Initially I was concerned with the theology of Religious Life in a number of different writings of Pope John Paul II. However, as my work progressed I decided to concentrate on one document written by the Pope in 1984: the Apostolic Exhortation Redemptionis Donum.
The reason for this is simply that I decided that I couldn’t do justice to Redemptionis Donum in one chapter of a thesis. Yet … since its publication in March 1984 this Apostolic Exhortation has made very little impact either in the theory or the practice of Religious Life.
Why might that be? Is my opinion about it wrong? Or is it that this is a text rich with potential which for some reason has never been mined?
Does the document have anything significant to offer and if so can I bring it to light?
The mystery of Redemption is at the heart of the life and the entire pastoral work of Pope John Paul II, and he writes Redemptionis Donum as a meditation on Religious Life in the light of the Redemption.
Could it be that Redemption will provide a lens through which to understand Religious Life in a new way?
In order to explore that question it is necessary to find the meaning of Redemption to Pope John Paul II. The path to that understanding leads through Wojtyła’s own life story, some of the experiences he lives through and his intellectual development.
Wojtyła was introduced to St John of the Cross before he began his training for the priesthood, and St John of the Cross was a figure of major importance from the time of that first introduction to the end of his life. His doctoral thesis comprised a study of faith in St John of the Cross. Sanjuanist spirituality and thought are of essential importance in understanding Pope John Paul II and this is true of the spirituality of Redemptionis Donum. I am therefore devoting a section of my own doctoral work to presenting an introduction to the reflections of the Carmelite saint found in John Paul.
Wojtyła was pastor and philosopher for whom philosophy was in the service of pastoral ministry. A professor of philosophy before he was a bishop, he retained his academic post, fitting in lectures for as long as he could. The question “Why be a human person and how?” is at the core of the philosophy of John Paul II in the service of his ministry. That very question appears explicitly in Redemptionis Donum and in addition I find text to be filled with signs of the Pope’s philosophy, anthropology, spirituality and theology.
When I read it I am aware of the possibility that this document, as well as being underpinned by John Paul’s philosophy, might also be an example of that philosophy illuminating daily life. This is highly likely because John Paul was interested in philosophy because of its importance as a way of coming to grips with daily life. To study a pope’s philosophy in the abstract is one thing: it would be exciting to see it at work in a theological reflection on everyday life (albeit a very specific form of life)!
It may be that this philosophical approach will help to provide a different lens through which to examine Religious Life and also that Religious Life thus understood may in its turn cast light on the “why” and the “how” of all human life. This would give a new slant to the familiar idea of religious life as witness. I believe that the philosophical anthropology of Pope John Paul II can take this aspect to a new level, the cardinal point for which is his reflection on redemption. His soteriology, particularly in this reflection on Religious Life, demonstrates through the economy of redemption in the Religious Life in the Evangelical Counsels of poverty, chastity and obedience, the ‘how’ and ‘why’ of what it means to be a human person.
It’s a strange paradox: Redemptionis Donum appears to be very simple, almost too simple perhaps. Analysing the text as epideictic prose helped to get beneath the deceptive surface. In addition, it is perhaps through abstract work on the rather dense philosophy of John Paul II that the richness of the text can be displayed while remaining both simple, visible and accessible.
Wojtyła was a poet, playwrite and actor. I have found one of his plays, Our God’s Brother, to be particularly useful in my research. If Redemptionis Donum provides an example of the pope’s philosophy applied to a way of life, the play shows this being lived out in the life of St Albert Chmielowski. This part of my work didn’t make the cut into the doctoral thesis, but it is still valid and simply waits its moment!
© Mary Stevens, August 2018