It’s been more than two decades since the Italians did their collective double take. Cardinal Karol Wojtyla? "Chi e?" they said -- who’s he? The first pope from Eastern Europe. The first non-Italian pope since 1522. A consensus pope, born and forged not in one of the Renaissance cities of Italy but in Poland, the cauldron of 20th-century Europe, where Nazism, communism and the Holocaust had all left their bloody prints during his lifetime. A poet/philosopher/ditch digger/actor/downhill-skier pope whom the College of Cardinals evidently expected -- the man was only 58 years old, after all, and built like a rugby player -- would be leading their church into the 21st century.
And lead it he has, not just forward but outward. "It is as if a Third World cardinal had won," remarked a Brazilian archbishop when Wojtyla was elected. The Catholics of that world, who often felt isolated and alienated by the Vatican’s high palace walls, were the ones John Paul II was determined to bring into his church. He proved to be a tireless traveler and a relentless evangelizer, taking his ready wit and common touch -- and a telegenic quality unlike any other pope’s -- to nearly every corner of the far-flung but fractured Catholic world. "He’s totally hot-wired the global aspect of the church," says TIME religion writer David Van Biema. "No pope before him has had this kind of wattage."
He brought hopes of integration to the Philippines, Brazil, Africa; messages of healing to Hiroshima, Auschwitz, Germany. To Latin America he brought his intense love of the individual soul -– and his formidable anti-Communist and anti-totalitarian credentials –- to denounce (and effectively wipe out) Liberation Theology, a Marxist-leaning Catholicism swelling up in the land of Che. Just last January it was Cuba, Il Papa face-to-face with El Jefe, quarrelling (rather adroitly) not so much with Castro’s vestigial brand of communism but with the low state of Cubans under it. "When was the last time a pope really seemed like a major player on the world stage?" asks Van Biema. John Paul II is, and his Vatican has become, worldly-wise and widely heard.
But if the church’s hand is friendlier and its arm longer under the "foreign" pope, its embrace under this traveling salesman in his Popemobile is no less conditional. The enormous charisma of the man has made zealots of the converted and converts of the heathen, but John Paul II has brooked no heretics. There is some debate over the pope's adherence to or deconstruction of Vatican II, a reform council convened in the early '60s (at which young Bishop Wojtyla first made his mark by drafting a document declaring the primacy of religious freedom, even for non-Catholics). But it is impossible to call John Paul II anything other than a conservative. He does not take to new currents in Catholicism, and has displayed a ready pen for excommunication. He is stoutly against birth control, abortions and female priests, and has similarly held the line on remarriage after divorce, annulments and celibacy in the priesthood. Infallibility is the rock of John Paul’s church. To borrow from Winston Churchill -- up with dissent he does not put.