A Pontiff for Our Time

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Newly-elected Pope John Paul II in 1978

Twenty-five years and counting is an extraordinary tenure for any pontiff, and only two others have reigned longer than the 264th pope. But it's not only John Paul II's longevity that has made him synonymous with the papacy in the minds of many of his own flock, and the wider world; he has dramatically redefined the role with his relentless evangelical energy. Most of John Paul II's predecessors were almost prisoners in the Vatican, and had 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 in their midst. And his travels, more than anything, may have helped him reinvigorate and grow the Church in Africa, Latin America and Asia even as it struggled to retain its flock in Europe and North America.

The former Archbishop of Cracow, Karol Wojtyla, was elevated to the papacy in 1978, at a time when the Church was in the grip of an internal debate over how to interpret the doctrinal changes adopted the previous decade in the process known as Vatican II. And 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, which would both move the church into line with the broader societies of the West, or at least help them to reconcile themselves with their opposition to Church edicts on issues such as birth control and divorce. To them, John Paul II has been a great disappointment as a custodian of the Church, adopting a narrow and literal interpretation of Vatican II that upheld traditional strictures on issues such as birth control and divorce, ruled even discussion over the ordination of women priests as impermissible, and failed, they thought, to rise adequately to the challenge of AIDS.

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But to most of the Church worldwide, John Paul II is venerated not simply for his evangelism and his interventions in the political world, but as 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. For them, John Paul II is a contemporary Catholic philosopher without peer, capable, at times, of almost Christ-like behavior (such as the forgiveness of his would-be assassin) and driven by an evangelical passion recalling the great wanderings of the Apostle Paul

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. 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. If Vatican II had opened up a conversation between the Bishops and the Vatican, John Paul II closed down the tradition of "collegiality" among the Bishops — which naturally presupposed and even encouraged a diversity of views — and made clear that he was less interested in hearing from them 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. John Paul II will be remembered as much for his doctrinaire enforcement as for his ecumenical outreach — and 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 (if not, always, in the victims), by its adherents. He expressed remorse to the Orthodox over the sacking of Constantinople, and to the 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 dates back to his own role at Vatican II as an eloquent and forceful advocate of its language against anti-Semitism and clearing the Jews of the charge of deicide. He was the first Pope of the modern era to enter a synagogue; the Vatican recognized the State of Israel in his tenure; and went to Jerusalem to deliver a heartfelt apology for the history of Catholic 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 has his outreach been 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 staunchly 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 na´ve, given the theological chasm that divides the two churches on such basic issues as the papacy itself.

It may be argued that John Paul II's ecumenical enthusiasm does not entirely square with his own theological rigidity. But such judgements may be in the eye of the beholder. There's an internal logic to the pontiff's own philosophy of "the dignity of the human person." While the notion may resonate with the liberal worldview, the pope includes in his view of the individual a divine component of which the Church is the infallible arbiter, setting him at odds with liberals. And that inner consistency may also account for the fact that measured by the yardstick of the politics of his age, Pope John Paul II might be deemed to be "all over the map." His view of 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 darling 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 those of their successors who embrace a "theology of prosperity," emphasizing — like the leftists he silenced — that the Church's priority and natural constituency is the poor. And that, of course, is also where its great growth potential today lies.

John Paul II has also been unusual among pontiffs in his embrace of a mystic spirituality centered on the cult of the Virgin Mary. He has been known to prostrate himself for hours at a time before statues of the Virgin, and believes 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.

The pope's longevity has allowed him to appoint all but five of the 135 cardinals designated to choose his successor. And that, as much as his theological and evangelical legacy over the past 25 years, will have remade the Catholic Church in his image when he passes from this Earth. Even then, it is unlikely that his successor will be even remotely like him, if for no other reason that the combination of gifts, passions and experiences Karol Wojtyla brought to the Holy See a truly unique personification of the role of "God's pastor," whose afterglow will inspire and illuminate the Catholic faithful for years after his passing.