Pope John Paul II


The passing of John Paul II sees the death of the last truly great figure of the 20th century. He is in the league of Winston Churchill, F. D. Roosevelt and Charles de Gaulle as a shaping influence on the unfolding of European and world affairs.

As leaders from Mikhail Gorbachev to Lech Walesa have noted: no John Paul II, no Poland; no Poland, no collapse of the Soviet Satellites; no collapse of the Soviet Satellites, no end of Soviet Communism. Not since the naval Battle of Lepanto (1571) has a Pope had such influence on history. Then Pius V stirred the European crowned heads to repell the Turks by sea even as their troops had reached the walls of Vienna, intent on European conquest.

Matt Freed, Pittsburg Post-Gazette

Matt Freed, Pittsburg Post-Gazette

And on the big world issues, John Paul has got it right for a long time. He was firm and clear from the start of his Pontificate about freedom as a non-negotiable in social and political life. The Russians knew what a threat that view posed. The 1981 assassin’s bullet was the KGB’s answer to that threat.

His constant sponsoring of Solidarity (he popularised the term as a moral imperative which was taken as the name for the movement); his recognition of the State of Israel on behalf of the Vatican and Israel’s existence as Jewish homeland even as he promoted the rights of the Palestinians to protection and security; his receiving Arafat at the Vatican even when the Israeli Government protested; his unprecedented acknowledgement and historic apology for Catholic prejudice and abuse of Jews; his tireless advocacy of peace and rejection of war as a solution to human problems; his courageous opposition – at times solitary – to American escapades over Iraq in both Gulf wars; his tenderness and support for those at the margins of society and in the most vunerable condition – our own Aboriginal population when he visited in 1986, workers prevented from forming trade unions, the unborn, the frail, aged and sick: the list goes on and on. Every visit to the 129 countries he travelled to was marked by encounters with the lame, the halt and the blind.

His utterances and gestures were symbolic. But their coherence with his heartfelt convictions and practice was demonstrated in the way he died.

However, the very characteristics that made him such a force for hope in his public role as a world figure had their dark side. His experience of life led him to see the need for the clarification and decisive articulation of clear positions in the face of two of the most malevolent ideologies in human history: Nazism and Soviet Communism. For forty years of his adult life (1939-78) he lived under their direct impact. His major adult experiences of social and political were shaped by them and his responses to them characterised how he saw the role and mission of the Church.

For John Paul II, the role of the Church in the world was to articulate and support the development of a human alternative. His was an adversarial posture, proposing a way beyond the lies that masked corruption and oppression and he brought that disposition to his governance of the Church.

In the national interest, the Polish Church experience was one that required the firm wall of religion to protect the Catholic faith from dilution, compromise and eventual disappearance at the hands of predatory, aggressive Marxist Leninism. The mode of management was command and control and heaven help the backsliders, the wishy-washy liberals and the accommodationists. It was a Church that knew its position, it taught it to the faithful, it rallied their support and it saved the nation. It was a Church long on teaching and articulation, short on listening and dialogue. Why should it listen? It knew who the enemy was and what ruses he used. While John Paul’s own inter-religious practice was personally one of engagement with other denominations and other faiths (Judaism and Islam for example), his policy was predicated on a rock-solid command and control management of the Church.

This was a very particular experience to bring to the governance of the Universal Church. Its fortunes were vitally affected by an event in which he participated in the 1960s – the second Vatican Council (1962-65). In theological terms, the Council emphasised that the Roman Catholic Church was both a teaching Church and a listening Church. As any good teacher knows, listening and teaching go together. The only way forward as a teacher is to engage with new questions and new investigations to discover new illuminations.

In the two decades that followed the Council, the Church was marked by a fresh spirit of openness, an acceptance of the validity of criticism and a readiness to change. It was the process begun by John XXIII and anxiously followed by his successor, Paul VI, John Paul’s predecessor less a couple of months when the short lived John Paul I reigned. Vatican 2 was called the Council to update, refresh and renew the Church.

But there hasn’t been much listening in the Pontificate of John Paul II. The structures set up by the Council to conduct the processes of consultation necessary for the life of such a large entity as the Catholic Church have been taken over by Vatican bureaucrats and their agents around the world.

The main consultative bodies – the Synod of Bishops, the advisory bodies in Vatican Secretariats and Councils and other bodies – are populated by the agents who are promoted by the bureaucrats. The main consultative body – the Synod of Bishops – has mirrored the high art of political correctness displayed by China’s Peoples Consultative Congress.

The net effect of not getting the issues on the table – anything from terms of access to ministry (i.e. the issues around priesthood, women in the church, the position of bishops as leaders of local churches, the celibate and male requirement for ordination, etc.) to the spectacle of Italians and Spaniards telling English-speaking Catholic leaders and liturgists how their language should be used in the sacramental celebrations – is demoralization and fragmentation. The marginal in the Church of this Pontificate are many, and a lot of this process comes down to the perception and actuality of competent and committed servants of the Church finding their voice is irrelevant in areas where they have a right or even a duty to speak up and contribute.

John Paul’s successor has big shoes to step into. The man was made as much as he shaped by the times he lived in. And they have been amazing times. But they will change again.

Currently the grand ideological clashes that marked the 20th Century are not evident in our world. But what is clear is the free fall collapse of Christianity in many parts of the West and its explosive development in Asia and Africa. Moreover, by 2025, half the Catholics in the USA and half the Catholics of the world will be Spanish speaking.

His successor will need to be a good listener.

The life of Pope John Paul II by David Remnick, The New Yorker

Papacy of spirit by E. J. Dionne Jr.
The pope’s plane was heading to the Ivory Coast from Togo on a journey that was to end that evening in Cameroon. In the press section, my friend Victor Simpson of the Associated Press had just read through the thick packet of speeches that John Paul II was to give on that long August day. Washington Post

The Legacy of Pope John Paul II by Amy Goodman
Three progressive religious scholars discuss the beliefs and actions that shaped John Paul II’s papacy, and where the Catholic Church is headed. Alternet

Poland’s Holy Father By Stefan Chwin,
The Poles admired John Paul II, even if they didn’t always listen to him. Guardian UK (requires Flash plug-in)

New Pope Could Influence Political Life in America by Adam Nagourney, April 4, 2005, New York Times

Amid Mourning, Some U.S. Catholics Pray for Change by Greg Frost, Reuters

Above All Else, Life by Helen Prejean, 4 April 2005, New York Times

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