John Paul II: At the Threshold of the Third Millennium

Of all religious leaders approaching 2000, the pope was clearly the most articulate voice on the subject. He seems to have caught a vision for year 2000 celebrations before anyone else, and claimed the dynamic energized his papacy in a unique way.

“It is very important to cross the threshold of hope, not to stop before it, but to let oneself be led.”

In what many believe to be his last trip to Poland, a frail and emotional pope visited his countrymen in June of 1997 to draw strength to finish his millennial course.

Addressing an open air Mass, he confided that after his 1978 election as pope, his mentor, the late Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski, told him, “If the Lord has called you, you must lead the church into the third millennium.”

“I’m growing in years,” John Paul II said, “I ask you to beg God, on your knees, so that I will be able to meet this challenge.”

The crowd of nearly 400,000 responded with “We will help, we will help,” a chant used in the early 1970s, to express solidarity against the former communist regime, which fell in 1989.

Wiping tears away, John Paul said, smiling. “I know this chant, this time I hope it’s more effective!”

The enthusiastic crowd burst into “Sto lat,” a Polish song meaning: “May you live 100 years.”

Like Moses, this greatly loved pope wants to personally usher his people to the threshold of a better world.

In nearly every public appearance now, the pope mentions this passage into the third millennium and hails the time approaching 2000 as a “new springtime” for the life of the soul.

Come the year 2000, some 20 million pilgrims are expected to visit Rome at the pope’s invitation for a “Great Jubilee.” In addition, the pope, who turns 80 that year, plans to preside over a World Eucharist Congress in Rome, gather world religious leaders atop Mount Sinai for a summit, and make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land–where the first millennium was born.

Of all religious leaders today, the pope is clearly the most articulate voice on the approaching millennium. There is not even a close second. He seems to have caught a vision for year 2000 celebrations before anyone else, and claims the dynamic has energized his papacy in a unique way.

Far beyond the popular stereotype as a reactionary intent on consolidating the past, John Paul II’s millennium vision reveals a man who is facing the future and acting in bold ways. How did this pope come to see himself as a Millennium Maker?

During his student days at Krakow, both before and during World War II, Karol Wojtyla–the future pope, developed a great passion for the theater. He was the star actor in numerous school productions. Later he wrote six plays and co-founded the Rhapsodic Theater–an underground group which staged plays during the years of the Nazi occupation.

As creator and interpreter of Catholic tradition, it would be some 30 years later that Wojtyla began to script a millennial drama for our times, with his own brand of poetic imagery and historical development.

In 1979, in his very first encyclical, John Paul II hinted that the close of the second millennium would bring “a year of great Jubilee,” something far more than a mere milestone.

Today, the notion that society or the church ought to celebrate the arrival of a new century or a new millennium is taken as axiomatic. But it wasn’t always that way. To appreciate why the pope, two decades out, would even anticipate the celebration of the year 2000, it is necessary see how previous popes built a cultural expectation that century’s ends were spiritually significant.

To a great degree the daily clocks we use and the yearly calendar we keep are a legacy of the monastic tradition. Originally used to call the observants to pray at designated holy hours, the religious tradition also “sanctified time” through the annual liturgical calendar. Entire seasons became devoted to Christmas or Easter observances, allowing the masses to experience a sense of the sacred.

Under this canopy of the ages, in A.D. 1300, Pope Boniface VIII, instituted a tradition to celebrate an entire year as a jubilee or “Holy Year.” From all over Europe, pilgrims streamed to Rome to practice penance and experience spiritual renewal. Observers at that time reported a movement of up to 30,000 pilgrims a day came in and out of Rome for the duration of a whole year. As cultural historian Hillel Schwartz writes, Boniface’s jubilee year became “a centennial celebration of a new age that would begin with the clean slate of absolution.”

Since that time, Catholic tradition has called for Holy Years to be celebrated at quarter century marks or at fifty year intervals usually dating from the passion of Christ.

Using these quarter century Holy Years as time-markers, Pope John Paul II began to see a deeper mystery in the transition to a new millennium. As the 2,000th anniversary of the birth of Christ, he felt the Jubilee of 2000 would in some way fulfill the vision of the Second Vatican Council and, perhaps, the hopes of all humanity.

Preaching in St. Peter’s Basilica in 1983, the pope said, “The whole Church… feels herself called to live this last period of the twentieth century… in a renewed and deepened ‘Spirit of Advent’ on the eve of the third millennium.” The pope then invited the faithful to prepare for the Jubilee of 2000 with the humility and confidence in God that characterized the Virgin Mary as she awaited the birth of the Christ-child some 2,000 years ago.

In the mid-’80s, the pope often referred to trials facing civilization, such as totalitarianism, the arms race, poverty, or regional wars as “a culture of death.” Only by the power of the Spirit, the pope felt, could these trials pass away before the second millennium came to a close.

In 1989, the pope would play a historic role to ensure a peaceful transition from communism to democracy in Poland and throughout Eastern Europe. For many, John Paul’s millennial faith had prevailed over the totalitarian grip which held much of this century under its hand.

Despite the end of the Cold War, much of today’s contemporary culture seems to be gripped by “apocalyptic anxiety.” It is still common in the ’90s for religious books addressing the year 2000 to lament the “late great planet earth” as it supposedly tumbles headlong toward Armageddon. While not turning a deaf ear to the endemic chaos of our times, the current pope seems to have detected a shift in the eschatological wind.

In 1994, the pope personally presented his theology of the new millennium in his autobiographical book Crossing the Threshold of Hope. As one reviewer commented: “The plea of the book, reflected in the title, is that we must not stop at the threshold of hope and faith and love. Be not afraid to cross the threshold, for Christ, having gone ahead, is waiting to receive us on the far side of our fears.”

On the dust jacket, written in the pope’s own hand is his abiding exhortation, “Be not afraid!” This message practically opens and closes the book: “Do not be afraid of men! Man is always the same. The systems he creates are always imperfect…”

“At the end of the second millennium, we need, perhaps more than ever, the words of the Risen Christ: ‘Be not afraid!’ Man who, even after the fall of Communism, has not stopped being afraid and who truly has many reasons for feeling this way, needs to hear these words… Peoples and nations of the entire world need to hear these words. Their conscience needs to grow in the certainty that Someone exists who holds in His hands the destiny of this passing world.”

Crossing the Threshold of Hope became a runaway best seller in both Europe and America. While prescribing a cure for millennial fever, it was far from the manifesto needed to guide the church in her preparations for the Great Jubilee. To meet this need, John Paul convened his college of cardinals for consultation from around the world for an unprecedented two-day meeting at the Vatican in June of 1994.

Within five months, the pope released Tertio Millennio Adveniente (As the Third Millennium Approaches), a 72-page letter, to outline preparations to commemorate the “Great Jubilee of the Year 2000.” The Catholic News Service reported the document outlined a six year program of action–including synods, interreligious meetings, papal trips and thematic spiritual reflection–“that may be one of the most ambitious in church history.”

In Tertio Millennio Adveniente, the pope underscores the significance of the church’s Jubilee celebrations in reference to the birth of Jesus some two thousand years ago. He considers the Incarnation, which secular historians mention only in passing, as eternity entering time. Therefore, the year 2000 ought to “represent an extraordinary great Jubilee, not only for Christians but indirectly for the whole of humanity.”

In defining the Jubilee of 2000, the pope draws on the messianic proclamation of the prophet Isaiah, which Jesus invoked as he began his ministry (Luke 4:16-18). To experience a Jubilee, or “the year of the Lord’s favor” in our time, means to experience a year of reflection, reconciliation and worship which restores an “inner joy… manifested outwardly” as a community.

In describing the reflections which should precede 2000, John Paul calls the church “to look with eyes of faith to our own century” to discern”the signs of hope, even though they often remain hidden from our eyes.” For the pope, these signs include scientific, technological and medical progress in “the service of human life”; “a greater awareness of our responsibility for the environment, efforts to restore peace and justice wherever they have been violated,” plus “a desire for reconciliation and solidarity among different peoples.”

In regards to the millennium’s end, Theologian Doris Donnelly claims the pope knows that “the spirit of shabbat must prevail–to cease business as usual and attend to a new agenda, to rest and retreat to become more fully immersed in a spiritual sight, and then to return, refreshed, to work towards rebuilding the world.”

In reflecting on the march of faith toward 2000, the pope claims, “In a certain sense, all the popes of the past century have prepared for this Jubilee.” Even the Second Vatican Council (1962 – 1965), in a way for John Paul II began “the immediate preparations for the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000.” And then confessing to his own millennium mysticism, the pope writes, “In fact, preparing for the Year 2000 has become as it were a hermeneutical [or interpretive] key of my Pontificate.”

The most surprising feature of Tertio Millennio Adveniente was John Paul’s call for the church to examine its conscience, confess its sins, and even its crimes, committed in its name over the past twenty centuries.

“It is fitting that the church should make this passage with a clear awareness of what has happened to her during the last 10 centuries,” the pope writes. “She cannot cross the threshold of the new millennium without encouraging her children to purify themselves, through repentance, of past errors and instances of infidelity, inconsistency and slowness to act. Acknowledging the weaknesses of the past is an act of honesty and courage which helps us to strengthen our faith, which alerts us to face today’s temptations and challenges, and prepares us to meet them.”

Leading this procession of millennial penance is the pope himself. In a provocative new book, entitled When a Pope Asks Forgiveness, a seasoned Italian journalist explores how Pope John Paul II has publicly admitted church culpability 94 times, including among other things, the Crusades, the Inquisition, persecution of the Jews, religious wars, Galileo and the treatment of women.

The author claims that this current pope “will overcome, or overturn, the controversial tone of Catholic apologetics and put in its place a historically unedited version that is more in keeping with the culture of freedom and tolerance…”

In a message to mark the Roman Catholic Church’s celebration of World Peace Day on New Year’s Day 1997, the pope said, “The truth is that one cannot remain a prisoner of the past, for individuals and peoples need a sort of healing of memories, so that past evils will not come back again.”

In a multi-cultural and pluralistic world, the “healing of memories” as a millennium act takes on even greater importance, and appears to be a prime role which John Paul feels he must play as a Millennium Maker. By taking a step backwards to heal the past, he hopes the church will be able to take a giant leap forward into the future.

Part of dealing with the past for John Paul is to overcome divisions among Christians in other confessions. He writes in Tertio Millennio Adveniente: “In the course of the 1,000 years now drawing to a close, even more than in the first millennium, ecclesial communion has been painfully wounded, a fact ‘for which, at times, men of both sides were to blame.'”

The pope sees the “approaching end of the second millennium” as a time to heal wounds among various Christian confessions by “the promotion of fitting ecumenical initiatives so that we can celebrate the Great Jubilee, if not completely united, at least much closer to overcoming the divisions of the second millennium.”

One divide which the pope hopes the world will address during the turn of the millennium is the problem of Third World debt. In line with the ancient Hebrew concept of the Jubilee year in Leviticus, the pope suggests in Tertio Millennio Adveniente that: “Christians raise their voices on behalf of the poor, proposing the Jubilee as an appropriate time to give thought to reducing substantially, if not cancelling outright, the international debt which seriously threatens the future of many nations”.

The Anglican church and many aid groups in England support a similar initiative. Since 1990, a campaign called “Jubilee 2000” has been organized to direct public support from around the world to put pressure on creditor governments in the West that sit on the Boards of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank. Though a total absolution of poorer nations’ debt by wealthy governments by 2000 is deemed unlikely, it is possible that foreign creditors might act on a case by case basis.

The day after the pope’s letter on preparing for the year 2000 was released, the Vatican established a committee to coordinate the Holy Year celebrations. French Cardinal Roger Etchegaray, was named president of the Central Committee of the Great Jubilee of the Holy Year 2000.

By 1996, the Vatican’s Jubilee 2000 committee had circulated a millennium logo, launched a regular “Tertium Millennium” magazine, published several manuals and books, and encouraged the formation of national Jubilee committees in more than 100 countries. From this time on, local Catholic dioceses or congregations began forming millennium preparation committees.

In contrast to Vatican preparations, city officials in Rome are struggling to complete public works and expand mass transit in time for the Jubilee year. Historic structures, such as the Colosseum and the Roman Forum are targeted for renovation and reinforcement. But major infrastructure projects, such as a new subway “C” line from the Colosseum to St. Peter’s are unlikely to be completed. With four times the annual numbers of visitors expected in the eternal city for 2000, people are already talking about “the eternal city in eternal gridlock.”

Despite the trials of traffic, the Holy Year will go on. By tradition, the pope will open the Jubilee on Christmas Eve ’99. In a solemn ceremony, he will use a golden hammer to unwall a “Holy Door” into Saint Peter’s Basilica.

Whether John Paul II will keep his appointment with the third millennium remains to be seen. He has ruled out the possibility of retirement, because “there is no room in the Vatican for a pope emeritus.”

In 1995, he told youth at a rally in the Italian Alps, “You all already belong to the third millennium. I’m not sure about myself. Maybe. I don’t know, we will see.”

Dr. Jay Gary is president of, a foresight consulting group. Over the past twenty years he has helped non-profits, foundations, civic leaders, and strategic alliances to create more promise filled futures. He also teaches strategic foresight, innovation and leadership at the graduate level and through professional development courses.

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