Pope John Paul II addresses the General Assembly at the United Nations in New York Oct. 2, 1979 (CNS file photo).

John Paul II: The Pilgrim Teacher

This editorial originally appeared in America on October 13, 1979 when Pope John Pail II addressed the UN General Assembly.

Popes are asked to play many roles. The Bishop of Rome is at once ecclesiastical authority, world diplomat and pastor to his people, the guardian of tradition and the prophet for the present. In our day, the Pope has become a television personality as well. The astonishing attention paid to his journeys to Mexico, Poland, Ireland and now the United States has cast John Paul II as a figure of increasing importance on the world stage. But after the excitement of his visit to the United States has subsided, when the splendor of the liturgies and the enthusiasm of the crowds have become well-photographed memories, what will be the enduring influence of his stay among us?

The answer to that question will be determined by his success in the most important of all the roles that this unusual man has been asked to play by his church and, even more, by the times in which we live and during which he has been called to the chair of Peter. Above all else, the Pope today is asked to be a moral teacher and leader, not just for Catholics but for all men and women of good will. Through a combination of circumstances—his own personal gifts, contemporary communications technology, the historical anguish of the time—John Paul II has been given an opportunity to appeal to the conscience of mankind in a manner unique in the history of the papacy.

For this reason, the Pope’s address to the U. N. General Assembly on October 2 represented the centerpiece, not only of his journey to the United States but of the entire first year of his papacy. The message he delivered at the United Nations had been foreshadowed in his earliest statement to the church and the world on the occasion of the inauguration of his pontificate a year ago. On that occasion he had proclaimed his faith in the Gospel of Jesus Christ and his belief that the most profound vision of human dignity, the truth of the supreme value of the individual person, was to be found in that Gospel. In the hall of the General Assembly he repeated that message, but now not as a homily in a Roman Catholic liturgy but as an appeal in the forum of the nations to the representatives of the world. He insisted repeatedly that the welfare of the human person must be the final measure of all relationships among the nations of the world, of all economic and political systems and of all negotiations over regional boundaries or military superiority. In a sober and carefully wrought address he spelled out the implications of his vision of a world which places the human person at the center, a world in which freedom of conscience and religion is assured and in which famine, disease and illiteracy are systematically eliminated.

In his address, Pope John Paul II drew on a coherent tradition of Catholic social thought that has been developed and articulated by his predecessors in the modern papacy. Yet it is clear that his message also represented a personalized vision, confirmed by his own experience of oppression and his own intellectual search. While sensitive to the complexities of the particular problems with which the nations of the world must wrestle, the Pope’s address was much more than a moral exhortation confined to generalities. At times he was surprisingly specific, in speaking of the Middle East, for example, and of the danger the arms race poses for the children of the world. The enthusiastic response of his listeners, caught so often in the darkness of international enmities, suggested that the catholic vision of John Paul II had brought, for the moment at least, a ray of light and hope.