicals
by Nicholas Sheehy, LC | Source:

Jesus Christ was at the center of Pope John Paul II’s papacy. If we imagine Pope John Paul II’s pontificate like a very long boxing match, it can help to look at the themes of his encyclicals to understand what was on his mind, and in his heart. His first encyclical presented Jesus Christ as the redeemer of man. His last encyclical focused on Jesus Christ in the gift of the Eucharist.

In his 26 years of pontificate, Pope John Paul II wrote fourteen encyclicals. Certainly, his pontificate may not be reduced to the content of this writing. There are also the catecheses, the homilies, the other writings, etc. But the encyclicals occupy a privileged place. They allow us to discover a little of the heart of this great lover of Christ. To help our memory, we can look at the encyclicals in four categories, like the four corners of a boxing ring: Church doctrine, evangelization, social doctrine and moral doctrine.

Church doctrine

The doctrinal encyclicals occupy the first corner. We have the Holy Trinity, “and one”: the Blessed Mother. Looking at the themes, there are two dedicated to the person of Jesus Christ, as Redeemer and as Gift. One is dedicated to God the Father, who could be seen as the boss. The Holy Spirit is the trainer and Mary is the moral support. Finally, one argues for the reasonableness of faith in the modern world.

Redemptor hominis (The Redeemer of Man, 1979) is a programmatic encyclical. Placing Christ at the beginning and center of his pontificate indicates to the world the importance of the Person of Jesus Christ in the life of the Pope and proposes him as important in the life of the faithful. After decades of confusion, Jesus Christ is re-presented to the world, full of the vigor encountered in the Gospels. He recognizes the inheritance from his predecessors and reflects with the Church on the mystery of redemption. Man is essentially redeemed and has a special situation in the world. The Church is concerned for man’s vocation in Christ, which is a mystery of the new man, called to participate in God’s life. (cf. RH 18)

The beginning leads to the end. If Redemptor hominis was the work of a vibrant, hopeful, young Pontiff, Ecclesia de Eucharistia (The Church draws her life from the Eucharist, 2005) brings out a different aspect of Christ in the life of the Church. The Eucharist is at the center of the mystery of faith. The Eucharist builds the Church and the apostolicity of the Eucharist is the apostolicity of the Church. Rather than an obstacle, the Eucharist is the source of every possible communion with other Christians. Because of the high value of the Eucharist, the liturgy is always to be celebrated with dignity. Mary is given to the Church once again, as model also of Eucharistic devotion. After years of good and fruitful action, an aged and ailing Pope recommends prayer and adoration to the Church, reminding the faithful to rely only on God’s grace. It has the feeling of a grandfather’s final advice to posterity.

Who is God the Father for John Paul II? He is a merciful father, as he pointed out in Dives in misericordia. (God, who is rich in mercy, 1980) God, who is rich in mercy, is revealed to mankind through Jesus Christ. The Christological aspect of his teaching is emphasized as he presents God the Father. The Holy Father uses the parable of the prodigal son to explain the love of God the Father. God’s mercy is brought to light through the parable proclaimed by God the Son.

The Holy Spirit vivifies the Church and the world. His role is discussed in Dominum et vivificantem. (Lord and giver of life, 1986) The Holy Father has already seen the action of God’s grace in the first years of his pontificate and wishes to give due recognition to the Author. The Spirit is of the Father and of the Son, given to the Church. “The Risen Christ came and ‘brought’ to the Apostles the Holy Spirit.” (Dv 25) The Conciliar Constitution Lumen Gentium is given privileged place in the Encyclical. The Holy Father wishes to emphasize the importance of the developments of the Church in the last decades. The Spirit is given to the Church but is also witness in the world who convinces it concerning sin. He does not remain in the sin, but is the Spirit who gives life. Already in 1986, Pope John Paul II uses this writing to look forward to the Jubilee Year 2000. “The great Jubilee at the close of the second Millennium, for which the Church is already preparing, has a directly Christological aspect: for it is a celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ. At the same time it has a pneumatological aspect, since the mystery of the Incarnation was accomplished ‘by the power of the Holy Spirit.’” (Dv 50)

A Christ-centered Pope is a Marian Pope and it would be very surprising indeed to find no Marian encyclical among the Pope’s writings. Redemptoris Mater (Mother of the Redeemer, 1987) honors the Blessed Virgin Mary and recalls her role in the life of the Pilgrim Church. She is fully immersed in the mystery of Christ from the moment of the Annunciation and her maternal mediation continues to accompany her children throughout the ages. The title recalls the Pope’s first encyclical and helps to underline the proximity of Mary in the life of every Christian. “The Church sees the Blessed Mother of God in the saving mystery of Christ and in her own mystery.” (RM 52) She is the mother of the Redeemer and draws her children closer to her Son.

“Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth.” (FR Introduction) Fides et Ratio (Faith and Reason, 1998) opened up a great dialogue with non-believers and was perhaps the best introduction possible for the Pope’s successor, Pope Benedict XVI. He wanted to concentrate “on the theme of truth itself and on its foundation in relation to faith.” (FR 6) In this encyclical, Pope John Paul reflected on the mystery of God and how it can be approached by human reason. The relation of philosophy and theology is explored and reason is rehabilitated, also in the area of faith.

He had a good group waiting and cheering him on the first corner. He would come back here from time to time and they formed the “breathers” he needed to fulfill his mission in the Church.


The second corner is full of people who need to hear the Gospel message. If Pope John Paul II was convinced of the truth of Jesus Christ and the truthfulness of the Christian faith, he felt called to share this with others. The encyclicals of evangelization gave expression to this missionary desire, which he would also demonstrate in his tireless travels around the world. When he might be tempted to give in to tiredness, embarrassment or stage fright, having these souls in his heart motivated him to get on the plane and go.

Recognizing his own roots and taking advantage of the 11th centenary of Sts. Cyril and Methodius, Pope John Paul II wrote Slavorum Apostoli. (Apostles of the Slavs, 1985) This Epistola Enciclica served to emphasize the missionary aspect of the Church and further the dialogue with the Eastern Christians. A true son of the Slavs called upon their common heritage to reach out to the Separated Brethren. “It is not only the evangelical content of the doctrine proclaimed by Saints Cyril and Methodius that merits particular emphasis. Also very expressive and instructive for the Church today is the catechetic and pastoral method that they applied in their apostolic activity among the peoples who had not yet heard the Sacred Mysteries celebrated in their native language, nor heard the word of God proclaimed in a way that completely fitted their own mentality and respected the actual conditions of their own life.” (SA, 16) He was especially encouraged by the anniversaries of relations between the Latin and Slavic Churches, as well as the recent dialogue between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches on the island of Patmos. The Church must proclaim the Gospel everywhere.

The theme of Christ as Redeemer comes once again in Redemptoris missio. (The Mission of Christ the Redeemer, 1990) The Church is called to evangelize always. When Christ entrusted the Church to the Apostles, it was so that they could go out and preach the Gospel to all nations. Recent confusions suggesting that evangelization is no longer necessary or relevant come from the false idea that all religions are equal or equivalent. While preserving respect for others, the Christian must take his faith into the world. “The Church's universal mission is born of faith in Jesus Christ.” (RM 4)

That there are not only many religions but even many forms of Christianity led the Holy Father to write Ut unum sint. (The Call for Christian Unity, 1995) Here he makes an appeal for Christian unity. “We can now ask how much further we must travel until that blessed day when full unity in faith will be attained and we can celebrate together in peace the Holy Eucharist of the Lord.” (UUS 74) This simple and fraternal dialogue continues in the pontificate of Pope Benedict XVI, most notably in his efforts for communion with the followers of Lefebvre and the disgruntled members of the Anglican communion.

If the importance of doctrine and the missionary character of the Church were not lost on Pope John Paul II, neither was her aspect as a force in social life and a strong moral voice in an often disillusioned world. The second corner’s cheering kept him off the ropes.

Social Doctrine

The poor and oppressed have always tended to be good boxing fans, and here they are in the third corner of Pope John Paul II’s ring. There are three we have to keep in mind.

Pope Leo XIII’s monumental social encyclical Rerum Novarum (1891) was to be commemorated once more in Pope John Paul II’s Laborem exercens. (Through Work, 1981) He is able to point out the wisdom of his predecessor and call upon the world to heed his warnings. He analyzes the value of work and its importance in human affairs. He also tries to raise it to a spiritual level, commenting on the similarity to the creation of God the Father. “man, created in the image of God, shares by his work in the activity of the Creator and that, within the limits of his own human capabilities, man in a sense continues to develop that activity, and perfects it as he advances further and further in the discovery of the resources and values contained in the whole of creation.” (RN, 25)

For the twentieth anniversary of Pope Paul VI’s Populorum Progression, Sollicitudo rei socialis (The Social Concern of the Church, 1987) called to mind the social concern of the Church. Not merely a deposit of doctrine, the Church is called to help the authentic development of man and society. The Pope’s vision of Jesus Christ is eminently human and shapes his vision of man. God took flesh to teach us how to live. “Of course, the difference between "being" and "having," the danger inherent in a mere multiplication or replacement of things possessed compared to the value of "being," need not turn into a contradiction. One of the greatest injustices in the contemporary world consists precisely in this: that the ones who possess much are relatively few and those who possess almost nothing are many. It is the injustice of the poor distribution of the goods and services originally intended for all.” (SRS 28)
The great social encyclical of his pontificate came as Centesimus annus. (1991) The world-shaking events of 1989, such as the fall of the Berlin Wall and crumbling of the Soviet Empire were giving way to the founding of new republics. He makes a strong parallel to Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical, speaking of the new things of today. The Church’s voice must be strong to avoid falling into a bottomless materialism. He criticizes socialism, pointing out that “A person who is deprived of something he can call "his own", and of the possibility of earning a living through his own initiative, comes to depend on the social machine and on those who control it.” (CA 13)

Moral Doctrine

The square is complete when we look at the moral encyclicals. Here, the Holy Father could think of all the people who are striving for truth and to live moral lives in an often confusing world.

There are two moral encyclicals that try to bring the message of Jesus to the hearts of all men. Veritatis splendor (The Splendor of Truth, 1993) presents Jesus Christ as the true light that enlightens everyone. Confusions in moral theology lead the Pope to insist upon the basics of Catholic moral theology. The real threat comes from moral relativism, which has taken on various forms. “The fundamental question which the moral theories mentioned [in the encyclical] pose in a particularly forceful way is that of the relationship of man's freedom to God's law; it is ultimately the question of the relationship between freedom and truth.” (VS 84)

Evangelium Vitae (On the Gospel of Life, 1995) places the Gospel of life at the heart of the message that Jesus preached. Threats to life as varied as capital punishment and abortion are condemned as affronts to human dignity. It is a document that is certainly a sign of contradiction. “The revelation of the Gospel of life is given to us as a good to be shared with all people.” (EV 104) Everybody can find something to love and something to hate. It is true Gospel, in this sense.

Like a boxing match with many rounds, we were able to watch our champion stand firm and take many undeserved and even low blows. It was sad when we saw him go down for the count April 4, 2005. We cried. But then we remembered that this is not a boxing match. The count to 10 is not what matters. Because even death here is not the end. We are confident that he followed the footsteps of our great master, Jesus Christ, who passed through death, to show us the way to life. We know that the true ending is one of triumph in Heaven. He has left us with these fourteen punching bags on Church teaching, evangelization, social and moral doctrine. Thank you, Holy Father! Keep watching over us from the window of the Father’s house. 

Nicholas Sheehy studies for the priesthood in Rome.

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