Memory and Identity by Pope John Paul II

 "Memory and Identity", by Pope John Paul II (Weidenfeld & Nicolson 2005; ISBN 0-297-85075-X) £12.99; 198 pages

The book is subtitled "Personal Reflections". The text consists of a couple of dozen short essays, each proceeded by an editorial introduction in the form of a question, so that the format is like that of the Pope's previous work "Crossing the Threshold of Hope". There are also an editorial note and an index. The main headings are "The limit imposed upon evil", "Freedom and responsibility", "Thinking my country""(on patriotism), "Thinking Europe", "Democracy: Possibilities and Risks". Finally there is a fascinating epilogue where the Pope contemplates his attempted assassination.

What is startling and wonderful about this work is how unapologetically Pope John Paul places the Incarnation, the Cross, and Redemption at the centre of human history. We are not used to the central facts of our religion being so 'in your face'. Without them everything can get into trouble. He blames the two dreadful ideologies of the twentieth century, Nazism and Communism, as arising from philosophies which, having abandoned Christianity, taught us to regard man "as one who would exist and operate - even if there were no God." (p11). But evil is limited by the Redemption, and these ideologies were eventually defeated.

In his discussions on the significance of Europe he not unnaturally brings his beloved Poland into the foreground, introducing names which might not mean all that much to an Englishman. But here again we find that he regards Christianity as the "soul" that held Poland together, even in the dark days when it did not even exist geographically.

After the collapse of totalitarian systems, the question arises over the proper use of freedom. He gives a brief Thomistic analysis of the ethical principles that should guide our use of freedom. He uses this analysis to show how some ethical philosophers, Bentham, John Stuart Mill, Kant, went off the rails. Then he puts forward the Church's teaching on freedom, as developed in various documents on Catholic social teaching.

John Paul II had a great devotion to Our Lady, and so not surprisingly among the reflections there is one on her!

All the time he keeps on reminding us of St. Thomas Aquinas, evidently his favourite philosopher, and he keeps on quoting Vatican II, evidently his favourite council.

The above review does not do justice to the pleasure of hearing this Chestertonian voice, humble yet authoritative, scholarly and holy, embattled but unshaken, ring out loud and clear above the horrors that have drenched the beginnings of this new millennium in blood.

first posted LONDON - 19 May 2005 - 446 words

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