Pope John Paul II’s 26-year pontificate was one of the longest in history, and it was a busy one. He authorized the first universal catechism for the Catholic Church since the Council of Trent in 1556, and a new Code of Canon Law, the first major revision since 1917.

He modified the process for beatification and canonization. He introduced World Youth Day to reconnect young Catholics with their faith.

He granted an indult so that Catholics who were attached to the pre-Second Vatican Council Latin liturgy could attend that Mass (with the permission of their bishop); he authorized new religious orders that served the Latin Mass community, such as the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter and the Institute of Christ the King; and he welcomed back into full communion traditionalist groups that had gone into schism. 

He encouraged new organizations such as Opus Dei and Communion and Liberation, which sought to help all Catholics grow in personal holiness. And he developed a new explanation of sexuality and chastity that has come to be known as “the theology of the body.” 

Pope John Paul helped to bring about the collapse of communism in Russia and Europe, and then set about reviving Catholicism in Eastern Europe. But most importantly, he refuted a notion that was widespread in the Church, that Vatican II marked a sharp break with Catholicism’s past, that it called for a revolution in doctrine, in the Mass and the sacraments, in the structure of the Church, in Catholic morality, and that even more sweeping changes were not only welcome but necessary. 

In his encyclicals, speeches and books, he replied such claims were a gross distortion of Vatican II. He taught what the popes have always taught — through revelation and tradition the will of God can be known; there are absolutes in the Catholic faith that no one can change — and that the documents of Vatican II call for continuity with the Church’s sacred heritage, not a rejection of it. 

Breaking with tradition 

By one of those odd coincidences of history, just as society was being shaken by wave after wave of political, cultural and sexual revolutions, Vatican II introduced a revolution of its own. Almost overnight everything from the Latin Mass to meatless Fridays to nuns’ religious habits were gone. For many of the faithful, the social upheaval of the 1960s was bad enough in the streets; now it appeared to be entering their parish churches. By 1978, the year Pope Paul VI died, thousands of priests and Religious had abandoned their vocations; few young men and women were choosing the religious life; parochial schools had began to close; Mass attendance had plummeted; some experimental liturgies ran the gamut from silly to near-blasphemous; and, at times, it appeared that the loudest voices in the Church belonged to dissidents who rejected or challenged so much of traditional Catholic doctrine, practice and morality. 

The election of Cardinal Karol Wojtyla of Kraków, Poland, seemed like one more break with tradition: For the first time in 456 years, a non-Italian had been elected successor of St. Peter. Those of us who are old enough to remember watching the new pope step out on to the balcony to bless the crowd in St. Peter’s Square had no idea who the man was, and we certainly couldn’t have known that he was exactly the man the Catholic Church needed at that moment. 

Revival of Catholic life 

At the top of the new pope’s agenda was restating and defending the Church’s core teachings, including those that were least popular with the Church’s opponents. He reaffirmed that abortion, euthanasia and artificial contraception were grave sins, and that marriage was a lifelong commitment. He taught that the Church could not ordain women to the priesthood because it had no mandate from Christ to do so. And he insisted that the discipline of a celibate priesthood would remain in force. Critics inside and outside the Church assailed the pope for reasserting these classic teachings, but by doing so, he was stating that there were certain fundamental positions from which the Catholic Church could not depart. 

At the same time he reaffirmed Catholic doctrine and discipline, the pontiff also revived traditional Catholic religious devotions. Veneration of the Blessed Sacrament and Corpus Christi processions, praying the Rosary, making the Stations of the Cross, devotion to the Blessed Mother and the saints had all been casualties of the post-Vatican II era. Here the pope led by example. In Rome he organized an annual candlelit Corpus Christi procession from the Basilica of St. John Lateran to the Basilica of St. Mary Major. Every year on the night of Good Friday he led the Stations of the Cross in the Colosseum. Both events always drew large crowds, and in time throughout the world Corpus Christi processions returned to parishes. 

In October 2002, the traditional Month of the Rosary, Pope John Paul published an apostolic letter, Rosarium Virginis Mariae (“The Rosary of the Virgin Mary”) , encouraging the faithful to return to praying the Rosary. “Simple yet profound,” he wrote, “[the Rosary] still remains, at the dawn of this third millennium, a prayer of great significance, destined to bring forth a harvest of holiness.” At the same time, the pope proposed a new set of mysteries, the Luminous Mysteries, which focus on the years of Christ’s public ministry. 

Two days after the apostolic letter was published, Peggy Noonan devoted a column in The Wall Street Journal to the pope’s new mysteries. “The most startling thing about his announcement is that it doesn’t seem so much an addition to a tradition as the filling of a gap,” she said. “That would be what [Christ] said and did as an adult. That is what the pope added this week.” 

Throughout Pope John Paul’s pontificate, and certainly at his death, reporters and newscasters were fascinated by the large number of saints and blesseds he made during his 26 years as pope. The numbers are impressive — 1,338 blesseds, 432 saints. But the numbers aren’t the point. At a time when so many people were searching for a mentor or a role model, the pontiff reminded Catholics that the best role models are the men and women who not only teach us how to live lives of deeper faith, greater charity and stronger courage, but also show us the way to heaven. 

The saints have always been a racially and ethnically diverse crowd, and under Pope John Paul they became even more so, with new candidates from Papua New Guinea, Australia, Ecuador, Korea, the Philippines, Sudan, Mexico and Lebanon. Many of them lived in the 20th century, reminding the faithful that there are living saints among us. 

To expedite the “saint-making” process, Pope John Paul revised the rules. Previously two miracles were required before a candidate could be declared blessed, and two more for sainthood. He reduced the requirement to one miracle for beatification, one for canonization. He also reduced the waiting period before an individual’s candidacy can be put forward to five years. 

The pope expressed his deep love for Mary in many ways, but during his travels he routinely visited Marian shrines — Lourdes, Fátima, Knock, Guadalupe, Loreto and, of course, Częstochowa. Once again, leading by example, the pope demonstrated that devotion to Our Lady is never outmoded. 

The Latin Mass 

In 1970, Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, once a missionary in Africa and a former superior general of the Holy Ghost Fathers, founded the Society of Pope Pius X to preserve the traditional Latin Mass and traditional Catholic religious life. Almost at once there was tension between the archbishop and the Vatican, a situation that came to a head in 1988 when Archbishop Lefebvre consecrated four new bishops in defiance of the pope’s command. 

The Vatican Congregation for Bishops responded by issuing a document that stated the archbishop and the four new bishops had incurred the penalty of automatic excommunication. 

The next day, the pope published an apostolic letter, Ecclesia Dei, granting an indult to Catholic priests to offer — and to the faithful to attend — the pre-Vatican II Latin Mass, provided they had the permission of their bishop to do so. Implementation of the indult was spotty at best, but it led to Pope Benedict XVI’s 2007 “motu proprio” (on his own initiative) Summorum Pontificum , which declared that the “old Mass” had remained a legitimate rite of the Church. 

Although the pontiff failed to heal the breach with the SSPX, he did reconcile a traditionalist group in Campos, Brazil, and he approved new religious orders of priests that said the traditional Latin Mass exclusively.  

The John Paul factor 

“Universal pastor” is one of the pope’s traditional titles, one that Pope John Paul lived out in his pontificate. He visited 129 countries, helping Catholics in far-flung corners of the globe feel truly connected to the Church, while also encouraging them to cling to the truths of the Catholic faith. On these occasions the pope was often treated by the crowds and the media as a celebrity. With throngs in front of him and cameras rolling, he seized those opportunities to reinforce Catholic doctrinal and moral teachings, becoming, in essence, a catechism teacher to the world. 

It was said in the 1980s and 1990s that every time the pontiff visited a country, seminary enrollments went up. Such data is difficult to track, but the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate has followed worldwide ordinations to priesthood from 1970 to 2007. CARA’s charts show that ordinations dropped from 4,622 in 1970 to 4,140 in 1975. In 1985, however, seven years into John Paul’s pontificate, ordinations rose to 4,822. In 1995, the number soared to 6,444. And in 2000, ordinations increased again to 6,814. Of course, many factors come into play in discerning a vocation to the priesthood, but certainly an inspiring papal visit may be one of them. 

The pope fostered a deeper commitment to the faith among the laity and called the faithful to live a holier lives. He encouraged lay organizations such as Communion and Liberation, Regnum Christi, and the Community of Sant’Egidio, all of which help lay Catholics ground their lives in prayer while fulfilling their daily obligations and performing works of mercy in their communities. He was also a strong supporter of Opus Dei, an organization that urges lay Catholics to answer the universal call to holiness by integrating their spiritual life with their family life and professional life. He felt so strongly about the positive impact Opus Dei could have on the life of the Church that he created a new governing structure for it, a personal prelature. The prelate of Opus Dei has authority over all its members worldwide, answering only to the pope. 

At the time of his April 2, 2005, death, most journalists in the secular media focused on Pope John Paul’s travels, his “saint-making,” his crowd-pleasing personality, but they missed the big story. He was elected pope at a time when the Church was in a state of confusion. He restored clarity by teaching the truths of the faith and reviving devotions that nurtured Catholic life for centuries. 

Five years is a blink of the eye in the 2,000-year history of the Church, but already people are beginning to regard Pope John Paul II as an effective pope, even a great pope. And the day may come when he is venerated as a saint. 

Thomas J. Craughwell is the author of Our Sunday Visitor’s Catholic Cardlinks series and “Saints Behaving Badly” (Doubleday, $15.95).

New Revelations About Pontiff (sidebar)

Generally a book that presents new information about the life and character of a famous individual is welcome. In the case of Msgr. Slawomir Oder’s book, “Why He Is a Saint: The True John Paul II Explained by the Postulator of the Cause of Beatification,” the reception has been mixed. The press has focused on the revelation that the pontiff kept in his closet a belt with which he beat himself. But there is more to Msgr. Oder’s book. In it we learn: 

◗ Communist undercover agents in Poland kept Karol Wojtyla under surveillance from the time he was a seminarian. 

◗ After the attempt on his life in 1981, Pope John Paul forgave his would-be assassin in the ambulance rushing him to a hospital. 

◗ At one point, Pope John Paul revealed that he heard the voice of the Virgin Mary. On another occasion he said that he saw her. 

◗ One of the happiest days of his pontificate was May 13, 2000, when Francisco and Jacinta Marto, who saw Our Lady at Fátima, Portugal, were beatified. 

This information itself is not controversial, but the disclosure of it is. Msgr. Oder drew his material from the testimonies of witnesses that had been collected as part of the process that could lead to the pope’s canonization. Typically such files are kept confidential; as postulator, his actions could be interpreted as a breach of trust.

Update On His Sainthood Cause (sidebar)

Anyone who watched the funeral Mass for Pope John Paul II will remember the cries of “ Santo subito !” or “Sainthood now!” chanted by members of the crowd in St. Peter’s Square. Canonization by acclamation was not unknown in the early centuries of the Church, but Pope John Paul’s successor, Pope Benedict XVI did not return to it. Instead, he followed the established procedure, although he waived the five-year waiting period (which Pope John Paul had introduced) and let the investigation in the life and virtues of his predecessor begin at once. Pope Benedict was following a precedent set by Pope John Paul, who waived his own rule on behalf of Mother Teresa of Calcutta, whom he had known personally. 

On Dec. 19, 2009, Pope Benedict signed a decree recognizing the heroic virtues of John Paul II. The next step is beatification, and that requires a miracle — literally. Someone must come forward, claiming that he or she was miraculously cured of a serious ailment through the intercession of Pope John Paul II. But the Church is cautious in these matters and never takes such an assertion at face value. The Congregation for Saints’ Causes, the Vatican department that collects and reviews all the documentation relating to a person who has been proposed for sainthood, requires detailed medical evidence as well as testimony from the attending physicians and other specialists. If the cure appears to be inexplicable, in other words, medical science cannot explain how a serious ill or dying individual suddenly recovered, then a report of the case is presented to the pope. If he recognizes the healing as miraculous, the next step is to schedule a beatification ceremony, either in Rome or in the candidate’s homeland. 

For canonization the process must be repeated. Another claim of a miraculous cure, another examination of the evidence, and finally the approval of the pope who will elevate him from blessed to saint.

Papacy by the numbers (sidebar) 


Journeys outside Italy 


Countries visited


Journeys in Italy 


Visits to the parishes of Rome (Note: Rome has 333 parishes) 


Miles traveled 


Speeches delivered 




Canonizations (Note: The previous recordholder was Pope Paul VI, with 84 canonizations) 


Cardinals created 


Bishops ordained 


General audiences 

17.67 mil. 

Faithful present at general audiences 

Source: Holy See Press Office (figures are available at www.vatican.va)

Did Late Pontiff Heal French Nun? (sidebar)

In summer 2005, Sister Marie-Simon-Pierre was suffering from Parkinson’s disease, the degenerative ailment of the nervous system from which Pope John Paul II suffered and which ultimately took his life. The 46-year-old nun, a member of the Little Sisters of Catholic Motherhood, asked the late pope, Pope John Paul II, to intercede for her. The next morning she awoke to find that sensation had returned to her left arm, that her left hand no longer shook and that her mouth was no longer frozen in a painful grimace. That morning she sought out one of her sisters in the community and held up her left hand. “Look at my left hand,” Sister Marie-Simon-Pierre said, “it is no longer shaking. John Paul II has cured me.” 

Next she went to see her neurologist who conducted a complete examination. Speaking to a room full of journalists in 2007, the sister recalled: “He concluded that there was no more sign of the illness. He was a bit stunned by what he saw. Like me, he remained silent in the face of the inexplicable. Words failed him.” 

“I am cured,” she said. “It is the work of God, through the intercession of Pope John Paul II.” Asked by a reporter if she was the recipient of a miracle, Sister Marie-Simon-Pierre replied: “All I can tell you is that I was sick and now I am cured. It is for the Church to say and to recognize whether it is a miracle.” 

Sister Marie-Simon-Pierre’s case is being studied by the Congregation for Saints’ Causes.

Pope Benedict carries forward his predecessor’s concerns (sidebar)

At the time of his election in April 2005, Pope Benedict XVI was generally expected to dedicate his pontificate to continuing the legacy of Pope John Paul II in the 21st century. To a large degree, he has done this, but he is also leaving a distinctive mark of his own. 

Like Pope John Paul, Pope Benedict has embraced the hermeneutic of continuity for the Church, rejecting some notion that there was a rupture with the past from the time of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965). This is a theme to which he has returned repeatedly, and he has applied it creatively, most recently in his social encyclical, Caritas in Veritate (“Charity in Truth”), which he released last year. He has similarly carried forward his predecessor’s prophetic concern about the dangers in the modern world to the dignity of the human person. Pope Benedict, however, sees the antidote to this “dictatorship of relativism” in the restoration of authentic Christian culture. 

The pontiff is also consolidating his predecessor’s vision of Christian unity, only he has tied much of it to the same idea of restoring authentic culture. This has struck a powerful resonance with the Orthodox Churches and elements of the Anglican Communion, and it has even allowed for notable progress in Catholic-Islamic dialogue. 

Where Pope John Paul made world travels one of the pillars of his pontificate, Pope Benedict has limited both the number and length of his foreign trips. While his journeys have been memorable, Benedict has clearly decided that guiding the Church from Rome is preferable to cutting short his time through exhausting global pilgrimages.  

This is consistent with their personalities. Pope John Paul II was a spiritual colossus on the international stage. Pope Benedict is a cerebral theologian more comfortable as a teacher and gentle pastor of souls. Both proclaim the same truth for all of humanity: Christ. But they do so in slightly different ways. 

— Matthew Bunson is editor of The Catholic Answer magazine