'We must not be afraid of man' A shocking optimism: The pope challenges today's gloomy, deterministic view of life.

October 10, 1995

"WE DO NOT live in an irrational or meaningless world," said Pope John Paul II last week at the United Nations. This is wonderful news. Consider the other messages we receive.

We are told that today's youth will be the first American generation to live more meanly than its parents. We are told that our politics is incapable of addressing our problems. That our schools have failed. That crime is insoluble. That popular culture poisons our spirits. That runamok technology is killing us. That global warming will melt the icecaps and drown us, if the ozone hole doesn't microwave us. That global economic forces will impoverish us, if terrorist fanatics don't murder us.

Even more depressing, we are told that we are passive and helpless. Genes control us as silicon chips animate robots. Hostile social environments chain us. Walls of race, gender and ethnicity forbid us to know or understand each other, even within families and communities.

How astonishing, then, to hear from the 75-year-old pope, "We must not be afraid of the future. We must not be afraid of man. . . . We have within us the capacities for wisdom and virtue. With these gifts, and with God's grace, we can build in the next century and the next millennium a civilization worthy of the human person, a true culture of freedom."

This is more than happy talk. In New York the pontiff drew attention to "one of the great paradoxes of our time: that man, who began the period we call 'modernity' with a self-confident assertion of his 'coming of age' and 'autonomy,' approaches the end of the 20th century fearful of himself, fearful of what he might be capable of, fearful of the future."

He revisited the idea Sunday at Camden Yards in Baltimore, acknowledging that we are "tempted to discouragement or disillusionment." But Pope John Paul encouraged us to find "on the far side of every cross. . . the newness of life. . . the truth that is written on the human heart, the truth that can be known by reason and can therefore form the basis of a profound and universal dialogue among people about the direction they must give to their lives and their activities." Encouraging words to an age that sorely needs encouragement.

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