Pope John Paul II’s impact on the Roman Catholic Church, on the world, was so vast that it is tempting to boil down his legacy to what is most measurable.
His 26-year pontificate was the longest since Pope Pius IX’s 31-year tenure ended in 1878, and the third longest among the 264 popes, dating back to St. Peter.
He made 104 foreign trips and set foot in 129 countries, making him the church’s first truly global leader.
He canonized 482 saints, more than all his predecessors combined, and beatified 1,338 additional church heroes.
He faced up to the past, apologizing to Jews, Protestants, Orthodox Christians, Muslims and others for the Inquisition, the Crusades, inaction on the part of some Christians during the Holocaust and other long-ignored chapters of history.
He laid down his thoughts and teachings for future generations in a powerful body of writing, including a best-selling book and 14 encyclicals, or church white papers.
But the pontiff’s legacy is much deeper and more complex than a listing of his records and achievements. Through his encounters with fascism, communism, ongoing war and oppression, an assassination attempt and the West’s enduring fascination with secularism and science, he was powered by an undeniable, uncompromising faith that touched every word he said and every step he took.
“They try to understand me from the outside,” he once told George Weigel, his primary biographer. “But I can only be understood from the inside.”
A singular vision
The pope’s burning faith and steadfast belief in the orthodox teachings of the Catholic Church provoked strong reactions from the faithful and his critics, who were often one and the same. He was universally admired for standing up for the oppressed, for seeking to build new bonds with Jews, Orthodox Christians and others, and, among people of faith, for pleading that spirituality never give way to a man-made system for understanding the world.
At the same time, his insistence on conformity in matters of doctrine, which grew more stern through his pontificate, irritated many liberal and moderate Catholics, particularly in the United States and Europe. Each time the pope clamped down on theologians, on Catholic universities, on priests and nuns wanting to minister to homosexuals, on anyone wanting to even raise the question of female priests, he made himself seem a relic to those who think differently.
Through it all, the man born as Karol Joseph Wojtyla was widely respected, even by critics, for preserving his pure vision of Catholicism’s place in the world, for not giving in to a culture of compromise.
Even as Parkinson’s disease broke down his body, he traveled the globe to deliver his message. After seeing fascism and communism fall, he critiqued capitalism for leaving too many without. He rarely sought to avoid political controversy during his travels, visiting Orthodox Christian countries where many did not want him, and completing a dream trip to the Holy Land despite the inevitability that his every move would be seen through a political lens.
In one of his most enduring images, he met with his would-be assassin in a prison cell and offered his forgiveness.
The little-known archbishop of Krakow, Poland, came to the papacy on Oct. 16, 1978, ready and eager to provide answers. His Polish name (pronounced Voy-TEE-wah) was a temporary shock to a Catholic system that had not seen a non-Italian pope since 1523. His background – who was this poet/actor/theologian/philosopher/skier? – seemed almost radical.
By the following year, the pope was visiting his native land, giving new life to the Solidarity workers movement and helping to set in motion the unraveling of the atheist Iron Curtain. A historic pontificate was under way.
“John Paul II will go down in history as the most important world leader in the second half of the 20th century,” said the Rev. Thomas Reese, editor of America, a Jesuit magazine. “His role in the fall of communism in Eastern Europe cannot be underestimated. I think he was more important than Ronald Reagan. With his support of Solidarity and the Polish independence movement, he began the landslide that wiped communism out of Eastern Europe and eventually the Soviet Union.
“He, of course, could not have done it on his own without (former Soviet leader Mikhail) Gorbachev and the economic collapse of communism,” Reese said. “But he was the right man at the right time and right place to make a difference.”
Wojtyla was shaped, of course, by growing up in Poland during a unique, horrific time in history. He saw the Nazis and then the Soviets tear apart his people and clamp down on his church. He knew firsthand about oppression and suffering (he lost his mother and brother at a young age), as well as what faith could offer to get one through the worst times.
He also saw, with his own eyes, what happened to the Jews. He was raised in an environment of anti-Semitism and watched as Jews he knew were persecuted and removed from his hometown of Wadowice.
At the Second Vatican Council, Wojtyla, a little-known bishop, spoke out in favor of no longer blaming the Jews for Christ’s death, which became the central point of a statement that changed the Catholic Church’s relationship with Judaism.
Later as pope, he recognized Israel and was the first pope to visit a synagogue. In 2001, the Vatican quietly released a document affirming the sacredness of Jewish scripture and stating that the Jewish wait for the messiah is valid.
That he would fundamentally change his church’s perceptions of Judaism and the Jewish people came as no surprise to Jerzy Kluger, a Jew who was Karol Wojtyla’s closest boyhood friend.
“One must realize that Karol Wojtyla is an exceptional personality,” Kluger said in 1998. “He has done more in 20 years than all other popes did in 1,800 years, not just for the Jews, but for others. He is a complex personality. Do not oversimplify or underestimate him.”
As part of what some called his “ministry of reconciliation,” the pope also tried to close the 1,000-year rift with the Orthodox churches of the East. It was a theme he repeatedly stressed at the start of Christianity’s third millennium and pursued with passion during the final years of his life.
He made historic visits to Orthodox lands such as Greece, Romania, Ukraine and Bulgaria, offering friendship and the promise of cooperation even as some Orthodox bishops opposed his presence and protesters feared he was trying to expand Catholic influence. It will likely be many years before history determines whether he made any headway.
He also reached out to Protestants, often stressing the need for Christian unity. But he repeated again and again that Catholic interpretations of Christ’s word are beyond debate, leaving Protestant leaders frustrated and unsure how relations can be improved.
He also was the first pope to visit a mosque. He regularly met with Muslim leaders on his trips.
The Catholic Church seemed to struggle at times to reconcile two of the pope’s strongest impulses – defending Catholicism and improving relations with other Christians and other religions.
A 2000 Vatican document that sought to curtail any movement toward “religious relativism” by reaffirming Catholic teachings about salvation confused and angered many non-Catholics.
He was never shy about sharing his views and enforcing them, particularly to reel in those he believed were challenging the church’s authority. He prohibited rebellious theologians such as the Rev. Charles Curran, a former Catholic University professor who questioned the church’s ban on contraception, from teaching Catholic theology.
He defined certain church teachings, such as the ban on female priests, as definitive, and promised that theologians who dissented too strongly would be punished. The Vatican also sought to force U.S. Catholic colleges back to tradition by, among other things, requiring theology professors to get permission to teach from their local bishop.
“The church is not a democracy, and no one from below can decide the truth,” the pope once told a group of bishops in Austria.
The pope’s health was a major topic of church talk and debate beginning in the early 1990s. It will be up to historians to determine just how active and involved he was during his final years and how much work was done by his aides.
He may well be remembered as two popes, the “young John Paul II,” strong, athletic and a bit mysterious, and the “old John Paul II,” physically broken but familiar to all, a seemingly translucent being who could communicate much without saying a word.
A man of the people
What both popes, old and young, had in common was the ability to step out into great crowds of people around the globe and change hearts.
He touched thousands of outstretched hands during his travels, blessed many infants and looked out on millions of faces from his “popemobile” and makeshift altars.
Even when his body became stooped and brittle, he pressed on, unconcerned about shaking or slurring his words before the world’s mightiest leaders. It was not up to him to decide to stop.
Monsignor Lorenzo Albacete first met Karol Wojtyla in 1976, when he was assigned to lead the Polish archbishop through the Polish neighborhoods of Washington, D.C.
They had several stirring talks, the kind restricted to theologian intellectuals, about the relationship between faith and culture, between spirituality and science.
When Wojtyla emerged two years later from a balcony in St. Peter’s Square as Pope John Paul II, Albacete knew that faith would take center stage.
“Faith for him is not a collection of beliefs, like ‘I believe there is a God,’ ” Albacete said in 1999.
“Faith for him is a lifestyle. It is a way of situating yourself in front of reality, starting with your own self. It is a judgment, a position, a stand that you take, with respect to everything. If you fail to take that stand then, at best, you are superficial. You have no depth. Therefore you are at the mercy of whatever power comes along to move you.”
The pope probably spent little time wondering whether he got his message across, whether he succeeded in a conventional sense. He said what he was sent to say.
“He is too much of a believer to think of legacy,” Albacete said. “He does not think he is running the church. The Lord and Spirit are.”
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