Another Ordinary Summer

First Things | Published on

By Stephen P. White

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Founded in 1992 — and run since 2000 by the Ethics and Public Policy Center — the Tertio Millennio Seminar on the Free Society brings two dozen young people from central and eastern Europe together with twelve or so of their American counterparts to explore the principles and prospects of building free and virtuous societies. Pope John Paul II’s social encyclical Centesimus Annus serves as the intellectual scaffolding for the seminar’s work. Late this June, less than two months after his beatification in Rome, we will gather once again in his city, Kraków, for the twentieth meeting of TMS.

The world stage has seen more drama in the last two decades than many anticipated. History has not been idle. The problems of two decades ago seem almost worthy of nostalgia, while the crises of today seem ever more daunting. Yet it would be a serious mistake to regard the Polish Pope’s 1991 encyclical as a relic of naïve, post-Cold War enthusiasm.

Centesimus Annus, like all Catholic social teaching, presents man in the light of the Incarnation; the only light, the Church insists, in which man really makes sense. In Centesimus Annus (and quoting from Gaudium et Spes) John Paul II reminds us that “the guiding principle of . . . all of the Church’s social doctrine, is a correct view of the human person and of his unique value, inasmuch as ‘man . . . is the only creature on earth which God willed for itself.’”

As Gaudium et Spes puts it, Christ “fully reveals man to man himself and makes his supreme calling clear”: To bring Christ to the World. The Church’s social teaching is in no way secondary to this fundamental mission. The Church may claim no “expertise” in economics or politics. But the Church does claim to bear the fullness of the truth about man himself. Catholic social teaching presents this truth to all men and women of good will in terms accessible to reason.

The work of the Tertio Millennio Seminar is to equip our participants with the rich resources of Catholic social teaching, and to do so in a setting that underscores both how high the stakes are (one would be hard pressed to find anywhere a more poignant reminder of man’s horrific capacity to abuse himself than in the rubble of the Birkenau crematoria, which our students visit), and, more importantly, the realistic hope that mankind can, and must, do much better.

The heroic struggle of the Polish nation against totalitarianism, St. Faustina Kowalska’s remarkable message of Divine Mercy, and of course, the life of Pope John Paul II himself — reminders such as these fill the city of Kraków and its environs. This sense of place and of history, saturated by grace, gives the eighteen days of the seminar a distinctly sacramental context.

Take, for example, the house at 10 Tyniecka Street in Kraków. The three-storey building is a dirty grey color-the roof, the deep eaves, the grimy walls, the irregular chimney. Like almost everything its age in Poland, it bears the dreary stains of an exhausting century. But there is more to this place — this most ordinary house — than first meets the eye. It was to the basement apartment of this house that a young Karol Wojtyla ran when the skies over Kraków darkened with German warplanes.

It was while living here that he answered God’s call to the priesthood. Here he discovered the Carmelite spirituality that would form him so deeply. It was here that God moved in the heart of a young Pole — in this place, in this house, hidden from the rest of the world as though in the womb — and through him, changed the world dramatically. Standing before this house, one is compelled to wonder: Is there anything more astonishing? Or more ordinary?

A few hundred yards from the house at Tyniecka 10, stands the Royal Castle of Wawel — a much less ordinary looking place. Above the main gate to the palace, there is simple inscription…

Read the rest of this essay exclusively at First Things, HERE.

Stephen White works for George Weigel at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, DC. He has been the coordinator of the Tertio Millennio Seminar on the Free Society since 2005. The 2011 Seminar will run from June 27th through July 14th. For more information, visit www.eppc.org/tms.