Redemptor Hominis

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Pope john paul ii's sixth encyclical letter, issued on March 4, 1979. Redemptor hominis (RH) can be viewed, especially in the light of subsequent documents and events, as a programmatic statement revealing many of the themes that have come to define the pontificate. Foremost among these is the anticipation of the year 2000. Already in the first paragraph the Pope announces that the millennial year "will be the year of a great Jubilee." It becomes clear that John Paul envisions his papal ministry as the continued unfolding and reception of the Second Vatican Council in anticipation of the Jubilee Year 2000. The Church prepares to enter the 21st century precisely by deepening its understanding and implementation of the directions taken at Vatican II.

The encyclical comprises four sections: "Inheritance" (16), "The Mystery of the Redemption" (712), "Redeemed Man and His Situation in the Modern World" (1317), and "The Church's Mission and Man's Destiny" (1822). Although a number of the documents of Vatican II are cited, clearly it is Gaudium et spes that provides the encyclical with a specific point of reference.

John Paul brings his vision of Christian personalism to bear in analyzing the conditions within which men and women live in the late 20th century. Of particular importance is a statement of Gaudium et spes 22: "The truth is that only in the mystery of the Incarnate Word does the mystery of man take on light" (cited in no. 8). This is coupled with the statement of Gaudium et spes 24 that "man can fully discover his true self only in a sincere giving of himself." The dignity of each person guides the Christian approach to the world, to economics and politics, and to an understanding of the Church itself. So John Paul emphasizes "the primacy of the person over things" (no. 16) and the welfare of the "person in the community" as "the essential criterion for all programs, systems, and regimes" (no. 17).

There is also a striking application of personalism to ecclesiology in RH 21. The Church is portrayed as the "community of disciples" in which "each member has his own special gift," which is "a personal vocation and a form of participation in the Church's saving work." Each member of the "deeply personal" society that is the Church receives a "singular, unique, and unrepeatable grace" for the Church's communion and mission. Every human being is "the way" for the Church (no. 14) precisely because Christ, above all in the Incarnation and Redemption, is the way of self-discovery for each unique, "unrepeatable" human being (no. 13).

Another prominent theme of the pontificate is heralded in RH 6the call to Christian unity. The Church does not have the right to risk being unfaithful to Christ's prayer "that they may all be one." These words, ut unum sint, become the title of a groundbreaking encyclical on ecumenism published in 1995. Here again, it is a matter of extending the initiatives of the Second Vatican Council in the attempt to overcome divisions with Christians in both the East and the West.

With the publication of the subsequent encyclicals dives in misercordia (1980) and dominum etvivificantem (1986) it becomes evident that RH is also the first of the "Trinitarian encyclicals" of John Paul. The three documents focus successively on the Son, the Father, and the Spirit. A Trinitarian dimension, spelled out in the apostolic letter tertio millennio adveniente (1994) likewise accrues to preparations for the Jubilee Year. John Paul draws in particular upon those scenes from the Gospels that take place in the "Upper Room" in order to develop this perspective. His "theology of the Upper Room" begins to take shape in RH and comes to fuller expression in the later documents.

Other significant themes of the pontificate also find their place in RH. For example, the importance of the saints (no. 19) and Mary (no. 22) is underscored. Elements of Catholic social teaching are also referenced. In sum, RH stands as a key that unlocks the vast treasure of documents and events comprising the pontificate of John Paul II.

Bibliography: For the text of Redemptor hominis, see: Acta Apostolicae Sedis, no. 71 (1979): 266324 (Latin); Origins 8, no. 40 (March 22, 1979): 625, 627644 (English); The Pope Speaks 24 (1979): 97147 (English). For commentaries and summaries of Redemptor hominis, see: a. dulles, The Splendor of Faith: The Theological Vision of Pope John Paul II (New York 1999). r. t. gawronski, "Redemptor Hominis," in The Thought of Pope John Paul II: A Collection of Essays and Studies, j. m. mcdermott, ed. 221230 (Rome 1993).

[m. pelzel]