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Pope John Paul II
18 May 1920 – 2 April 2005


The most tireless moral voice of a secular age, he reminded humankind of the worth of individuals in the modern world
By WILLIAM F. BUCKLEY JR. for Time Magazine


In November 1989 word went out that Mikhail Gorbachev, First Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, would stop in Rome en route to a summit meeting with President George Bush. In Rome he would have an audience with Pope John Paul II.

This was glasnost, 200 proof. The head of the communist world had bumped into the answer to Stalin's question: How many divisions has the Pope? And the Pope was engaging in spiritual geopolitics at summit level: he wanted human rights for the faithful in Russia. Karol Wojtyla's training was extensive, dating back to discreet studies for the priesthood under Nazi occupation in Poland. After that, parish work and academic studies under communist rule, leading in 1963 to the episcopacy in Cracow. Pity poor Gorbachev. Seventy-two years of formal national commitment to atheism, backed by the Gulag, and now, 1989, a street poll revealed that 40% of Soviet citizens believed in God.

The Berlin Wall had come down a few weeks before, and no one doubted any longer that the great Soviet enterprise was headed for collapse. But for a while, Secretary Gorbachev would be treated as you and I would be treated if we had disposed of 40,000 nuclear missiles. And anyway, Gorbachev was a polemical swinger right to the end. The ideological imagination was hardly dead. The following Sunday, no doubt expressing the new Soviet line, chief press spokesman for the Kremlin Gennadi Gerasimov appeared with Mike Wallace on 60 Minutes. It's true, he said, that communism is evolving, but so is Christianity. Christian values and communist values — "especially early Christian values" — are the same.

That was a subtle and learned line, and it is used in many contexts to fondle the difficulties John Paul II has frequently expressed about capitalism. In his long travails, Karol Wojtyla has spoken critically about Western economic arrangements, and it was this theme that caught the opportunistic eye of Gerasimov. Didn't communism, like early Christianity, seek to eliminate poverty? Was not the communist ideal an expression of Christian concern for the communal ownership of property?

In Mexico, five months later, the Pope was speaking in Pancho Villa country and sounding very much like Pancho Villa. He wanted it made clear, he said, that in celebrating the collapse of communism, he had not meant to say capitalism had triumphed. The Pope told the great crowd that he had criticized communism not for its economic shortcomings but rather because it "violated or jeopardized the dignity of the person." That was the same papal language used in Canada in 1984, and one hears traces of it today, most recently in Havana when the Pope met with Fidel Castro.

But then in 1991 Centesimus annus came in, a 25,000-word encyclical on the 100th anniversary of Leo XIII's Rerum novarum, the momentous condemnation of liberalism and materialism. Materialism meant then what it means today. By liberalism, Pope Leo had in mind contemporary movements that sought, in the name of "modernism," to free human beings from traditional attachments to church and family. In the centennial encyclical, Pope John Paul reiterated his frequent admonitions. The worker or manager who reports to duty at the shop every morning inflamed by the desire to make a better widget and sell more of it is one thing; quite another if he or she goes home listlessly unconcerned with human life and human attachments having to do with respect for the elderly, a love for one's family, the capacity to take joy from Christian perspectives. Papal prose is turgid, but here the Pope did say in almost as many words that socialism was an extravagant historical failure.

If, then, all one need do in evaluating capitalism is admonish against greed and abusive economic-political arrangements, the exorcism is quickly over, and Gerasimov is left as speechless as Gorbachev quickly became after losing his handle on the nuclear football.

John Paul II is by every measurement as cosmopolitan in experience and steeped in erudition as anyone who comes to mind. He speaks eight languages fluently, he is the author of scholarly books and dissertations and has travelled in virtually every country in the world. One supposes that, notwithstanding, he is not by personal experience familiar with the kind of thing one can pick up to read in urban kiosks or turn to view on late-night television. But you'd still deduce that Pope John would not be surprised by anything he read or saw: he has been exposed at very close quarters to the ingenuity of God's creatures, no less creative in depravity than in goodness.

What does surprise is the near virginal conviction of this sophisticated Pole that Providence has kept a watchful eye on him. His recovery in 1981 from an assassin's bullet the Pope would probably not term miraculous only because fastidious Catholic theology frowns on the use of that word, except when the theological department of weights and measures has been there with all its paraphernalia of skepticism and given an O.K. Still, he is known to believe that the good Lord had a hand in his survival, and he is said to believe that he is fated to be Pope right up through Jan. l, 2000, formally escorting the church into its third millennium. If this should prove so, if he is alive 18 months from now, there are probably a few medical observers who will be willing to use the word miraculous.

In any case, people will ask, what is it that Pope John Paul II uniquely brings to the millennium? Almost all who have experienced him at close quarters understand the special luminosity he radiates when surrounded live by a million people. But the great historical backdrop of his splendour fades. He was the student and manual laborer from Wadowice in Poland who became the first non-Italian Pope in 450 years. His was the dominant spiritual presence in the final round of the great revolutionary challenge that began soon after the turn of the century and sought no less than to alter Western assumptions about human life. But that role is not really what the critics want to dwell upon. What's on their mind is the stands Pope John Paul has taken on women. On their right to take holy orders, to abort a fetus, to frustrate insemination by artificial means. And they want to talk about the over-exercise of papal authority, about the discipline he has exercised over dissident theologians.

The Rev. Richard P. McBrien is one of the most widely known U.S. theologians, a professor at Notre Dame and the author of numerous books. The most recent of these is Lives of the Popes. At the end of the book, he undertakes a ranking. There is, first, "Outstanding Popes," followed by "Good or Above Average Popes." John Paul II makes neither of these categories. Father McBrien rates him as less than great because he did not flesh out Vatican II. But he rates him as "Historically Important," as Gorbachev would confirm.

That he is at least that is not questionable, even if one anticipates a millennium of wrangling about women's rights at the altar, the distribution of hierarchical power and allocutory nuance. But there are many thousands who will live well into the next century with photographic memories of John Paul II. The late-teenage boys and girls who gathered in great numbers to see him in Denver in 1993 will, many of them, be alive when John Paul II is dead in 50 years, and their recall will be sensual. I saw him in January, with the usual million people, including Fidel Castro. There was some trepidation about the Pope's health at the Sunday Mass. The Pope was cautiously introduced by Havana's Jaime Cardinal Ortega. We heard then the voice of the Pope. Not very expressive, but the Spanish he spoke was well turned and clearly enunciated. In a matter of seconds he communicated his special, penetrating, transcendent warmth. Close-up we could see the ravages of his apparent affliction (Parkinson's), his age (77) and his gun wound (1981). The cumulative result of it all is a stoop and the listless expression on his face — the hangdog look. But then intermittently the great light within flashes, and one sees the most radiant face on the public scene, a presence so commanding as to have arrested a generation of humankind, who wonder gratefully whether the Lord Himself had a hand in shaping the special charisma of this servant of the servants of God.


John Paul II

Karol Wojtyla (born 1920), cardinal of Krakow, Poland, was elected the 263rd pope in 1978, the first ever of Slavic extraction.

Karol Wojtyla was born May 18, 1920, in Wadowice, Poland, the second child of Karol Wojtyla, Sr., an army sergeant, and Emilia (Kaczorowska) Wojtyla. His mother died when he was nine. His only sibling, a much older brother Edmund (a physician), died four years later; and Karol Senior died in 1942. These sorrows of early family life, along with the hard times that Poland experienced both prior to World War II and throughout it, were bound to give an intelligent young man cause for sober reflection. In 1939, under the Nazi occupation, he enrolled at Jagiellonian University in Krakow, and shortly thereafter he began secret studies for the priesthood. Publicly, however, he worked as a laborer in a quarry and a chemical factory.

After World War II, upon ordination to the priesthood on November 1, 1946, Wojtyla did pastoral work with Polish refugees in France and then did graduate studies at the Angelicum University in Rome run by the Dominicans. When he returned from these studies to his native Poland, Wojtyla was assigned to parish work and soon became well-known for his successes in youth ministry. He was then assigned to teach ethics at the Catholic University of Lublin, and in 1958 he was consecrated auxiliary bishop of Krakow. In 1962, upon the death of Archbishop Baziak, Wojtyla became the vicar capitular or administrative head, and in 1964 he became archbishop of Krakow. Paul VI made him a cardinal on May 29, 1967, in good part because of the fine impression he had made during the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965).

Dealing with Communist Poland

In Poland Bishop Wojtyla, along with his patron Cardinal Wyszynski of Warsaw, was a rallying point for anti-Communist religious people. The bishop tended to show himself more flexible than the hard-line cardinal, and constantly his patriotism kept him from supporting any movements against the government that would do the people or the land more harm than good. The Communist government came to look upon him as a formidable foe, for he was an attractive public figure: handsome, strong, a good speaker, and a penetrating intellectual. First as bishop and then as archbishop and cardinal, Wojtyla fought for the Church's rights to full religious practice and expression of opinion.

During the Second Vatican Council he had contributed to the Catholic Church's broadened appreciation of religious liberty, and he impressed many of the Church's princes as a strong leader with first-hand experience of what Communist rule could mean. In fact, in 1976 Pope Paul VI invited the then Cardinal Wojtyla to preach the annual Lenten Retreat to the pope himself and members of the Curia that work in Rome as the pope's right arm. (These sermons were published in English under the title Sign of Contradiction in 1979.)

When Pope Paul VI died in August 1978, and then scarcely a month later his successor, Pope John Paul I, died unexpectedly, the stage was set for a more dramatic occurrence. On October 16, 1978, on their eighth ballot, the cardinals assembled in Rome for the papal election chose Karol Wojtyla as the first non-Italian pope in 455 years and the first Slavic pope ever. The new pope, who chose the name John Paul II in honour of his immediate predecessors (John XXIII, Paul VI, and John Paul I), quickly showed himself to be a charismatic figure. From his student years in Rome he retained fluent Italian, and his powerful figure (5'10", 175 lbs.), so greatly contrasting with the frail Paul VI, radiated strength. Speculation was rife about what sort of pontiff he would prove to be, all the more so since his election had caught the "pope-watchers" off-guard. In their bones they had become so used to Italian popes that a non-Italian seemed a practical impossibility.

Early Years as Pope

Pope John Paul II plunged into a whirlwind of activity from which he scarcely rested. In January 1979 he made his first trip abroad to Latin America. He also discouraged priests and nuns - the most visible representatives of the hierarchical church - from direct or full-time political activities. For example, he ordered the American Jesuit priest, Father Robert Drinan, who had been a congressman from Massachusetts for ten years, to resign his office.

The crowds who greeted the pope in Latin America exceeded all expectations, but the atmosphere of his return to his native Poland less than six months later was even more emotional. For nine days in June of 1979 he walked in the midst of Eastern Europeans, symbolizing their Christian roots and a culture that greatly predated the more recent invasions of either Communists or Nazis. The Polish government understandably was uneasy, if not embarrassed, but there was little they could do in the light of the pope's status as a national hero. At the end of September 1979 the pope flew first to Ireland and then to the United States, bringing his message of justice, peace, and the rightness of traditional Catholic morality.

After these early trips Pope John Paul II consolidated his reputation as the most travelled pope of all history. He met with the archbishop of Canterbury, head of the Anglican Church; with German Lutherans who stand in the tradition of the Protestant Reformation; and with Africans and Asians - all on their own soil (which he usually kissed when he deplaned). The personal danger in these trips was brought home to the world on May 13, 1981, when the pope was shot in Rome by a Muslim fanatic reputed to be in the employ of the Bulgarian Communist government. Not long after his return to nearly customary vigor he began planning for future trips, telling his aides that his life belonged to God and the people much more than to himself.

The Pope as Teacher

Pope John Paul II's first encyclical (a papal letter addressed to the bishops of the church or to a specific group or country), Redemptor Hominis (Redeemer of Man, came in March 1979, only five months after his election. It was a rather general and not wholly cogent piece that clearly expresses the pope's conviction that the redemption offered in Christ is the center of human history. (In apparent contrast to many of his predecessors, John Paul II wrote his own encyclicals, producing longhand drafts in Polish that were then translated into Latin and Italian.) The second encyclical, Dives in Misericordia (Rich in Mercy), appeared in December of 1980. Its theme was the mercy of God and the need for human beings to treat one another mercifully, going beyond strict justice to the love and compassion that human suffering ought to create.

The third encyclical, Laborem Exercens (Performing Work), was delayed by the pope's shooting but finally appeared in September of 1981. Because of the tense contemporary situation in Poland, where the labor union Solidarity was standing off against the Communist government, the encyclical's references to "solidarity" (between the pope or Christian teaching and working people) was read as a sign of the pope's awareness that what he was saying applied "in spades" to his native land.

Apart from the reference to Poland, this third encyclical made the deepest impression because it was a strong statement in the tradition of the "social encyclicals" of the recent popes. Laborem Exercensmade it clear that the pope, for all his anti-Communism, is no friend of traditional capitalism. Moreover, the pope echoed the traditional Christian teaching that the goods of the earth come from the Creator God and are for all the earth's people. He affirmed the basic rights of working people to a fair wage, decent housing, good education, health care, and the like, which his predecessors had affirmed.

A Man of Firm Beliefs

John Paul II continued to be absolutely opposed to abortion, to allow only "natural" methods of birth control (which in fact have become considerably more sophisticated), to condemn homosexual activity (which he distinguished from being a homosexual), and to forbid even serious discussions of women's ordination to the priest-hood.

On his trips abroad, especially those to Africa and Latin America, the pope puzzled both commentators and theologians by, on the one hand, manifesting a great interest in and support for the world-wide diversity of Roman Catholicism and, on the other hand, seeming to be inflexible in the face of demands for more local autonomy (in liturgical matters and tribal mores, for example).

By the mid-1980s, Pope John Paul II was considered a brilliant linguist, a devoted churchman, a charismatic leader, and an intriguing blend of conservatism and progressivism. On matters outside the Church, especially those of world-wide peace and economic justice, he had almost radical ideas for change and manifested great compassion for the world's starving and suffering peoples. On matters inside the Church, especially the explosive matter of the rights and roles of women, he apparently had no willingness to put the axe to the root and break up old structures or patterns of thought that many find unjust. He continued to impose his own traditional beliefs on a church that seemed to want more diversity in many areas.

In his many travels John Paul II continued to press toward his goal of advancing international consciousness on two ethical fronts: socio-economic justice and personal sexual restraint. Visits to Chile, Argentina, Poland, and the United States in 1987 stressed these points.

The millennial celebration of the introduction of Christianity to Russia in 1988 furnished the occasion for renewed attention to Catholic-Orthodox relations. Most commentators ranked the pope's 1988 encyclical Sollicitudo Rei Socialis on social justice as one of his most substantial documents. It threaded a middle ground between capitalist and socialist positions, arguing for both proper economic development and placing the needs of the poor over the wants of the wealthy.

Key events of 1989 included a protest by German Catholic theologians against Vatican control, a bitter controversy in Poland about a Carmelite monastery at Aushwitz, pressure for more religious freedom for Catholics in the Baltic nations, a visit of Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev to the pope in Rome, and discussions with the Archbishop of Canterbury about Catholic-Anglican relations (which the Anglican consideration of ordaining women to the priesthood had complicated). The major papal visits were to Africa, Scandinavia, South Korea, Indonesia, and East Timor, an area fraught with Catholic-Muslim tensions.

Pope Confronted "New World Order"

Catholic-Orthodox relations absorbed the pope in 1990, as events moved swiftly in the Soviet Union. Protests within the theological community continued to accuse the Vatican of heavy-handedness in doctrinal matters. Rumors circulated that the pope was ill, but he traveled to Czechoslovakia, Mexico, and Africa, on the last trip confronting the growing epidemic of AIDS. The 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus, along with the pope's statements on the Gulf War, made him a critic of the "new world order" based on democratic capitalism being proposed by American President George Bush.

The pope ran a synod in Rome in 1992 to focus the church on the new situation in Europe, where the breakup of the Soviet Union was changing many relationships. Catholic-Orthodox and Catholic-Anglican relations dragged along, making any easy estimate of the pope's "ecumenical" ambitions impossible. The Vatican proceeded with its plan for a universal catechism that might unify basic instruction in faith throughout the church. In July the pope had a serious operation for the removal of a precancerous intestinal tumor and appeared to recover well.

No Compromise on Moral Issues

During 1993 John Paul II had to confront the pedophilia crisis that had developed in the United States, where numerous priests were accused of having abused children and the church was accused of ignoring it or covering it up.Against that backdrop he brought to an international youth convention in Denver a stern message of traditional sexual morality, including not only opposition to abortion but also opposition to contraception. In October he published a large encyclical on moral issues, Veritatis Splendor (The Resplendence of Truth), the burden of which was that the Christian moral life demanded heroism; certain traditional teachings never change; some acts (genocide, abuse of the innocent) are intrinsically evil; and recent technical developments in moral theology casting doubt on such traditional positions are unacceptable.

Pope Embraced the People

This prolific pope departed from his customary encyclical, or papal letter, in 1994 to publish a book, Crossing the Threshold of Hope, which became an international bestseller. John Paul II reached out to the masses, the public responded, and Time magazine named him the Man of the Year. The book received wide critical acclaim for addressing today's major theological concerns, and further established John Paul as a great intellect and teacher of our time. As the year progressed, the pope's general health improved and he recovered from a fall that occurred earlier in the year.

Long known for being dedicated to social justice, John Paul issued a strong message in his 1995 encyclical entitled, Evangelism Vitae or Gospel of Life. He confronted the issues of abortion, assisted suicide, and capital punishment making a plea to Roman Catholics to "resist crimes which no human law can claim to legitimize." He spoke out invoking the full teaching authority of the church to declare abortion and euthanasia always evil, and denouncing the moral climate of affluent western nations. He referred to an "eclipse of conscience" in the name of individual freedom pursued by many. A second encyclical entitled Ut Unum Sint or That They May Be One was released in 1995. In this letter, for the first time in Church history, he acknowledged and apologized for past sins and errors committed in the name of the Church. Admitting painful things have been done that harmed Christian unity, he accepted responsibility and asked for forgiveness in the hope that Christians could have "patient dialogue." The pope also carried out a demanding travel schedule, beginning the year by going to Australia, followed by a trip to Bosnia, and in the fall visiting several cities in the United States. While in New York City, he addressed the United Nations General Assembly during its 50th anniversary ceremonies.

Church business claimed John Paul's attention in 1996. Several major changes were instituted at his urging; for instance, he ruled that the next pope will be elected by an absolute majority. Analysts said such a change could discourage compromise and consensus in the selection of future popes. Although John Paul himself was a compromise candidate, some believed this was an intentional move to ensure succession by another conservative pope.

As the millennium neared, John Paul reiterated that his mission was to usher the Church into the twenty-first century. His legacy was already long, having been hailed for reinvigorating young people's interest in religion, lauded for his role in bringing about the demise of communism in his native Poland and the former Soviet Union, and credited for reaching out to the peoples - and religions - of the world. He was the first modern pope to enter a synagogue or to visit an Islamic country.










This web page was last updated on: 15 December, 2008