Pope John Paul II: 1920-2005

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GIANNI GIANSANTI / CORBIS

"Serenity and Simplicity:" One of Giansanti's photographs of John Paul II

John Paul II died peacefully today, after a protracted illness that had sapped his physical strength but never quenched the evangelical fire within him that burned as brightly in his final days as when he first assumed the papacy almost 27 years ago. In his quarter-century in the Vatican, John Paul II made himself synonymous with the papacy in the minds of many of the faithful— dramatically redefining the role with his relentless evangelizing energy and reinvigorating the Catholic Church. He also played a critical role as moral arbiter in the wider world events of his time.

While most of his predecessors rarely ventured beyond the walls of the Holy See, John Paul II took the Catholic Church out on the road, ministering every year to millions of the faithful ecstatic at his presence. Those travels, more than anything, may have helped him energize and grow the Church in Africa, Latin America and Asia even as it struggled to retain its flock in the industrialized West.

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The former Archbishop of Krakow, Karol Wojtyla was elevated to the papacy in 1978, at a time when the Church was engaged in an internal debate over how to interpret the doctrinal changes adopted the previous decade in the process known as Vatican II. He steadfastly held the line against those in the European and North American clergy and laity who saw in Vatican II an opening to democratize the Church and emphasize the primacy of individual conscience — or at least help them to reconcile their opposition to Church edicts on issues such as birth control and divorce. Under John Paul II, even discussion over the ordination of women priests was impermissible, and liberal critics charged that under his watch the Church failed to rise adequately to the challenge of AIDS.

But to most of the Catholic faithful worldwide, John Paul II was venerated not simply for his evangelism and his interventions in the political world, but as a contemporary Catholic philosopher without peer, capable, at times, of immense forgiveness (such as the forgiveness of his would-be assassin) and driven by an evangelical passion recalling the great wanderings of the Apostle Paul. In his witness they see the latter-day equivalent of an Old Testament prophet, standing as a bulwark and beacon against those aspects of Western culture deemed both ungodly and death-oriented.

In the world outside the Catholic Church, John Paul II is best remembered for his epic role in helping bring down Polish communism at the same time as ensuring a soft landing for the society it had scoured. His epic “Fear not!” injunction to Polish Catholics symbolized the importance of the Church in providing the moral center that emboldened them to peacefully and yet forcefully challenge the reign of the regime imposed by Moscow — and in the process it established the model for the civil society revolutions across Eastern Europe that dismantled most of the Soviet empire with scarcely a shot being fired.

But inside the Church his own rule will be remembered as nothing if not authoritarian. John Paul II reasserted, and even amplified the doctrine of "Papal infallibility," and beatified its author, Pope Pius IX. Under the rubric of "collegiality" — and its assumption of a diversity of views — John Paul II quickly made clear that he was less interested in hearing from his bishops than in overseeing their enforcement of Church (and papal) doctrine. The world's Catholic bishops are traditionally called to Rome for consultations every five years, and while those sessions had, certainly since Vatican II, involved a measure of give-and-take, under John Paul II they were more concerned with disseminating a line and quizzing the bishops on instances in which they may have been deemed insufficiently aggressive in defending Church doctrine.

But if his insistence on theological conformity inside the church was absolute, his warmth and generosity in reaching out to Christians outside the Catholic communion and to other faiths was without precedent. The tension between those two qualities occasionally prompted his own theological enforcer, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, to issue pastoral letters clarifying the limits of the Vatican's embrace of the protestants or the Orthodox. But John Paul II has offered eloquent and heartfelt apologies to many of those he believes have been wronged by the Church — or more precisely, in his view, by its adherents. He expressed remorse to the Orthodox over the sacking of Constantinople, and to Muslims and the Jews for the violence committed against them during the Inquisition and the Crusades. His unparalleled campaign to repair the Church's relationship with the Jewish people made him the first Pope of the modern era to enter a synagogue; the Vatican recognized the State of Israel in the course of his tenure and he went to Jerusalem to deliver a heartfelt apology for the history of Catholics' mistreatment of Jews. Although they were not satisfied by what they saw as his failure to acknowledge the corporate responsibility of the Church — as distinct from individual members — for such maltreatment, and also his failure to criticize the wartime pontiff Pius XII for his silence in the face of the Holocaust, Jewish leaders today freely acknowledge John Paul II as a great and true friend to the Jewish people and the first pontiff to truly live the conciliatory language on Jews of Vatican II.

Nor was his outreach confined to followers of other faiths. Perhaps his greatest disappointment has been the failure of his efforts to heal the rift with the Orthodox churches, particularly of Russia, which has remained opposed to any rapprochement and inclined to see Catholic overtures in Russia as an attempt to poach for souls. There again, however, some of the theologians around the pope may be inclined to see his outreach to the Orthodox as somewhat naïve, given the theological chasm that divides the two churches on such basic issues as the papacy itself.

There was an internal logic to the pontiff's philosophy of "the dignity of the human person." That inner consistency may also account for the fact that measured by the yardstick of the politics of his age, Pope John Paul II looks over the map. His views on the sanctity of life may have made him an opponent of abortion and contraception, but equally so of capital punishment and war — most recently, the U.S. invasion of Iraq. And his fierce bearing of witness against communism may have made him a favorite of Western conservatives, yet he has been equally disdainful of the "soulless materialism" that has accompanied the emergence of free market capitalism in Eastern Europe. Cold War concerns may have prompted him to drive the leftist bishops of Latin America out of the Church, and yet he has found himself also at odds with some of their successors who critics have accused of mimicking Pentecostalism's "theology of prosperity." On visits to Latin America during the 1990s, John Paul II was moved to emphasize — like the leftists he had silenced a decade earlier — that the Church's priority and natural constituency is the poor. And that, of course, is also where its great growth potential lies today.

John Paul II was also extraordinary in his embrace of a mystic spirituality centered on the cult of the Virgin Mary. He was known to have prostrated himself for hours at a time before statues of the Virgin, and believed she interceded to save him from an assassin's bullet fired on the anniversary of the appearance of Mary in apparition at Fatima. Once recovered from his wound, he made a pilgrimage to Fatima to give thanks, and the assassin's bullet is now welded into the crown of the statue of the Virgin at Fatima. His devotion to the Cult of the Virgin may not necessarily move the elites of the post-modern West, but they strike a deep chord in the Church's primary growth zones in the developing world.

John Paul II's longevity allowed him to appoint all but three of the 117 cardinals that will choose his successor. And that, as much as his theological and evangelical legacy, means he leaves behind a Catholic Church remade in his image. Still, it is unlikely that any of his potential successors will be even remotely like him. The combination of gifts, passions and experiences that Karol Wojtyla brought to the Holy See made him a truly unique personification of the role of "God's Vicar," whose afterglow will inspire and illuminate the Catholic faithful for years after his passing.