Copyright (c) 2000 First Things 101 (March 2000): 61-63.
There has never been a book like Crossing the Threshold of Hope. Popes teach, exhort, pray, serve; they issue encyclicals, bulls, and apostolic letters; they most emphatically don’t write best–sellers. True, this century’s pontiffs have not entirely ignored the halls of literature. Leo XIII wrote Latin verse celebrating both traditional Catholic motifs and modern technology. ("Sun–wrought with magic of the skies / The image fair before me lies," begins "Photography," a typical effort.) Pius XI penned Climbs on Alpine Peaks, an energetic account of his mountaineering adventures. ("We wished to avenge ourselves for our failure on Mont Blanc two years before.") John XXIII kept a diary published posthumously as Journal of a Soul. John Paul I left us Illustrisimi, an amusing collection of letters to Dickens, Pinocchio, and other famous figures.
And that, at least until a few decades ago, comprised the sum total of modern papal contributions to the world of books. The twentieth century’s nine Popes, like most of their predecessors, kept their authorial ambitions under wraps. That is, until the advent of that literary cyclone known to the world as John Paul II.
It’s difficult to determine just how many books this Pope has written. George Weigel’s Witness to Hope lists twenty by Karol Wojtyla and thirty–six by John Paul II, but some of these volumes are collections of talks or letters and thus not authored books, properly speaking. What we can say for certain is that a torrent of writing that has included philosophy, theology, poetry, prayers, and plays, as well as encyclicals, apostolic exhortations, apostolic constitutions, and apostolic letters, continues to flow from his generous pen. From the standpoint of ecclesiastical history, the culmination of this vast literary output—carried on in the midst of staggering duties as priest, bishop, archbishop, cardinal, and finally Pope—may well be three of John Paul II’s latest encyclicals: Veritatis Splendor (1993), Evangelium Vitae (1995), and Fides et Ratio (1998). From the standpoint of popular interest, however, the apex is surely Crossing the Threshold of Hope (1994).
What is it about this book—cast in the form of written questions from Italian journalist Vittorio Messori and written answers by the Pope—that leads so many to treasure it? The reasons, as one might expect, are manifold. As I discovered when I used it last year in a college seminar for first–year students, Crossing the Threshold of Hope is a splendid distillation of Catholic thought, the Catechism in miniature, the essential teachings of the world’s largest religious body distilled into 244 elegant pages.
But catechetical summaries, while often valuable, are not unique. This book’s originality lies elsewhere, in the Pope’s willingness to roll up his sleeves and engage in deep, direct conversation with the modern world. He ranges through anthropology, cosmology, Christology, eschatology, psychology; communism, socialism, missionary activity, ecumenism; the thought of Levinas, Eliade, Marx, Buber, Rosenzweig. There is not a whiff of dilettantism here. The Pope has immersed himself in these thinkers (one remembers that he entered one of the 1978 Vatican conclaves with a book of Marxist ethics tucked under his arm), and what emerges is an invaluable effort to measure the last half–millennium, and our century in particular, against the eternal truths of God. Always the Pope subordinates politics to culture, culture to cult. The foundation and final measure remains God, whose action "passes through the heart of man and through the history of humanity." I don’t know if John Paul II has read the mission statement of First Things, which states that "the first meaning of First Things is that, for the sake of both religion and public life, religion must be given priority," but I suspect that he would heartily approve.
The book crackles with a vitality that, twenty years into his papacy, one takes for granted with John Paul II. One finds this energy in the declaration that began his reign and begins this book: "Be not afraid!" One finds it in the exhilaration that courses through the text, the sense that totalitarianism and atheism are on the run and that the future brims with hope for Christians, indeed for all men and women of good will. One finds it in the Pope’s bold overtures here toward the Church’s traditional enemies, as when he speaks kindly of Islam even while some Muslims continue to persecute Christian missionaries. One finds it, too, in his willingness to speak his mind at the expense of controversy, for instance in his remarks about Buddhism’s "negative soteriology" or in his insistence upon separating Jesus from all other religious figures: "If he were only a wise man like Socrates, if he were a ‘prophet’ like Muhammad, if he were ‘enlightened’ like Buddha, without any doubt he would not be what he is. He is the one mediator between God and humanity."
Above all, however, this book haunts its readers because at its center lies the mystery of the papacy. It is difficult to read it without the impression that when the Pope speaks, the other 264 occupants of the Holy See speak with him. One senses, to get right to the heart of the matter, the presence of Peter. The text radiates an authority quite different from that of an encyclical or other official teaching document: it has a power grounded not only in the office but in the man who fills it, in a life lived close to eternal verities. John Paul II speaks here of the blood of the martyrs as "the foundation of a new world, a new Europe, and a new civilization." It is not too much to say that his own long reign as Pope—in its own way a slow–motion martyrdom, an era of prodigious labor, great suffering, and glorious vitality—has also contributed, not least through this marvelous book, to laying the foundation for this new world and for its bounty, the civilization of love.
Philip Zaleski teaches religion at Smith College.