ROME – 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.”

“He said in Warsaw in 1979 the famous phrase, ‘You cannot understand human beings without Christ.’ It was almost word-for-word a quote from Gaudium et Spes 22, and he came back to this thought many times during his pontificate, it was his guiding idea,” Paluch said.

“It contains within itself, on the other hand, the invitation to be witnesses of Christ in the contemporary culture, and, on the other, it’s an invitation to be in dialogue, in discussion, with the contemporary world, to be able to learn something from all those who don’t share our values or who are not Christians,” he said. “He tried to do both at the same time, in a very successful way.”

“Of course, he was a spectacular witness of Christ,” Paluch said. “All of us who had the possibility to experience him as pope would agree with that. On the other hand, he’s the first pope who went to a synagogue and a mosque.”

“You could see that both being a witness and being in dialogue were at the center of his agenda,” Paluch said.

In the wake of the clerical abuse scandals that have rocked Catholicism over the last two decades, it’s inevitable that any project associated with John Paul II will face questions about his record.

“I think all these questions should be investigated in a very thorough way,” he said. “We shouldn’t forget we’re talking about a Polish bishop who was born in 1920, while the challenge of sexual abuse came at the end of his long, complicated and difficult path.”

“Personally, I also think we shouldn’t forget about what John Paul II already did in this area,” Paluch said. “It was under his guidance the church in the US introduced very strong measures. It was under his guidance the investigation of sexual abuses was put on the agenda of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which always has been understood as the most important congregation in the Roman Curia.”

“Conclusions have to be drawn from this story, but personally I don’t think it will cast any doubt on the holiness of John Paul II,” Paluch said.

In terms of future projects, the new institute has a few visiting scholars in the pipeline, including Professor Rémi Brague of the Sorbonne on anthropology and culture and Polish canon lawyer and philosopher Franciszek Longchamp de Berriér of Krakow’s Jagiellonian University on anthropology and law. Jaroslaw Kilian of the Polish National Academy of Dramatic Art in Warsaw also is slated to deliver lectures, a workshop as well as performance of the play “Job,” written by a 20-year-old Karol Wojtyla in 1940 while he was still a day laborer in the quarries of Nazi-occupied Poland.

Beyond that, Paluch hopes to raise funds to send students to Poland, as well to bring more students to Rome.

“If we want our faith to flourish, we need to focus on how we participate in culture – are we able anymore to produce strong Christian culture in the contemporary world?” he said, insisting that John Paul II is a critical guide.

“His world isn’t that of the new generation, maybe, but the gap isn’t so huge,” Paluch said. “For the new opening of the Church after Vatican II, his pontificate was crucial in terms of translating its big ideas.”

“We’re talking about how to put into practice the great program of Vatican II,” he said, “which isn’t a revolution, but a reflection on the great tradition of the Church in light of contemporary challenges.”

Follow John Allen on Twitter at @JohnLAllenJr.