While only history can take the final measure of the stature of Pope John Paul II, in the eyes of contemporaries
he was — spiritually, morally, and intellectually — a towering figure. Even before his death April 2, 2005, at the age of 84, many called him “John Paul the Great.”
He played a crucial — and possibly decisive — role in the collapse of communism and the end of the Cold War.
He resisted forces threatening Church unity from within, while launching initiatives to position Christianity for the third millennium.
An ardent defender of human life on issues from abortion to the death penalty, he used fiery eloquence to champion what he called the culture of life against the culture of death.
Inevitably, Pope John Paul II had critics. Some objected to his teaching on sexual morality, his insistence that the Church cannot ordain women, his continued requirement of celibacy for priests of the Western Church and his centralized leadership style. He was blamed for intervening too much in bishops’ affairs — or else, as in the sex-abuse scandal in the United States, for not intervening enough.
Resistance to these and other elements of his pontificate may have set the stage for bitter conflicts in the years ahead. But the critics could take nothing from the remarkable force of his personality or his extraordinary achievements.
Pope John Paul II combined diverse, even seemingly contradictory, traits and did so with ease. He was a charismatic contemplative,
a prophetic voice of orthodoxy, a sophisticated intellectual who preached and practiced fervent devotion to the Virgin Mary, a philosopher with an actor’s flair and a love for skiing and hiking.
By naming bishops for 26 years, he reshaped the world hierarchy. He published a stream of documents comprising perhaps
the largest body of teaching by any pope. He was a human rights advocate who opposed abortion and birth control, and he defended traditional marriage and family life in innovative theological terms.
Linking these and other themes was his visionary determination to lead the Church into the third millennium and spread Christianity in developing regions of the world while rekindling the faith in post-Christian areas like Western Europe.
Central to virtually all he did was the conviction emphatically stated in 1979 in his first encyclical, Redemptor Hominis (“The Redeemer of Man”), that “Jesus Christ is the center of the universe and of history.”
It was on Oct. 16, 1978, the second day of the conclave to elect a pope, that Cardinal Karol Wojtyla of Krakow, Poland, was elected 263rd successor of St. Peter as head of the universal Church and Bishop of Rome.
He chose the name John Paul to signal continuity with his immediate predecessor, John Paul I, whose pontificate had lasted only 33 days, as well as Popes John XXIII (1958-1963), who summoned the Second Vatican Council, and Paul VI (1963-78), who presided over the
last three of its four sessions and the next 15 turbulent years.
|Pope John Paul II’s first urbi et orbi
On Oct. 17, 1978, the day after he was elected, Pope John Paul II celebrated Mass in the Sistine Chapel and delivered his first homily urbi et orbi (“to the Church and the world”). Here is an excerpt (he uses the traditional papal plural to refer to himself):
“Brothers, dear sons and daughters, the recent happenings of the Church and of the world are for us all a healthy warning: How will our pontificate be? What is the destiny the Lord has assigned to His Church in the next years? What road will mankind take in this period of time as it approaches the year 2000? To these bold questions the only answer is: “God knows” (cf. Cor 12:2-3).
“The course of our life which has brought us unexpectedly to the supreme responsibility and office of apostolic Service is of little interest. Our person — we ought to say — should disappear when confronted with the weighty office we must fill. And so a speech must be changed into an appeal. After praying to the Lord, we feel the need of your prayers to gain that indispensable, heavenly strength that will make it possible for us to take up the work of our predecessors from the point where they left off. . . .
“We behold also the Christian families and communities, the many associations dedicated to the apostolate, the faithful who even if they are not known to us individually, are not anonymous, not strangers, nor even in a lower place, for they are included in the glorious company of the Church of Christ. Among them we look with particular affection on the weak, the poor, the sick and those afflicted with sorrow.
“Now, at the beginning of our universal pastoral ministry, we wish to open to them our heart. Do not you, brothers and sisters, share by your sufferings in the passion of our Redeemer, and in a certain way complete it? (cf. Col 1:24). The unworthy successor of St. Peter, who proposes to explore ‘the unsearchable riches of Christ’ (Ephes 3:8), has the greatest need of your help, your prayers, your devotedness or ‘sacrifice,’ and this he most humbly asks of you.”
His pontificate set precedents in many ways.
- He was the first non-Italian pope since Adrian VI (1522- 23), the first Polish pope and, at 58, the youngest pope since Blessed Pius IX (1846-78).
- He was the third-longest reigning pope and the most-traveled in history. Through August 2004, he completed 104 pastoral
visits outside. Five times as pope — in 1979, 1987, 1993, 1995 and 1999 — he visited the United States. Many of his trips were to Third World countries in Asia and Africa, which he cherished as growth areas for the Church.
- Besides pursuing a bold diplomacy in Poland and other countries of Eastern and Central Europe, he took significant initiatives
elsewhere, including establishing diplomatic relations with the United States in 1984 and with Israel in 1994. He gave major addresses at the United Nations in 1979 and 1995. He worked for peace and human rights in many parts of the world and opposed the U.S.-led Persian Gulf War in 1991 and the Iraq War in 2003. In January 1998, he made a dramatic visit to Fidel Castro’s Cuba.
- Capitalizing on his rapport with young people, Pope John Paul II presided over a series of highly successful World Youth Days, which were attended by millions. Denver was the site of August 1993 event. On these occasions he challenged his young audiences to resist the allure of
the consumer society and heed the call of Christ.
- His many teaching initiatives included the Catechism of the Catholic Church, published in 1992. This summary of doctrine for the universal Church, the first since the 16th century, was opposed by those who did not want a normative statement of Catholic faith. But the catechism
was a huge success, selling millions of copies and helping stabilize religious education in the United States and other countries.
In 1983, Pope John Paul II promulgated the revised Code of Canon Law for the Western Church, a project begun in 1959 by Pope John. In 1990, he issued the first complete and integrated Code of Canon Law for the Eastern Churches, a project dating back to 1949.
- He canonized more saints — 483 — and declared more others blessed — 1,345 — than any pope before him.
- He made notable efforts in ecumenism, often calling for Catholic-Orthodox reunion, approving a joint Lutheran-Catholic statement on justification, and meeting and praying with leaders of other churches and denominations. In the 1995 encyclical Ut Unum Sint (“That All May Be One”), he invited non- Catholic Christians to join him in seeking a possible new way of exercising papal primacy.
- Pope John Paul II also took some highly controversial stands. One such was his 1994 declaration that by the will of Christ the Church cannot ordain women as priests. He said this doctrine must be “definitively held” by Catholics.
- In 1995, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, headed by his close collaborator Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, said this teaching
had been infallibly proposed by the ordinary magisterium of the Church.
- Such steps led progressives to view Pope John Paul II as an obstacle to their agenda for the Church, and voices on the Catholic left called for reducing the authority of the papacy.
- Catholics of traditional views generally saw John Paul II as the right man in the right place at the right time — a strong leader upholding orthodox doctrine and restoring stability in the Church after years of turmoil. But some on the extreme right wanted even sterner measures against dissent.
Life of losses
Nothing in Karol Jozef Wojtyla’s family background hinted at all that lay ahead.
| Karol Jozef Wojtyla poses with his father, Karol, in the mid-1920s. CNS photo from Catholic Press
He was born May 18, 1920, in Wadowice, an industrial town near Krakow. His parents were Karol Wojtyla, who had been an administrative officer in the Austrian army and was a lieutenant in the Polish army until retiring in 1927, and Emilia Kaczorowska Wojtyla, who died in 1929 giving birth to a stillborn third child. His older brother Edmund, a physician, died in 1932, and his father in 1941.
After attending schools in Wadowice, he moved with his father to Krakow in 1938, and there enrolled in the philosophy faculty of the Jagiellonian University. At the university, he also was active in a theater group.
With the outbreak of World War II on Sept. 1, 1939, life changed forever for Wojtyla and countless others. Nazi occupation forces closed the university, and to avoid deportation to Germany, the young man worked in a quarry as a stone cutter and later in a chemical plant.
In February 1940, he met Jan Tyranowski, a tailor who became his spiritual mentor and introduced him to the writings of St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila. Despite efforts by the Nazis to stamp out Polish culture, he quietly pursued his studies and acted in underground theater.
Path to priesthood
In October 1942, Wojtyla became a student for the priesthood in the clandestine seminary of Cardinal Adam Sapieha of Krakow. Struck by a truck on Feb. 29, 1944, he was hospitalized until March 12. In August, Cardinal Sapieha transferred him and the other seminarians to the archbishop’s residence, where they lived and worked until the war’s end.
He was ordained by the cardinal on Nov. 1, 1946,and on Nov. 15 he left Poland to begin advanced studies in Rome at the Angelicum — the Pontifical Athenaeum (later University) of St. Thomas Aquinas, conducted by the Dominicans.
|Father Karol Wojtyla received the Sacrament of Holy
Orders on Nov. 1, 1946, and celebrated his first Mass
as a priest in the crypt of St. Leonard at Wawel
Cathedral in Krakow, Poland. . CNS file photo
Earning a licentiate degree in 1947, Father Wojtyla did pastoral work that summer among Polish workers in France, Belgium and Holland.
In 1948, he successfully defended his thesis on “The Problems of Faith in the Works of St. John of the Cross” but was not awarded a doctorate because he could not afford to have the thesis published, as was required.
Returning to Poland, now in the grip of a communist regime, he was awarded a doctorate in theology by the Jagiellonian University, did pastoral work, and served as a chaplain to university students. Resuming studies in philosophy and theology in 1951, in 1953 he defended a
thesis on the ethics of Max Scheler, a leader in the philosophical movement called phenomenology.
Having received a second doctorate, he joined the philosophy faculty at the Catholic University of Lublin while also teaching moral theology and social ethics in the major seminary of Krakow. The Lublin philosophers were regarded as among the most creative of that day.
Besides teaching, Father Wojtyla contributed essays and poetry to Catholic periodicals and wrote several plays. His book “Love and Responsibility,” an exposition in original philosophical and theological terms of Catholic teaching on marriage and sexuality, was published in 1960.
He also carried on a notable pastoral apostolate among young lay intellectuals and professionals.
|Archbishop Karol Wojtyla receives the cardinal’s red biretta from Pope Paul
VI at the beginning of the consistory June 26, 1967, in the Sistine Chapel. CNS file photo
Bishop and beyond
It was on July 4, 1958, during one of the summer kayak trips he regularly took with these friends, that Pope Pius XII named him Auxiliar y Bishop to Archbishop Eugeniusz Baziak, apostolic administrator of Krakow.
Archbishop Baziak had been “administrator” of the archdiocese since Cardinal Sapieha’s death in 1951, because of a dispute between the Vatican and the Polish communist government over the naming of bishops prevented his appointment as ordinary. After Archbishop Baziak’s death in 1962, Bishop Wojtyla became vicar capitular and then, on Jan. 13, 1964, archbishop of Krakow — the first residential head of the
archdiocese in 13 years.
He attended all four sessions of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), speaking several times and helping to draft Gaudium et Spes, (the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World).
He also contributed to Dignitatis Humanae (the Declaration on Religious Freedom) and Inter Mirifica (the Decree on the Instruments of Social Communication).
Pope Paul VI made him a cardinal in the consistory of June 28, 1967. Although scheduled to attend the first general assembly of the world Synod of Bishops in Rome that September and October, he stayed home instead as a gesture of solidarity with Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski of Warsaw, Poland’s Primate, whom the communist government refused a passport.
In October 1969, he participated in the first extraordinary assembly of the synod. Also in that year, his major philosophical work, “The Acting Person,” was published and he became vice president of the new Polish bishops’ conference.
In 1971, he took part in the second general assembly of the synod and was elected to the synod-planning body. He continued to attend synod assemblies up to his election as Pope.
May 8,1972, marked the opening of the archdiocesan synod of Krakow, which he convened and was to see conclude during his visit to Poland as Pope in 1979. In that year he published “Foundations of Renewal: A Study on the Implementation of the Second Vatican Council.”
Cardinal Wojtyla traveled widely during the 1970s. Besides frequent trips to Rome, his journeys took him to Western Europe, to North America including the United States, and even to Australia for a Eucharistic Congress in March 1973, with stops in the Philippines and New Guinea.
In Poland, he joined Cardinal Wyszynski and the other bishops in the tortuous process by which the Church not only negotiated its survival under communism but won increasingly more freedom,while at the same time championing the nation’s resistance to oppression.
In 1976, he preached the Lenten retreat for Pope Paul and members of the Roman Curia. The meditations were published under the title “A Sign of Contradiction.” That year, he also took part in the international Eucharistic Congress in Philadelphia.
A Polish pope
After Pope Paul’s death on Aug. 6, 1978, he participated in the conclave that elected Cardinal Albino Luciani of Venice to the papacy on Aug. 26.
When John Paul I died unexpectedly on Sept. 28, Cardinal Wojtyla joined 110 other cardinals in a second conclave — from which he emerged on the second day of voting, Oct. 16, as Pope John Paul II.
His tremendous work and service — cataloged, honored and sparking new inspiration in this special tribute issue of Our Sunday Visitor (April 17, 2005) — would shape the Church and the world in the face of the third millennium.
A pontiff for the new Christian millennium
|Karol Wojtyla waves to waiting crowds in St. Peter’s Square on Oct. 16,
1978, when he was elected the first non-Italian pope in 455 years. CNS file photo
From the very start of his papacy, Pope John Paul II committed himself to carrying out the program of the Second Vatican Council. Rather than simply standing pat on the council, however, he put his own master plan on the record in March 1979 in the encyclical Redemptor Hominis (“The Redeemer of Man”).
This notable exercise in “Christian anthropology” situated the human person at the center of the Church’s concerns. Echoing Vatican II, the new Pope insisted that human nature and human destiny can only be fully understood in light of Christ. These themes foreshadowed the message of many other documents and initiatives in the years to come.
Social doctrine was among the areas in which Pope John Paul II’s teaching marked an important advance. In line with his personalist
emphasis, he defended human rights against what he saw as the principal dehumanizing forces of the 20th century — state totalitarianism as found in Soviet communism, fascism and Nazism, and Western-style consumerist individualism grounded in atheistic secular humanism.
Projecting a profound skepticism of all secular utopias, he once wrote: “When people think they possess the secret of a perfect social organization which makes evil impossible, they also think that they can use any means, including violence and deceit, in order to bring it into being.”
Pope John Paul II identified three causes for the fall of communism present within the communist system itself — violations of workers’ rights, gross economic inefficiency and “the spiritual void brought about by atheism.” Others added a fourth, extrinsic cause — his own pastoral visits to Poland in June 1979 and June 1983, which sparked Polish religious fervor and sense of national identity, and his resolute support of the Solidarity labor movement.
With the collapse of communism in Central and Eastern Europe and eventually in the Soviet Union, it became increasingly clear that Pope John Paul II was hardly less troubled by the individualistic consumerism of the West, with its relativistic ethic and hedonistic lifestyle.
Much of this concern focused on the United States. During visits to the United States in 1979, 1987, 1995 and 1999, he exhorted Americans to live by the values of their founding documents, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, with their philosophical basis in natural law.
In the 1988 encyclical Sollicitudo Rei Socialis (“On Social Concerns”), the Pope spoke of a phenomenon he called “superdevelopment,”
described in terms that fit wealthy nations such as America. Saying it “consists in an excessive availability of material goods for the benefit of certain social groups,” he warned that superdevelopment “easily makes people slaves of ‘possession’ and of immediate gratification.”
Authentic development, he said, requires growth in all dimensions of the person — spiritual as well as material — and this demands a fundamental change in lifestyle by affluent nations.
Friends of free-market capitalism were heartened by the appearance three years later of a second wide-ranging social encyclical, Centesimus Annus (“The Hundredth Year”), in which he seemed to take a more benign view of capitalism. There, the Pope acknowledged the
advantages of the market economy while warning against “radical capitalistic ideology.”
This was a theme he returned to often, particularly assailing the economic neoliberalism that he accused of putting profit ahead of persons in developing countries.
For women, for life
Pope John Paul II strongly opposed the United States over the Persian Gulf War in 1991 and the Iraq War in 2003. Especially, though, his quarrel with American government policies came to a head at the United Nations conference on population and development in Cairo in September 1994, where he clashed with the Clinton administration over abortion. The Pope’s position prevailed — the conference document was amended to say abortion is not an acceptable means of family planning.
The battle was joined again a year later in connection with the U.N.-sponsored conference on women in Beijing. On this occasion
he appointed Harvard University law professor Mary Ann Glendon to head the Holy See’s delegation, the first time a woman had been named to such a post.
|Pope John Paul II
greets Mother Teresa at the Vatican. CNS photos by Arturo Mari
Controversies like these generated criticism of John Paul among people who called him out of step with modern times. His opposition to abortion and contraception, as well as to the ordination of women as priests, also led some to accuse him of insensitivity to women.
In fact, though, in his writing and pastoral work he had for years showed deep appreciation for women.He was the only pontiff in history whose published works included poems and plays warmly celebrating married love, and as pope, he devoted several major documents to women’s dignity and rights, including the 1988 apostolic letter Mulier is Dignitatem (“On the Dignity and Vocation of Women”).
Moreover, although it only added to feminists’ discontent, devotion to a woman, the Virgin Mary, was central to his own spirituality.
While reflecting Polish popular piety, it was elaborated in sophisticated theological terms in the 1987 encyclical Redemptoris Mater (“The Mother of the Redeemer”).
John Paul also had a relationship of mutual esteem with Mother Teresa of Calcutta, foundress of the Missionaries of Charity, who died in 1997 and whom he declared blessed on Oct. 19, 2003.
With her he shared an abhorrence of abortion, spelled out — along with other elements of his teaching on the sanctity of life — in the 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae (“The Gospel of Life”). Besides condemning abortion, the document rejected euthanasia and took a strong stand against capital punishment, a subject John Paul often returned to while requesting clemency for persons facing execution.
Undergirding his position on such questions was the moral philosophy set forth in the 1993 encyclical Veritatis Splendor (“The Splendor of Truth”). Here, the Pope affirmed a natural-law ethic and absolute moral norms, while rejecting proportionalism, a moral theory currently held by many Catholic moral theologians in the United States and other countries.
In Fides et Ratio (“Faith and Reason”), published in 1998, he wrote of the need philosophy and theology have for each other,
and called for a renewal of philosophical studies grounded in the traditional conviction of Western thought that it is possible to know the truth. Loss of that certainty in modern times, he wrote, had brought about a theoretical and practical state of doubt best described as “nihilism.”
With Pope John Paul II’s approval, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, under Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, too a number of steps that Catholics of the left bitterly assailed.
These included declarations that the views of the Swiss theologian Father Hans Küng and the American theologian Father Charles Curran disqualified them as “Catholic theologians” so that they could not hold posts in pontifically approved theological faculties.
In 1999, the congregation barred two Americans, Father Robert Nugent and Sister Jeannine Gramick, from pastoral work with homosexuals because of doubts about their views on the morality of homosexuality.
Documents published by the congregation in 1984 and 1986 criticized aspects of the theology of liberation. The congregation also rejected a plan by German bishops to let some divorced and remarried Catholics receive Communion without having their first marriages declared invalid.
In 1999, the Pope himself insisted that the bishops of Germany quit a government-backed counseling program for pregnant women because some of the women used certificates from Catholic counseling centers to get abortions.
Other important — and controversial — statements from Cardinal Ratzinger’s congregation in these years concerned such matters as homosexuality and same-sex unions, the responsibilities of Catholic politicians and Catholic voters, and the unique salvific necessity of Christ
and the Catholic Church.
Conflict with the Catholic far right also was sometimes a feature of this pontificate.
The best-known case involved Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, a French missionary bishop violently opposed to Vatican II’s teaching on religious liberty and its liturgical innovations. In 1988, Archbishop Lefebvre was excommunicated for ordaining bishops without authorization from the Pope. He died in 1991. Some of his followers have been reconciled with Rome, but some remain in schism.
John Paul worked hard in the cause of Christian unity, meeting and often praying with other Christian leaders, including the ecumenical patriarch of Constantinople and the archbishop of Canterbury.
He placed special emphasis on reunion with the Orthodox, calling the Eastern and Western Churches the “two lungs” of the Church, and was warmly received by some Orthodox bodies — while receiving a cold shoulder from the Russian and Greek Orthodox.
In 1999, he approved a historic joint Lutheran-Catholic statement on the topic of justification, a central point of dispute in the 16th century Protestant Reformation.
|The two chief rabbis of Israel, Ashkenazi Rabbi Israel Meir Lau, left, and Sephardic Rabbi Eliahu Bakshi-
Doron, meet with Pope John Paul II in Jerusalem in March 2000. Throughout his pontificate, Pope John Paul II made improving Catholic-Jewish relations a priority. CNS photo from Reuters
Spelling out his ecumenical aspirations in the 1995 encyclical Ut Unum Sint (“That All May Be One”), he took the potentially momentous step of inviting other Christians to suggest possible changes in the exercise of papal primacy. In 1995, he also published Orientale Lumen (“The Light of the East”), on Catholic- Orthodox relations.
This Pope, whose boyhood friends included Jews,also made improving Catholic-Jewish relations a priority of his pontificate. Besides establishing diplomatic relations with Israel, in 1998 he approved a Vatican declaration on the roots of the World War II Holocaust. Some complained that it did not go far enough in admitting Christian guilt, but the document was generally viewed as an important forward step.
He also made important pronouncements after world synods of bishops on matters like religious education, family life, the role of the laity, the priesthood, the consecrated life and bishops.
Trials and triumphs
Pope John Paul II was convinced that God had chosen him to lead the Church into the third millennium, and an outpouring of papal travels and special events accompanied the jubilee year in 2000. His journeys included trips to the Middle East and the Holy Land. He also published a document called Novo Millennio Ineunte (“At the Beginning of the New Millennium”), setting out an agenda for the Church.
|Pope John Paul II, with late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, was outspoken in his
desire for peace between Palestinians and Israelis in the Middle East. CNS photo from Reuters
John Paul’s reign was not an unbroken string of triumphs. He was profoundly disturbed by the progressive secularization of Europe in these decades, calling it “the loss of Europe’s Christian memory.”
The European Union’s refusal in 2004 to include a reference to Europe’s Christian roots in the preamble to the new European constitution was a grave disappointment.
The Pope also was frustrated by his failure to obtain a green light from the Russian Orthodox Church for a pastoral visit to Russia.
A still-mysterious event in his papacy was the Pope’s wounding by a Turkish gunman, Mehmet Ali Agca, who shot him at close range as he greeted the crowd in St. Peter’s Square on May 13,1981. It is not known whether the assassin acted alone or on behalf of others — and which others.
| Pope John Paul II talks
with his would-be assassin
Mehmet Ali Agca in a Rome
prison in December 1983, two
years after the attempt on the
pontiff’s life. CNS file photo by Arturo Mari
After a six-hour operation, John Paul was hospitalized in the Gemelli Hospital for 77 days. In a dramatic gesture of forgiveness, he visited Ali Agca in the Rebibbia prison on Dec.27, 1983. The Pope attributed his survival to Our Lady of Fatima, on whose feast the shooting took place.
Although he resumed his activities after a difficult recovery, his health and strength declined over the years, a hard experience for a man accustomed to vigorous physical activity.
In July 1992, he had colon surgery to remove a noncancerous tumor; in November 1993, his shoulder was dislocated in a fall; he suffered a broken femur in another fall in April 1994; in October 1996, he had an appendectomy; in January and February 2005, it was back to the hospital to be treated for flu and breathing problems.
And from the mid-1990s on he was more and more immobilized and had increasing trouble speaking because of a neurological condition widely assumed to be Parkinson’s disease.
But the increasingly frail Pope soldiered on, making journeys, giving audiences, presiding at liturgical ceremonies and delivering talks as best he could.
It was a display of indomitable will prefigured in 1979’s Redemptor Hominis.
Recalling his election as Pope, he wrote:
“It was to Christ the Redeemer that my feelings and my thoughts were directed on Oct. 16 of last year, when . . . I was asked: ‘Do you accept?’I then replied: ‘With obedience in faith to Christ,my Lord,and with trust in the Mother of Christ and the Church, I accept.’”
|Pope John Paul II’s teachings on life issues were placed in a cultural context, analyzing the actions of contemporary “advanced” societies. CNS photo from Reuters
Pope John Paul II went on accepting for another 25 years.
Russell Shaw is OSV’s Washington correspondent and the author of several OSV books, including “Papal Primacy in the Third Millennium” ($12.95).