Religious fundamentalists who insist that politics must be theocratic or Theodosian—equating a particular political order with God’s will or design—often find democracy the work of the devil. Perhaps, in response to these charges, a concrete example of the delicate balancing act that I endorse is necessary. I rely on reports of John Paul II’s visit to the Baltic States in September 1993 for this story. The situation in Lithuania was particularly delicate for John Paul because “Polish nationalists for their part have tried to exploit the alleged mistreatment of the 300,000 strong Polish minority in Lithuania.” Thus, being not only pope but also a Pole associated with Polish aspirations to self-determination, John Paul “had to be very careful not to offend Lithuanian sensibilities.”
Much of current Lithuania, remember, was once part of Poland. The Lithuanian capital, Vilnius, is Poland’s “Wilno,” dear to the hearts of Poles everywhere, in part because it is the home of Adam Mickiewicz, the greatest Polish poet. But John Paul, while acknowledging the love Poles have for that particular place, used the Lithuanian name Vilnius throughout his pastoral visit, including the one time he spoke Polish—when he delivered [sic] mass in the Polish-language church in that city. For the rest of his visit, “the Pope spoke…Lithuanian which he had learned for the occasion” and this “made a tremendously positive impression on the Lithuanians.” The Poles “were not so pleased, but coming from the Pope they had to accept it. The Pope exhorted the Poles to identify fully with Lithuania, and not to dwell on the past—by which he meant not to endlessly recall the time when Vilnius was part of Poland.
~Jean Bethke Elshtain, Democracy on Trial (New York: Basic Books, 1995), pp. 111-112.
I share this story about Pope John Paul II, as told by Jean Bethke Elshtain, because we are in a political season, and various candidates and parties will vie for our allegiance, and because we are called as Christian people to be engaged with the needs and concerns of our society. John Paul’s example of diplomacy and symbolic bringing together of different sides with their tensions and contrary historical narratives might be of use to us as we think about our own engagement in deeply divided America. How might the Church promote civility and reasoned discourse in the winner-take-all struggle that our system seems to promote. How might we seek the common good by gracious accommodation without sacrificing the personal stake that each one of us has in the outcome?