Book Review: A Sign of Contradiction by Karol Wojtyla
A Sign of Contradiction by Karol Wojtyla. Providence, Rhode Island: Cluny Media, 2022. 240 p. $18.95 paperback; 12.95 digital.
A Sign of Contradiction is a series of transcribed retreat lectures given by Cardinal Karol Wojtyla, (the future Pope St. John Paul II) to Pope St. Paul IV and the Roman curia for their Lenten retreat of 1976. His theme as well as the title for the book comes from the prophecy of Simeon: “Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.” (ESV, Luke 2:34-35) Before becoming a priest, Karol Wojtyla studied to become a philologist, thus he translates Simeon's prophecy as “a sign of contradiction.”
The entire theme of the retreat is rooted in Christ. Primarily how “the mystery of man is explained through the mystery of Christ.” Throughout the book, one can see the future Pope's theology of the body shining through. He discusses the dignity of work, rest, and the human person. He emphasizes that “All the essential problems of man find tangible expression in the Christ of history.” He also addresses many of the problems facing the modern world. He quotes extensively from the Second Vatican Council's document Gaudium et Spes – the Constitution on the Church in the Modern World. He writes that the central theme of Gaudium et Spes is Christ “presented as a revealer of the full mystery of man and of human dignity.” He continues by saying “The Council stresses that man's essential dignity is inextricably bound up with Christ's message, his Gospel.”
The topics of freedom and truth are also discussed within the context of human dignity. He writes that the Church and the world are in a battle for human dignity and on the needed defense of human dignity: “The dignity of the human person, has to be defended, but that dignity must not be made to consist in unbridled exercise of one's own freedom. The freedom sought after by the campaigners in favor of abortion is a freedom at the service of pleasure unrestrained by the norms of any kind.” (137) Here Wojtyla makes the distinction between true freedom and license. License is the view that freedom is the ability to do whatever one wants. True freedom is the ability to do what one should do.
Wojtyla also offers meditations on the Joyful, Sorrowful, and Glorious mysteries of the Rosary. He even presents meditations on the Via Crucis or Way of the Cross. All of these reflections are of course ordered to Christ's Redemptive Death – the Joyful Mysteries point forward to His Passion and Death, while the Glorious show the purpose thereof.
Concluding, Wojtyla says that Christ is still a sign of contradiction to this very day. He explains that this is largely due to Marxist ideologies:
We are living in an age in which the whole world proclaims freedom of conscience and religious freedom, and also in an age in which the battle against religion-defined as “the opium of the people”-is being fought in such a way as to avoid, as far as possible, making any new martyrs. And so the program for today is one of face-saving persecution: persecution is declared non-existent and full religious freedom is declared assured. What is more, this program has succeeded in giving many people the impression that it is on the side of Lazarus against the rich man, that it is therefore on the same side as Christ, whereas in fact it is above all against Christ. (p. 214-215)
Both modern culture and the world have been greatly influenced by this Communist ideology. Wojtyla points out that Communism tries not to make martyrs. Why? Because as Tertullian has said, “The blood of martyrs is seed.” By openly producing martyrs, Communism does not gain ground in the world. But by doing it covertly, it does. Wojtyla was a young man when the Nazis invaded Poland. He lived through their reign as well as the reign of the Communist party. Throughout his life, he tirelessly fought against Communism and defended his homeland and a large portion of the world from succumbing to its power.
Overall, Wojtyla's meditations served as a fabulous retreat for Pope Paul VI and the curia; they can do the same for others as well.