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“Evil is the absence of good”

Ukrainian translation of John Paul II’s last book launched in Kyiv on Dec. 13
20 December, 00:00

Pope John Paul II was one of the chosen few historic personalities that the human race has always direly needed and almost never encounters — individuals who are universally respected, even by sworn enemies. Our generation was granted the privilege of living in the same time as this celebrated individual, the Pole Karol Jozef Wojtyla, even though in different worlds. We also had the rare privilege of welcoming him in Ukraine. This was another step that Ukraine took in the direction of democracy, transparency, and tolerance. We took a step outside both old and new prejudices.

The Ukrainian version of his last book, Memory and Identity: Personal Reflections, has just been published in Ukraine by Litopys Publishers and Ukrainian Catholic University. As Major Archbishop Lubomyr Huzar of Kyiv and Halych says, “we now have a book from which we can learn the ideas of that Great Pope with regard to matters that certainly have a religious context, but which also have much to do with the daily routine and interests of the man in the street, his secular concerns, his quest for a place in Europe, in the modern world. Professor Nicola Franco Balloni of the Italian Institute of Culture in Ukraine writes in the foreword that “John Paul II ponders human vice, which reached its apogee in the past century, specifically in the totalitarian ideologies of Nazism and Communism.” Memory and Identity: Personal Reflections, like most of the other works written by the late Vicar of Christ, are marked by a rare combination of profound philosophical insight into the most complicated matters facing the human race and simplicity of language and images, which makes it accessible to everyone.

In his last book John Paul II emphasizes the theme of identity, which is becoming increasingly topical in the period of “worldwide globalization.” The point at issue is identity — of society, nations, and individuals. The author of Memory and Identity: Personal Reflections writes that “memory and identity” are the best way that countries can contribute to a single Europe, and that they can thus preserve their own identities. John Paul II was keenly aware that today many countries are being threatened by a “blackout” and even loss of identity; that the struggle for the latter is often tantamount to a nation’s survival.

Problems of identity are especially topical for those countries that are still struggling to define their identity and are vacillating between East and West, between their past and future, between the bitter current realities and sweet dreams of the past. Ukraine is among these countries. Many of our current pressing problems are explained — rather, generated — precisely because various social strata, regions, and generations perceive the surrounding world in their own way; they are offering different answers to the questions “Who are we? Where do we come from? Who are our ancestors? What makes us different from others? What unites us? What do we want? What do we value around us? Whom should we emulate?”

John Paul II writes that identity is the basis forming the thoughts, aspirations, and tastes of a nation, and its formation and maintenance are always a number-one issue for a state, especially in the countries of Eastern Europe. Getting back to Ukraine, one can draw the pessimistic conclusion that we have a long way to go to achieve our own identity; there are many people here who persist in identifying themselves with a Muscovite basis, or a Soviet one or with the Trypillian culture. Such an important category of forming a people’s identity as a system of values sometimes has nothing to do with a true Ukrainian basis, with historical realities, with our culture (regrettably, for a significant proportion of Ukrainians a martinet system and the demagoguery of Soviet times are still the “greatest values”). In reality, national identity can form only against the background of true human values, such as homeland, history, rule of law, nature, family, civic duties, etc. — in a word, against the backdrop of one’s own culture.

According to John Paul II, memory and oblivion are two formidable opposing forces that act both within man and human societies. In Ukraine, national memory is often either erased or distorted, so that people will have no one in whom to take pride, no one with whom to identify. We still have “Herastratuses” prepared to burn down, destroy, belittle the most important national sacred things, deprive people of their historical legacy. Oblivion leads to anything — manipulated information and the mass media can form an “identity” against the background of any false values of the past and present (obscuring sameness, as John Paul II writes).

In his book Pope John Paul writes that Ukraine is the dividing line and the doors between East and West. It is the crossroads of various cultures, the place where the spiritual wealth of East and West encounter each other. God gave Nazism 12 years and then this system fell. That was the limit that Divine Providence assigned to this insanity. Events that were taking place during the years of fascism and communism were horrible. However, one of the features of that evil was that it was disguised from the human eye. The real dimension of evil that was raging in Europe was not perceived even among those who were in the epicenter of that vortex, for both the Nazis during the war and eventually the communists in Eastern Europe sought to hide what they were doing from international opinion. For a significant period of time the West refused to believe in the destruction of the Jews. Even the Poles were not aware of everything that the Nazis had perpetrated against the Poles or what the Soviets had done to the Polish officers in Katyn. Moreover, the tragic events connected to the deportation of these officers are still only partly known today.

After the defeat of the Nazis in WWII, the communists felt elation and arrogantly set about conquering the world or at least Europe. They acted primarily by means of ideological aggression and political propaganda, not only in Europe but in other parts of the world. Communism finally suffered a collapse owing to the socioeconomic inadequacy of its social system. Yet this does not mean that it was truly discarded as an ideology and philosophy. In certain quarters in the West its decline is still mourned as a great loss.

The method by which evil grows and develops on the fertile soil of good is still a mystery. The same is true of that part of goodness that evil could not destroy and which continues to flourish and grow on that very same turf where evil reigns supreme. In other words, evil not only coexists with good, but goodness is capable of growing alongside evil, on that very soil that we have come to recognize as human nature.

In certain situations evil is even beneficial, for it creates an opportunity to do good. Saint Paul said: “Conquer evil with good.” At issue here is moral evil, the sin that is rooted in man, the tendency toward evil rather than good. Therefore, peoples’ lives, both individual and public, are like a constant struggle, full of drama, between good and evil, between light and darkness. The struggle between evil, which humanity inherited from its ancestors, and redemptive grace brought by Christ will endure until the end of time.

When communities felt themselves free after the fall of the totalitarian regimes, another fundamental problem — how to use freedom — instantly emerged. This problem has both an individual and collective dimensions, and in a certain sense it still awaits a systematic resolution. The specific notion of freedom, which is still a resonant issue in society, diverts the public’s attention from ethical responsibility. The emphasis is on freedom itself. We are constantly told: ‘It is important for us to be free, completely rid of brakes and duties, so that we can live freely in accordance with our own judgments.’ However, occasionally such judgments are only whims, and its counterpart, liberalism, is primitive and potentially destructive. Since the days of the Enlightenment thinkers have acknowledged the need for a criterion that would regulate the use of freedom. An individual who is free in his acts must assume responsibility for them as well as for personal choice. The Creator gives man freedom as a gift and also as a task.

Immanuel Kant created his categorical imperative, “Conform your action to a universal non-natural law...We must always treat people as ends not means.” In analyzing human activity, Kant said that it is dangerous to make happiness the highest priority, for this can jeopardize the very essense of morality.

At certain periods, a declining readiness to making sacrifices for the good of one’s native land was observed (in Poland). There were times when personal comfort and traditional Polish individualism were obstacles. But even when the Poles were deprived of their territory and their nation was devastated, they never lacked a sense of spiritual legacy, a culture that had been received from their forefathers. Furthermore, these feelings developed dynamically. The 19th century, when Poland was part of tsarist Russia, was in a certain sense the peak of Polish culture. In no other period had the Polish nation produced so many brilliant writers, composers, artists, and actors. This period of cultural maturity in the 19th century prepared the Poles for the Herculean effort that led us to the restoration of our national independence, despite the fact that tsarist Russia was seeking not only the destruction of the Rzeczpospolita but also the values that it expressed. Every nation lives through its cultural gains; every nation exists “through” and “thanks to” its culture, which is its identity. Culture is an instrument that helps a person become even more of a person. It inculcates the concept of community in people. The Polish people preserved their identity and, despite three partitions and conquest by foreigners, preserved their national sovereignty by relying on culture. This culture proved to be stronger than other forces.

The world is changing, and the impulse to create supranational structures is growing. Notions, such as the family and nation/native land, however, cannot be replaced by anything.

John Paul II also wrote that patriotism means love of everything that creates one’s native land: its history, traditions, its language, even its landscapes. This love also extends to works created by fellow countrymen and the fruits of their genius. Any danger becomes an occasion to test this love. The native land is good and common to all citizens; it is a great duty.

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