St. John Paul II did plenty of heavy lifting during his long papacy, from staring down the Soviet empire to battling what he saw as a metastasizing “culture of death” in the West. Perhaps it’s only fitting, then, that the leader of a new institute devoted to the Polish pope and his approach to culture invokes a weightlifting analogy to express its mission.

“If you want to be a good weightlifter, you need to find the right position for your backbone,” said Dominican Father Michal Paluch. “Otherwise, you won’t be able to handle the pressure.”

Paluch, rector of Rome’s University of St. Thomas Aquinas, said the comparison is apt to the challenges facing the Catholic Church today vis-à-vis the emerging cultures of postmodernity.

“We’re under a lot of pressure in the contemporary world, we Christians and Catholics, and it’s critical to find the right position for our backbone,” he said. “John Paul II shows us how to be in such a position, in his attitude about how to be active in culture.”

The 53-year-old Paluch, appointed to the top post at the Angelicum last June, himself knows a thing or two about engaging culture. As a young man growing up in Poland, he studied music before entering the Dominican order.

This week, Paluch presided over the launch of the “John Paul II Institute of Culture” at the Angelicum, leading a livestream ceremony just at the cusp of Italy’s gradual loosening of coronavirus restrictions. Pope Francis sent his blessings for the enterprise, saying John Paul II left the Church a “rich and multifaceted heritage” due to “the example of his open and contemplative spirit, his passion for God and man, for creation, history and art.”

For now the institute is funded by two private Polish foundations, Futura Iuventa and Saint Nicholas, though Paluch said the Angelicum is seeking other sponsors to scale up its operations.

While plenty of Catholic luminaries have pondered the intersection of Church and culture over the centuries, Paluch said John Paul’s legacy is especially relevant because it provides an antidote to a great tension, reflected in the polarization that mars so much of Catholic life, between identity and outreach.

“His main contribution, which was given both in his documents but also in his gestures, his life, was that we shouldn’t be afraid of being Christians with a strong identity,” Paluch said. “It’s because of that identity, not in spite of it, that we can and should enter into dialogue with the contemporary world and find a respectful place for all those who don’t share our values.”

“I would say that this attitude is something absolutely crucial to find the right way to be a witness of Christ open to the other,” he said.

Paluch said that balanced approach to culture – fiercely Christian, yet deeply open – was “at the center of JPII’s message and pontificate.”

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