Year after year since the evil empire's fall, the promise of Poland increases. If history is capable of decency, the world will forever acknowledge its debt to Poland for the gift of Karol Wojtyla, John Paul the Great--for his universal appeal was inextricably joined to the particularity of his Polishness.
That particularity is strikingly underscored in the book published shortly before his death and based upon interviews of a decade earlier, Memory and Identity. Against the airy abstractions of secular modernity, John Paul displayed a way of being in the world that is formed by keeping faith with the memories, sufferings, and aspirations of a most particular people. He was that rare thing: a whole man. The many dimensions of his interests, energies, gifts, and inspirations were all of a piece. He refused modernity's imperious demand to choose between the universal and the particular, the world and his place in the world. Critics referred to him as the "Polish pope," implying that he was parochial. Far from apologizing for who he was, he invited others to be the best of who they are. It was as a son of Poland that he was a father to the world.
There is no nation today whose identity is so attached to one person as is Poland's to John Paul. It is not certain that this will continue to be the case. Poland has its fair share of airy universalists, in the academy and the media, who agitate the cause of transcending the embarrassment of particularity. No doubt there are aspects of Polish life and history--as is true of the life and history of any people--that should be transcended. But these universalists have what they fancy to be a bigger idea, the transcending of the heart of what it means to be Polish. They still subscribe to a "secularization theory" that has now been abandoned by most scholars in the rest of the world.
The old idea was that the more modern a society becomes the more secular it will become. America, the most modern of societies, never fit the theory, giving rise to talk about "American exceptionalism." Now, in a time of resurgent religion, both personal and public, it is evident that America is pretty much in step with the rest of the world. If we are to look for "exceptionalism," we look instead to western Europe, where secularization appears to be almost totally triumphant.
Even that appearance, however, may be misleading. Observers are struck by the small but dynamic movements of Christian renewal in, for example, France and Germany. Moreover, some studies suggest that the general population of western Europe is not as secular as many think. This phenomenon is labeled "believing but not belonging." In other words, people believe more than is supposed, but they are disinclined to participate in the activities and institutions that once gave social expression to the faith to which many, however tenuously, still adhere.
The institutional bearer of the old secularization theory today is the European Union and its Brussels-based bureaucracy. The refusal to acknowledge Christianity in the now-rejected constitution's reference to Europe's cultural identity and the repudiation of Rocco Buttiglione as justice minister because of his...