John Thavis (Catholic News)
VATICAN CITY (CNS) — Pope John Paul II was a voice of conscience for the world and a modern-day apostle for his church.
To both roles he brought a philosopher’s intellect, a pilgrim’s spiritual intensity and an actor’s flair for the dramatic. That combination made him one of the most forceful moral leaders of the modern age.
As head of the church for more than 26 years, he held a hard line on doctrinal issues and drew sharp limits on dissent. For many years he was a tireless evangelizer at home and abroad, but toward the end his frailty left him unable to murmur a blessing.
The first non-Italian pope in 455 years, Pope John Paul became a spiritual protagonist in two global transitions: the fall of European communism, which began in his native Poland in 1989, and the passage to the third millennium of Christianity.
The new millennium brought a surge in global terrorism, and the pope convened interfaith leaders to renounce violence in the name of religion. While condemning terrorist attacks, he urged the United States to respond with restraint, and he sharply criticized the U.S.-led war against Iraq in 2003.
As pastor of the universal church, he jetted around the world, taking his message to 129 countries in 104 trips outside Italy — including seven to the United States. He surprised and pleased millions by communicating with them in their own languages, until his own powers of speech faltered toward the end of his life.
At times, he used the world as a pulpit: in Africa, to decry hunger; in Hiroshima, Japan, to denounce the arms race; in Calcutta, India, to praise the generosity of Mother Teresa. Whether at home or on the road, he aimed to be the church’s most active evangelizer, trying to open every corner of human society to Christian values.
Within the church, the pope was just as vigorous and no less controversial. He disciplined dissenting theologians, excommunicated self-styled “traditionalists,” and upheld unpopular church positions like the pronouncement against artificial birth control. At the same time, he pushed Catholic social teaching into relatively new areas such as bioethics, international economics, racism and ecology.
In his later years, the pope moved with difficulty, tired easily and was less expressive, all symptoms of a nervous system disorder believed to be Parkinson’s disease. By the time he celebrated his 25th anniversary in October 2003, aides had to wheel him on a chair and read his speeches for him. Yet he pushed himself to the limits of his physical capabilities, convinced that such suffering was itself a form of spiritual leadership.
He led the church through a heavy program of soul-searching events during the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000, fulfilling a dream of his pontificate. His long-awaited pilgrimage to the Holy Land that year took him to the roots of the faith and dramatically illustrated the church’s improved relations with Jews. He also presided over an unprecedented public apology for the sins of Christians during darker chapters of church history, such as the Inquisition and the Crusades.
In a landmark document, the apostolic letter “Novo Millennio Ineunte” (“At the Beginning of the New Millennium”), the pope laid out his vision of the church’s future and called for a “new sense of mission” to bring Gospel values into every area of social and economic life.
Over the years, public reaction to the pope’s message and his decisions was mixed. He was hailed as a daring social critic, chided as the “last socialist,” cheered by millions and caricatured as an inquisitor. The pope never paid much attention to his popularity ratings.
Pope John Paul’s personality was powerful and complicated. In his prime, he could work a crowd and banter with young and old, but spontaneity was not his specialty. As a manager, he set directions but often left policy details to top aides.
His reaction to the mushrooming clerical sex abuse scandal in the United States in 2001-02 underscored his governing style: He suffered deeply, prayed at length and made brief but forceful statements emphasizing the gravity of such a sin by priests. He convened a Vatican-U.S. summit to address the problem, but let his Vatican advisers and U.S. church leaders work out the answers. In the end, he approved changes that made it easier to defrock abusive priests.
The pope was essentially a private person, with a deep spiritual life — something that was not easily translated by the media. Yet in earlier years, this pope seemed made for modern media, and his pontificate has been captured in some lasting images. Who can forget the pope wagging his finger sternly at a Sandinista priest in Nicaragua, hugging a young AIDS victim in California or huddling in a prison-cell conversation with his would-be assassin, Mehmet Ali Agca?
Karol Jozef Wojtyla was born May 18, 1920, in Wadowice, a small town near Krakow, in southern Poland. He lost his mother at age 9, his only brother at age 12 and his father at age 20. Even at a young age, acquaintances said, he was deeply religious and contemplative.
An accomplished actor in Krakow’s underground theater during the war, he switched tracks and joined the clandestine seminary after being turned away from a Carmelite monastery with the advice: “You are destined for greater things.”
Following theological and philosophical studies in Rome, he returned to Poland for parish work in 1948, spending weekends on camping trips with young people. When named auxiliary bishop of Krakow in 1958 he was Poland’s youngest bishop, and he rose quickly through the ranks, becoming archbishop of Krakow in 1964. He also came to the attention of the universal church through his work on important documents of the Second Vatican Council.
Though increasingly respected in Rome, Cardinal Wojtyla was a virtual unknown when elected pope Oct. 16, 1978. In St. Peter’s Square that night, he set his papal style in a heartfelt talk — delivered in fluent Italian, interrupted by loud cheers from the crowd.
The pontificate began at a cyclone pace, with trips to several continents, flying press conferences, an encyclical on redemption, an ecumenical visit to the Orthodox in Turkey and several important meetings with world leaders.
On May 13, 1981, a Turkish terrorist’s bullet put his papacy on hold for several months. The assailant, Agca, served 19 years in an Italian prison before being sent back to Turkey. He once claimed Bulgarian and Soviet involvement — charges that were never proved in a second trial.
The pope was soon back on the road, eventually logging more than 700,000 miles. His 14 visits to Africa were part of a successful strategy of church expansion there; in Latin America he aimed to curb political activism by clergy and the inroads made by religious sects.
Despite misgivings inside and outside the church over specific papal teachings, he was warmly welcomed in the United States, where he drew half a million young pilgrims in 1993 for World Youth Day festivities in Denver.
But he also used one of his U.S. visits to focus on the key issue of dissent. In 1987, he told Americans it was a “grave error” to think disagreement with church teachings was compatible with being a good Catholic.
The pope later approved a universal catechism as one remedy for doctrinal ambiguity. He also pushed church positions further into the public forum. In the 1990s he urged the world’s bishops to step up their fight against abortion and euthanasia, saying the practices amounted to a modern-day “slaughter of the innocents.” Not everyone agreed, but his sharpened critique of these and other “anti-family” policies helped make him Time magazine’s choice for Man of the Year in 1994.
His earlier social justice encyclicals also made a huge impact, addressing the moral dimensions of human labor, the widening gap between rich and poor and the shortcomings of the free-market system. At the pope’s request, the Vatican published an exhaustive compendium of social teachings in 2004.
The pope was a cautious ecumenist, insisting that real differences between religions and churches not be covered up. Yet he made several dramatic gestures that will long be remembered: They included launching a Catholic-Orthodox theological dialogue in 1979, visiting a Rome synagogue in 1986 and hosting world religious leaders at a “prayer summit” for peace in 1986. In 2001, he made a historic visit to Greece, where he met with Orthodox leaders, then traveled to Damascus, Syria, where he became the first pontiff to visit a mosque.
To his own flock, he brought continual reminders that prayer and the sacraments were crucial to being a good Christian. He held up Mary as a model of holiness for the whole church, updated the rosary with five new “Mysteries of Light” and named more than 450 new saints — more than all his predecessors combined. (By John Thavis)