March 4 marks the anniversary of the release of John Paul II’s first Encyclical in 1979.
John Paul II’s First Encyclical
When “The Redeemer of Man” (hereafter, RM) appeared thirty years ago, Redemptorists, as their name would imply, could not but be interested in its message. As we see now, looking back after these three decades, this first encyclical was to a large degree a first run at many of the themes that John Paul II would constantly visit during his long pontificate. As with so many of his encyclicals, there was something here for everyone: a piercing criticism of contemporary culture, an emphasis on human rights, a recognition of ecological responsibility, the imperatives of ecumenism, evangelisation, and much else.
In this brief reflection, I draw attention to a novel aspect of the Pope’s approach. He was not presenting new doctrines, since he structured his message, here and elsewhere, within a strongly Trinitarian and sacramental framework. But, by continuing a line of development that first appeared in Vatican II’s “The Church in the Modern World” (1965), he added a new emphasis, at least as far as papal communications go.
You could put it this way: the traditional way of presenting the truths of faith was very objective, and usually couched in austerely theological language to make sure that there was no room for ambiguity—and therefore, not directly concerned with the experience of believers themselves. It was more “from the outside in” form of communication. In contrast, we see in RM more of a “from the inside out” style. There is a constant appeal to personal experience, human consciousness, and the “heart”.
In this regard, the Pope is developing a fresh way of communicating the Gospel which could be technically described as a more “existential” or “phenomenological” approach—in tune with the philosophical influences that shaped the mind of the man who became John Paul II. His comparatively novel emphasis was precisely designed to stimulate our personal and communal experience of Christ and the Spirit of his love.
The very title, “The Redeemer of Man” shows the difficulty of translating the Latin Hominis into modern English. What is clear, however, is that the Pope is aiming to stress how Christ’s saving love is addressed to human beings, to self-aware persons, to the living and interacting human community in its deepest hopes, joys and longing—in other words, to us as we are and in the actual world in which we live. The purpose here is not to increase theological knowledge so much as to stimulate a personal assimilation or “appropriation” (one of John Paul II’s favourite words) of the mystery of Christ for all members of the Christian community.
From one point of view, Christ “is the centre of the universe and of history” (#1) —surely a breathtaking statement. And yet, he has entered human history “as one of thousands of millions of human beings”. In order to bring out the unique significance of Christ, John Paul II first emphasises the Church’s multi-faceted experience of our Redeemer and his Spirit (#7) .
Christ is encountered within the consciousness of the Church; and that self-awareness rises out of living communication with the Lord himself. The more this awareness grows, the more the Church is confident and resourceful in her mission, the more discerning of the truth, and the more impelled to genuine conversion.
By dwelling on the self-awareness of the Church, we are led more deeply into a sense of Christ as the Redeemer - on every level of human experience. In this way, the Church is sign and means of union with Christ and of unity in the human family. With this sense of the interpenetration of awareness both of Christ and the Church, the Pope takes us more deeply into what “redemption” means.
First of all, redemption, whatever about the ambiguities of our present mode of existence, envisages the renewal of the whole of creation (#8) . In and through Christ, faith experiences creation as brought to its fulfilment - in a way that promises to include everything and everyone. Though the present form of the world “groans” with ambiguities and futility, Christ is its centre, in living contact with that “inward mystery” that each of us is. He is there at the “heart” of our existence.
So fully and intimately is this the case, that “only in the mystery of the Incarnate Word does the “mystery” that each of us is come to light. For by becoming human with us, Christ enters into a relationship with each one of his fellow human beings and affects their deepest sense of identity. Thus, radically transformed through the presence of the crucified and risen One, the whole of creation is being renewed through the action of a love stronger than any death we might know or imagine.
John Paul II, as would be suggested by the encyclical’s title, “The Redeemer of Man”, is especially eloquent on what he calls the “human dimension” of redemption (#10) . He concentrates his message at this point by expressing his conviction of the necessity and influence of love in our lives. Without love, life is absurd and pointless. With love, there is meaning and direction. Faith’s awareness of Christ means a deep experience of being claimed and penetrated by love at its most intense. It means having heart and mind renewed so as to disclose our ultimate identity. In this mystery of redemption, the true self is every “newly expressed” and even “newly created”. The more we draw near to Christ, the more we are in touch with our true selves.
Christian consciousness, then, stirs not only with adoration of God, but also with a sense of wonder about ourselves as so loved and cherished by the infinite mystery of God. Indeed, the term for this deep amazement at our human dignity is “the Gospel”. It shows how Christianity is the deepest form of true humanism.
When Redemptorists preach according to their biblical motto, “With him there is plentiful redemption” (Psalm 130), they find an enduringly fresh resource in this first of John Paul’s encyclical letters. It has not staled over these thirty years, and its central message is ever to be rediscovered.
• Tony Kelly is a Redemptorist priest. His doctoral and post-doctoral studies were in Rome, Toronto and Paris. Before taking up his present position he was for many years involved in Yarra Theological Union in Melbourne where he was President of YTU for ten years. He is a former President of Australian Catholic Theological Association, and a Past Chair of the Forum of Australian Catholic Institutes of Theology. Tony was Head of Sub-Faculty of Philosophy and Theology at the Australian Catholic University from 1999 – 2004, and in February 2004, he was appointed by His Holiness Pope John Paul II to the International Theological Commission.