Where the 20th Century Happened
September 18, 2013
emphasis addedJohn Paul II had a keen insight into the way in which the two totalitarianisms of the 20th century had shredded the moral and spiritual fabric of humanity. The Gulag and the Nazi death camps, the Ukrainian terror famine, the genocide of the Chinese “cultural revolution,” the Cambodian genocide—all of this, and more, had left 21st-century humanity with a terrible burden of guilt. And to whom could those terrible crimes be confessed: those sins that had made an abattoir out of a century imagined, at its outset, to be one of unlimited human progress? How could the guilt piled up by so many crimes be expiated?
According to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, another man who read history through Slavic cultural lenses, the unique horrors of the 20th century had taken place because (as the Russian novelist and chronicler put it in his 1983 Templeton Prize lecture) men and women had forgotten God: “The failings of human consciousness, deprived of its divine dimension, have been a determining factor in all the major crimes of this century.”French theologian Henri de Lubac made a similar point in The Drama of Atheist Humanism: The 20th century proved that men and women could indeed organize the world without God; but without God, they could only organize it against each other.
John Paul II knew all of this. That is why he wanted to “universalize” the message of the divine mercy that had been given in Cracow as the answer to the anguish and despair caused by the horrors of the 20th century. The God of the Bible, a God of infinite mercy, was the One to whom the burden of the 20th century could be brought for expiation.
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