The Death of the Pope: The obituary of Pope John Paul II
He was a magnificent pope who presided over a controversial pontificate
By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
He was a magnificent pope who presided over a controversial pontificate, at times daring and defensive, inspiring and insular. John Paul II, 263nd successor of St. Peter, leaves behind the irony of a world more united because of his life and legacy, and a church more divided.
This is perhaps the best one can offer in a first draft of history about a man who towered over his times in a way unique among other leaders of his era.
Pope John Paul II, 84, died April 2 at 9:37 p.m. in his private quarters at the end of a long and public illness. Though the effects of Parkinson's disease had been evident for a number of years, the pope's health declined precipitously over a period of a few days. On March 31 he suffered heart and circulatory collapse. The next day the Vatican said his kidneys were failing and that his breathing had become shallow. In the hours just before his death, the Vatican announced that he was fading out of consciousness.
John Paul II was a stunningly successful historical actor; biographer Jonathan Kwitny once called him “the man of the century.” In an age in which institutional religion was supposed to be sliding toward extinction, he applied the force of his enormous personality to revitalizing it.
John Paul was among the key forces in the collapse of European communism. He did it not by fueling an arms race or by threatening Armageddon, but through moral leadership and the social idea of Solidarity.
Through his constant travels, John Paul carried a media spotlight to corners of the globe that would otherwise never have commanded public attention. He urged people to think of this as one planet, to recognize a common humanity beneath and beyond differences of language and race and class.
John Paul was the first pope in the age of CNN, and he seemed born for the part. He wrote books, put out compact discs, staged massive youth rallies that at times felt like Rolling Stones concerts, and utilized all the other tools of pop superstardom to promote the message of Christ. He did not shrink from modernity, but challenged secular culture on its own turf. Often enough, he prevailed.
He was a master of grand historical gestures. The image of the pope, this child of Poland who grew up just miles from Auschwitz, placing a handwritten note of remorse for Christian hostility to Jews in the Western Wall was among the 20th century’s most splendid icons. In 1986 he became the first pope to visit a Jewish synagogue since the age of Peter, and in 2001 the first pope to enter an Islamic mosque. In his final years, when age and illness took hold, John Paul managed to keep crowds spellbound without so much as the capacity to speak or move.
Where he felt passionately, John Paul was not a man to be shackled by the poor lists of his predecessors’ fashions. He made his own manners, whether it was assembling leaders of world religions to pray for peace in Assisi against the advice of curialists worried about syncretism, or apologizing to the Orthodox in Athens, Greece, for centuries of Catholic maltreatment, over the objections of ecumenical hawks who felt being pope means never having to say you’re sorry.
Toward the end of John Paul’s long reign, his physical decay unfolded before the eyes of a world both dazzled by his will, and sometimes aghast at the cruelty of a vocation that would impose such burdens. The pope struggled to walk, he slurred his speech and drooled badly, his hearing failed, and his facial expression became increasingly frozen. Yet he soldiered on, bearing his thorns in the flesh with grit and good humor. For a world that has made an idol out of youth and beauty, this disabled pope was a strong counter-witness. Jean Vanier, the founder of the L’Arche community that makes its life among disabled persons, said of the bowed but not beaten pope: “He was never more beautiful.”
John Paul II was a man of great spiritual depth, of integrity, and of imagination. He understood intuitively the famous advice of Chicago architect Daniel Burnham: “Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men’s blood.”
The pope also had a deep, abiding belief that his pontificate was guided by higher forces. His motto, Totus Tuus, (Totally yours) signified his devotion to Mary and his belief she was with him as pope, a conviction he saw confirmed in the assassination attempt of May 13, 1981 - the Feast of Our Lady of Fatima. John Paul believed Mary changed the flight path of the assassin’s bullet to keep him alive. In his 2005 book Memory and Identity, he wrote: “I live in the constant awareness that in what I say and do in fulfillment of my vocation and mission, of my ministry, something is happening that’s not exclusively my initiative. I know that it’s not only I who act in what I do as the Successor of Peter.”
Yet precisely because he was so missionary in his instincts, so focused on the global culture he aspired to shape, the pope devoted comparatively little energy to the internal life of the church, whose care is actually the Roman pontiff’s primary mandate.
John Paul’s top internal agenda for the Catholic church was to stop what his top lieutenant, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, immoderately describing the aftermath of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), called an “avalanche of ecclesial decadence.”
The pope considered himself a man of the council, but felt its teaching had been badly misapplied through an uncritical embrace of modernity and a too-hasty abandonment of elements of church practice and doctrine.
Inside the church, John Paul believed in order.
Whether cracking down on religious orders perceived as disobedient (as he did in 1981 by foisting new leadership upon the Jesuits) or insisting on a sharp distinction between clergy and laity (as the Vatican did in a 1997 document on lay ministry), this was in some ways an unapologetically hierarchical and clerical papacy. Though John Paul had a keen sense of the lay apostolate, and favored the growth of new lay movements, he also demanded unity when Rome spoke.
In pursuit of his great historical ambitions, John Paul left day-to-day management to his aides. Since nature abhors a vacuum, this laissez-faire approach encouraged a stranglehold over the internal life of the church in the curia, the papal bureaucracy. Across a range of issues - from liturgy to clerical life, from Catholic education to the role of laity - power accumulated in the center, in contrast with Vatican II’s vision of a church whose future is worked out more in parishes and missions, in dioceses and base communities, than in Rome.
The pope’s lack of attention to internal concerns was nowhere more evident than in the appointment of bishops. Despite a few shining counterexamples, such as Carlo Maria Martini in Milan, Jean Lustiger in Paris and Godfried Danneels in Brussels, the shepherds named on John Paul’s watch tended to be gray men, noted more for doctrinal reliability than vision or pastoral competence. John Paul reaped the bitter harvest of his disengagement in 2002, when a sexual abuse crisis involving priests exploded in the United States and other countries. As the story unfolded, it became clear that the real scandal was not the personal failures of a small number of clerics, but the malfeasance on the part of speak-no-evil, see-no-evil bishops who did nothing about it.
The contrast with his predecessor Paul VI, who led the church in the immediate post-Vatican II years, was striking. If Paul’s fatal flaw was an at-times paralyzing preoccupation with holding the church together, John Paul’s was a steely resolve to assert what he saw as the truth, whatever the cost. On the world stage, he was an apostle of human rights. Inside the church, he tolerated a form of absolutism that some critics could not help comparing with the Soviet system he helped bring down.
As the under-80 members of the College of Cardinals - all but three now appointed by John Paul II - assemble in the Sistine Chapel to elect his successor, this contrast between the apostle of unity ad extra and the bruiser ad intra will be the central question they face. Is John Paul’s vision of a missionary church, one vitally engaged with culture, consistent with the authoritarian, curial mode of governance that he allowed to take hold?
Attitude and themes
John Paul was no pessimist. He spoke confidently about a new “springtime of evangelization” in which the church would again proclaim the gospel in a vibrant, attractive way. He looked forward to the Third Millennium as a period of Christian reunification.
But as a means to those ends, the pope felt he had to end the confusion and dissent in which he felt some quarters of the church, especially Europe and North America, were mired.
While his talks and travels (104 overseas trips to 129 countries, covering almost 690,000 miles) were broad, his range of regular themes inside the church was narrow, and, after the initial few years, fairly predictable: evangelization; the dignity of the human person; the centrality of Christ; protest against a “culture of death,” on issues such as abortion, birth control and euthanasia; orthodoxy as obedience to the magisterium; the sanctity of marriage; the role of Mary; courage in teaching and communicating the Catholic tradition; and personal example and courage in living out social justice.
He guided the new Code of Canon Law (1983) and the new Catechism of the Catholic Church (1995). The latter document was designed, in part, to uproot the more liberal national catechisms that had cropped up in the wake of Vatican II.
To be fair, John Paul did not demand submission for its own sake. He felt that only a unified church, clear about its message, could stand up to the challenges of an immensely secularized, relativistic, post-Christian culture.
He excommunicated twice: the conservative pro-Latin Mass Archbishop Marcel Lefebrve in 1988, and the Sri Lankan theologian Oblate Fr. Tissa Balasuriya in 1997. Lefebrve refused to accept the changes of Vatican II, particularly in the liturgy. Balassuriya, who argued for greater flexibility in adapting the Christian message in the Asian context, incurred an excommunication that was revoked by the Vatican less than a year later when he signed a declaration of loyalty.
John Paul also silenced. Both the Tübingen, Germany, university professor Fr. Hans Küng and The Catholic University of America professor Fr. Charles Curran were forbidden to teach as Catholic theologians. The former, a major voice for Vatican II reforms, questioned interpretations of papal infallibility. The latter, Curran, disagreed with the ruling in Paul VI's 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae that continued the church’s ban on the use of artificial contraception in marriage.
Küng and Curran, however, are only the best-known cases. Scores of lesser-known names, such as Benedictine Zen master Fr. Willigis Jäger and Conventual Franciscan theologian Fr. Josef Imbach, drew similar fates. Under John Paul, the list of thinkers who were investigated and silenced, whose books had to be revised or whose teaching careers were interrupted, was sprawling. At least four Catholic leaders from Brazil alone were gagged, including a bishop, Dom Pedro Casaldaliga.
A sample drawn from the galaxy of Catholic thinkers who felt the pope’s lash might include: Brazilian liberation theologian Leonardo Boff; Belgian expert on religious pluralism Jesuit Fr. Jacques Dupuis; Brazilian feminist Sr. Ivone Gebara; American Christologist Jesuit Fr. Roger Haight; Spanish moral theologian Redemptorist Fr. Marciano Vidal; Austrian scripture expert Fr. Reinhard Messner; and Indian East/West dialogue advocate Jesuit Fr. Anthony de Mello (in this case, 10 years after de Mello’s death).
Of course, this list is of instances in which the pope set limits. Supporters would argue that within those limits, John Paul stimulated great intellectual ferment and evangelical zeal. Cases when the Vatican disciplines a theologian always make news; cases when theologians inspired by the pope’s witness produce dynamic works of orthodox thought rarely do.
Viewed in encapsulated form from a variety of perspectives, this pope emerges first as an evangelist, as a teacher and as a phenomenon seen and heard in person by more people than any other pope (or public figure) in history. John Paul was willing to accept the strains of constant travel in order to bring the papacy to the people. He spent approximately 10 percent of his pontificate on the road.
This wanderlust brought criticism. The constant media exposure made John Paul in effect the bishop of the world rather than of Rome, leaving the other bishops of the world often wondering what their role was. (A constant joke during the John Paul years was that the other bishops were “glorified altar boys”). Hundreds of millions of Catholics around the world felt a personal connection with the pope, when many could not pick their own bishop out a lineup.
John Paul believed the travel was necessary to vivify the worldwide unity of the Catholic church, especially by awakening a sense of the universal church over against what he felt was a one-sided emphasis on the local church following Vatican II.
For one entire year, John Paul also brought the world to him. The Great Jubilee Year of 2000, seen by the pope as a quasi-mystical moment in salvation history, played out in Rome as one long series of papal spectaculars. More than 24 million people visited the Eternal City during the year, with two million washing through Rome in mid-August for World Youth Day.
In addition to offering himself to the world’s Catholics, John Paul also gave them saints - 82 in all, plus 1,338 beatifications, more than all his predecessors combined. He broadened the geographic and ethnic diversity of the canon and added more women. In an age in which people no longer have living models of integral Catholic faith, John Paul felt, these new saints would serve as worthy examples.
Whatever the occasion, John Paul felt called to link it to Christ, to the Triune God. Starting with his first, programmatic encyclical letter Redemptor Hominis (1979), he was out to proclaim the Risen Christ.
John Paul and the West
The first Slavic pope always had an uneasy relationship with the dominant global cultures of Western Europe and North America. He admired their embrace of human rights and democracy, but was shocked by their idolatry of money, their individualism and neglect of the world’s poor, as well as their abandonment of traditional moral taboos. He saw the victory of pluralism in the West as too often a defeat for the truth.
One running clash between John Paul and the West was on women. The pope championed an anthropological concept called “complementarity.” The idea is that bodily differences give men and women different, but equally important, roles that “complete” one another. The concept was employed to support the ban on the ordination of women to the priesthood, and hence was rejected by Western progressives who saw it as a smokescreen for patriarchy. Yet some observers believe that “complementarity” offers untapped resources for justifying a greater role for women in all areas of church life, if the female perspective really is essential to “complete” the masculine. Some futurists even predict that if the Catholic church does one day ordain women, John Paul will be the pope who created the intellectual basis for doing so.
If so, it would not be what he had in mind. In 1994, in Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, he wanted to close the theological debate over women priests. Gauged by the volume of ongoing debate (there is even a Web site, www.womenpriests.org, devoted to the cause), this was perhaps the least effective ambition of his reign.
In 1979, an American woman religious, Mercy Sr. Teresa Kane, president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, in a welcoming address, urged the pope to include “half of humankind” in “all the ministries of the church.” John Paul’s stony silence in response became a defining moment for many Catholic women. Kane herself was frozen out of future prominent roles in the church. In 1999, during a lunch in the papal apartments, John Paul asked another American sister to carry his regards to Teresa Kane. No public rehabilitation, however, was forthcoming.
It should be noted that John Paul’s immovability on the ordination question did not translate into a generalized ambivalence about women. In Toronto in 2002, for example, during World Youth Day, papal minions tried to scuttle a planned meeting between the pope and the women’s religious order that had hosted him, fearing another Kane incident. When the organizer of the event asked John Paul if he wanted to meet the sisters, however, his unhesitating reply was “of course,” and the meeting went ahead.
Nevertheless, the Kane episode helped forge John Paul’s love-hate relationship with the United States, and the American Catholic church.
One can empathize with John Paul II as he tried to come to terms with the wealthy, vocal, organized, highly public and periodically disputatious U.S. Catholic church. Statistics make the point. The Vatican’s annual operating budget is $260 million, smaller than the annual budget for the New York archdiocese alone. Over two weekends, Sunday collections in the U.S. bring in $226 million. It would take American Catholics exactly two weeks, in other words, to fund the Holy See for an entire year. No wonder Roman authorities worry about the American church as a counterweight to their own power.
To empathize is not necessarily to agree with how John Paul responded.
Given his professorial temperament and training, his European intellectualism and its accompanying modicum of anti-Americanism, the pope may have found himself sympathizing with Leo XIII who confronted U.S. Catholics and their “Americanism.” Leo’s 1899 apostolic letter, Testem benevolentiae, censured a Catholic Americanism that would modify church doctrines to “suit modern civilization, to attract those not of the faith to the church, passing over some less attractive doctrines and adapting the church's teachings to popular theories and methods.”
John Paul remained anti-American on questions of war and peace, critical of the U.S. role as global arms salesman, and was appalled at what Americans do with their wealth. When President George W. Bush went to war in Iraq in 2003, John Paul II became the voice of the moral opposition.
On cultural issues such as gay marriage and stem cell research, the pope and Bush found more common ground. It was precisely on those issues, however, that relations between the Vatican and President Bill Clinton had been distinctly frosty. The two waged titanic battles over the Cairo Conference of the United Nations on population control in 1994, and the Beijing Conference on women in 1995.
One illustrative American episode was the disciplining of Seattle Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen. Long a target of right-wing Catholics in his archdiocese and beyond, Hunthausen was fiercely criticized for his outspoken stand against nuclear weapons and his tolerance of homosexual Catholics. Rome began investigating “criticisms regarding Hunthausen's pastoral ministry” in 1983. In March 1985, John Paul named Donald Wuerl a bishop to be assigned to Seattle as an auxiliary with special faculties. At their November 1987 meeting, the bishops spent hours behind closed doors debating the Hunthausen issue and confronting then-papal nuncio, Archbishop Pio Laghi.
Eventually, with a fair amount of behind-the-scenes effort by the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago, the American bishops were able to pull off an American solution. Hunthausen’s full authority was restored, Wuerl was sent off to Pittsburgh, and Thomas Murphy was appointed coadjutor and eventually took over when Hunthausen retired in 1991.
During the later stages of his pontificate, the gulf between John Paul and the mainstream of the American church was again reflected in the struggle over Ex Corde Ecclesiae, his 1990 pastoral letter on Catholic colleges. In it the pope expressed concern that Catholic universities were becoming gradually secularized. Most controversially, he asked that Canon 812 be enforced, which requires that bishops approve teachers of theology. American academics protested, arguing that both academic freedom and some kinds of federal funding could be imperiled under a literal interpretation of the pope's requirements. In 1996 the U.S. bishops passed a compromise plan, which was vetoed in Rome. In 1999, they adopted a set of rules more to Rome’s liking.
American Catholics in turn had mixed views of the pope. Most were happy to welcome him as a pope and leader of their church, yet some were unwilling to follow his teaching on issues of sexuality and the role of women. As the pope’s trip planner and trusted aide, Jesuit Cardinal Roberto Tucci, once put it: “I have the impression they like the singer, but not the song.”
Ecumenism and other religions
John Paul was inarguably an ecumenical pope. His 1995 encyclical, Ut Unum Sint, is recognized as a charter of the movement for Christian unity. The pope’s personal commitment to unity even sometimes pushed ahead of the theology; on several occasions, for example, he gave pectoral crosses to visiting Anglican bishops, even though technically Catholic theology does not recognize the validity of their ordinations.
John Paul reached out to the Orthodox more than the Reformation churches in the West. He spoke often of the need for Christianity to “breathe with both lungs.” He made a special point of trying to improve relations with the Russian Orthodox church, seeing it as the key to putting Eastern and Western Christianity back together again.
His hopes were, however, largely dashed. The Orthodox apparently feared being swamped by papal primacy more than they welcomed doctrinal solidarity, and the pope’s long-cherished dream of a trip to Moscow went unrealized.
When it came to non-Christianity religions, John Paul wanted good relations but not at the price of doctrinal confusion. His criticism of Buddhism’s “extreme negativity” (offered in the 1994 book Crossing the Threshold of Hope), for example, arose from his unwillingness to cloak his belief in the optimism of the resurrection for the sake of good interreligious manners. The comment possibly revealed his fear, too, that the attractiveness of Asian spirituality would lure people away from their Christian roots. That was certainly a concerned shared by his Vatican aides, especially Ratzinger.
On the other hand, John Paul convened interreligious summits in Assisi three times, in 1986, 1993 and 2002. Each time he did so over stern opposition from conservatives, including some in the Vatican.
He also expanded the boundaries of Catholic doctrine on religious pluralism. Vatican II had been the first council to speak positively of other world religions, praising them for elements of “truth and grace” they contain. But the council did not explain how those elements of truth and grace got there, whether they reflected divine inspiration or were simply the fruits of a human search for God. John Paul opted firmly for the first solution, speaking dozens of times about how the Holy Spirit works in and through all of humanity’s religious systems. The pope’s record on this point is an enormous, and little-appreciated, contribution to Catholic theology.
The conflict between John Paul’s outlook and the more pluralistic instincts of Asia was on clear display during the 1997 Synod for Asia, when the Catholics bishops of Asia challenged the Vatican over its insistence on unwavering proclamation of Christ as the sole and universal savior. In the context of Asian religious diversity, the bishops replied, a dialogue of service is the only fruitful way to start a conversation.
Perhaps the least successful of John Paul’s travels came in Asia. During his November 1999 visit to India, for example, the pope took the occasion to call for what seemed a program of proselytism.
“Just as the first millennium saw the cross firmly planted in the soil of Europe, and the second in that of America and Africa, so may the third Christian millennium witness a great harvest of faith on this vast and vital continent,” he said. The country’s Hindu majority was insulted, especially given that papal planners had scheduled John Paul’s Mass on the same day as the festival of Diwali, the most important Hindu celebration of the year.
John Paul II laid out his priorities on his first major foreign trip, to Puebla, Mexico, in January 1979, for a meeting of the bishops’ conferences of Latin America, a trip originally scheduled by Paul VI. At Puebla, John Paul criticized liberation theology, a theological movement that sought to place the church on the side of the poor in their struggle for justice.
According to its critics, liberation theology provided cover for radical priests and laity to side with Marxist revolutionary movements. Its proponents saw liberation theology as Latin America’s way of translating Vatican II into action. If siding with the “joys and hopes” of the poor - as called for by Gaudium et Spes, the culminating text of Vatican II - meant anything, they felt, it meant working for justice.
John Paul clearly wanted the church on the side of social justice, but at the same time he thoought liberation theology was a distortion. The liberation proposed by the church, he said, is “the authentic liberation of man” as distinct from “‘re-readings’ of the gospel.” These “re-readings … cause confusion by diverging from the central criteria of the faith of the church, and some people have the effrontery to pass them on, under the guise of catechesis, to the Christian communities.”
From implying that liberation theology was inauthentic, he went on to discipline people risking their lives or careers to bring to Latin America the freedoms he himself wanted for Poland. Shabby papal treatment of El Salvador’s martyr-archbishop Oscar Romero is only the best-known example. Biographer Jonathan Kwitny notes that the pope’s aides had actually planned to remove Romero, a very public sign of disapproval, but did not have time to implement their plan before he was assassinated on March 24, 1980.
The cardinal sin of the liberationists, many church observers believe, is that they also talked about liberation inside the church. Franciscan Leonardo Boff, who eventually resigned from the priesthood under the weight of Vatican harassment, called in his book Church, Charism and Power for “class struggle” inside Catholicism to redistribute authority. It was not a prescription destined to make John Paul happy.
Nevertheless, there was always an undercurrent of ambivalence in John Paul about the liberationists. Indeed, when Ratzinger dealt a body blow with a harsh 1984 text, the pope asked him to prepare a more positive follow-up document.
The result was 1986’s Instruction on Christian Freedom and Liberation, in which the Catholic church, for the first time in a magisterial document, adopted the phrase “integral salvation” to describe the redemption won by Jesus Christ. Catholicism now has a broader concept of salvation, one that encompasses soul and body, individual and social existence. It would be difficult to identify a doctrine closer to the core of the apostolic tradition than salvation, and hence John Paul must be assigned significant credit for prompting this development.
The 12th century’s Pope Alexander III, said Voltaire, was concerned with the restoration of people’s rights and the repression of rulers’ wrongdoings. As such, Voltaire regarded Alexander as not merely the man of the 12th century, but the most important pope in the Middle Ages.
Match John Paul’s dueling with Polish President Wojciech Jaruzelski with Alexander battling the Emperor Barbarossa, and the place in history of this truly political pope is obvious.
John Paul II intervened in the world and internal affairs of other nations with determination. He followed his own line, whether it was in wagging his finger at Nicaragua’s foreign minister, Fr. Ernesto Cardenal, or rebuking Cubans on abortion. Hauteur, or chutzpah.
At every opportunity he pushed for personal freedoms, of assembly, of religion, of elections. At a time when social justice concepts in Western democracies went into sharp decline in the era of Reagan, Thatcher and Kohl, John Paul was frequently a lone figure internationally, demanding rights for the oppressed, food for the hungry, and sustenance and developmental aid for poor nations.
Some right-wing American Catholic intellectuals, aiming to reconcile free-market logic with Catholic teaching, tried time and again to bring the pope along. Though his statements on economic matters were occasionally slippery enough to give the spin doctors hope, John Paul’s heart was truly with capitalism’s critics.
Italian historian Andrea Riccardi, founder of the Sant’Egidio community, recounts a July 22, 1979, conversation in which the pope expressed his own view: “Look, I can surely say by now that I’ve got the antibodies to communism inside me. But when I think of consumer society, with all its tragedies, I wonder which of the two systems is better.”
Nor was economic philosophy the only area in which the pope could sound like a leftist social crusader. During a period when, in the United States, capital punishment became a preferred way of dealing with certain crimes, the pope could be relied on to intervene. At least one inmate owes his life directly to John Paul: convicted killer Darrell Mease, whose death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment by the governor of Missouri at the pope's request during a 1999 visit to St. Louis.
Indeed, by the end of his reign John Paul loomed as the globe’s leading opponent of capital punishment, with Catholics influenced by the pope’s teaching speaking worldwide as a voice for those condemned to death. It was a remarkable evolution in Catholic teaching, given that the church since the fourth century had made its peace with the death penalty, and that as late as 1868 a papal executioner was carrying out executions with the approval of the vicar of Christ in the heart of Rome.
During the lead-up to the Iraq war in 2003, Pope John Paul and the Vatican were fierce critics not just of that war, but of the concept of “preemptive war” in general. The pope was also an enthusiastic, though not uncritical, backer of the United Nations and other international institutions.
John Paul served as a formidable moral voice in international debates as few other global figures of his time did. He elevated the importance of the papacy’s bully pulpit to an all-time high, and as such stood on the world stage alongside Reagan, Thatcher, Blair, Clinton, the Bushes and Chirac - and in many ways, towered over them all.
As a pastor in Poland just after the war Karol Wojtyla was rigorous, but one-on-one kindly; as a bishop he was competent and courageous but not given much to paperwork; and as a pope he was vigorous and didactic on church teaching. In terms of the church politics of the immediate pre- and post-Vatican II period in Poland, Wojtyla was seen as on the liberal wing, as sternly orthodox as the rest of Polish Catholicism, but with a cautious opening to the learning of the West and a sincere desire to purge the errors of the past, especially anti-Semitism, from the soul of the Polish church.
He was a Polish Romantic in the early 19th-century sense, with the bitter 20th-century awareness of a Poland betrayed by the West (including by the papacy).
As a scholar he was formidable. His works are ponderous and pedantic, as a poet (read in translation) elliptical.
It is an error to fasten on to Karol Wojtyla’s “Polishness,” and then attribute everything that follows to it. The actuality is more complex.
First the “Polishness.”
It is not an individual trait, but part of the national conditioning. Poland in Wojtyla’s day was divided first between conquerors (Nazis) and conquered; later between oppressors (communist rulers) and oppressed (noncommunist Poles in general and Catholic Poles in particular). A century earlier, a similar situation prevailed in Poland, only the names of the conquerors (Czarist Russians) and their co-opted rulers were different. In Wojtyla’s part of Poland, there was the Austrian empire (Wojtyla missed being born a citizen of Austria’s Hapsburg empire by only two years).
Wojtyla’s formation and conditioning came from having to survive under Nazism and communism. The “Polishness” made that survival possible. Poland was a country held together not by political unity but by history and culture - the language, the church, the arts.
Karol Wojtyla was first and foremost a cosmopolitan Slav who succeeded according to Polish measures of success. The intellectual, not the billionaire, was revered.
Karol Josef Wojtyla was born May 18, 1920 (baptized June 20), in Wadowice, in the Galicia region, 30 miles from Kraków. It was a city almost one-third Jewish where interfaith relations were cordial. Wojtyla’s closest friends were Jews and Catholics.
Wojtyla was ordained a priest Nov. 1, 1946, and he succeeded again and again. He was a bishop at 37 (auxiliary of Kraków, 1958), an archbishop at 43 (Jan. 13, 1964), a cardinal at 46 (June 26, 1967), and pope at 58 (Oct. 16, 1978).
The Polish national soul, with liberation at its center, was a soul revitalized and disciplined inside the church, and reinforced outside the church by art and culture. The culture ranged from the poetry of Adam Mickiewicz and Juliusz Slowacki (who in an 1848 poem predicted a liberating “Slavic Pope, a brother of the people”) to the heroic-Romantic paintings of artists like Josef Brandt, to the Christmas koleda or carols set to Tatra mountain folk music. All these elements came together in Wojtyla’s first love: the theater, itself regarded as a tool of liberation and a means of cultural survival.
His father, Karol Wojtyla, was first a noncommissioned officer in the ruling Austro-Hungarian Empire's military and then, following Austria's defeat and the birth of a free Poland, a commissioned officer in the Polish army. His mother was Emilia Kaczorowska, and Karol was her third child. The oldest child, Edmund, 14 years Karol's senior, was a doctor who died at age 26 in 1932 from attending to patients during a scarlet fever epidemic. The Wojtyla daughter, Olga, died in infancy in 1914.
One release from the personal intensity was the outdoors. He was a skier and hiker, accomplished in a canoe. His added factor was that his was a superbly trained intellect. Karol attended public grammar and high schools, was an outstanding student and a leading actor at 15 in school dramatic productions. All this was accomplished by a child and young adult in Poland under Nazism’s heel when fear, and the genuine possibility of deportation or death, were constant companions.
Student, priest, scholar, bishop
The fact of Wojtyla’s survival under Nazism and communism loses its dramatic impact if it is regarded only as a physical survival. His was also an intellectual survival. He carried the Polish ideals that existed before Nazism into the Poland that succeeded its communism.
Later, what the world witnessed when he went up against regimes (criticizing Marcos when visiting the Philippines, or the Castro government’s abortion policies during his 1998 Cuban excursion) was a mind formed in dislike of totalitarian socialism.
As priest and bishop he understood this communism from the inside. That experience, which played into his theology of freedom and justice, formed the man and directed many of his actions. It was this knowledge that provided the actions that produced his finest accomplishments, supporting the liberationist Polish trade union movement, Solidarity, and working toward the defeat of the Polish Communist Party’s grip (and, by extension, the Soviet Union’s) on the Polish people.
It was his studious response to Poland’s prevailing communism (and clandestine risk-taking ordaining Czech priests) that later produced the formidable opponent, and the formidable spokesman with the impressive grasp of contemporary politics, economics, sociology and philosophy.
The late Peter Hebblethwaite, writing on the student-to-bishop period in Wojtyla's life, said the pope learned tough-minded independence the hard way. Just before World War II, he was a student at the famous Jagellonian University in Kraków where he studied literature and tried his hand at poetry.
He belonged to the Rhapsodic Theatre group. They did verse dramas on heroic, medieval themes from Polish history, sometimes in modern dress, and were regarded as avant-garde. With the Nazi invasion in 1939, the theater was abolished, along with all other signs of cultural life, but the actors continued to perform in private apartments before groups of 20 to 30 people. Wojtyla belonged to the “cultural resistance movement.”
As a young man, he worked in the Belgian-owned Solvay chemical factory, partly to stay alive, partly to have a work permit, for anyone caught without one risked deportation to the slave-labor camps.
In 1942, Wojtyla entered the “secret seminary” of Archbishop Adam Sapieha in Kraków. As Nazi round-ups increased, Wojtyla vanished from his factory and was not seen again until after the war. During that time he was pursuing his philosophical studies in the archbishop’s residence. This was also a form of incarceration, because for security reasons they never left the palace.
Ordained in 1946, Wojtyla was fortunate to be granted permission (by the ruling communists) to exit to study in Rome. At the Angelicum University his dissertation was on John of the Cross, a Counter-Reformation Spanish saint whose spiritual treatises would fuel Wojytla’s own mysticism. Wojtyla was denied his doctorate because he could not afford to have his dissertation published. Later, at Poland’s Catholic University of Lublin, he gained a doctorate for his work on Max Scheler, a Catholic philosopher with leanings toward existentialism and phenomenology.
As pope, John Paul had a penchant for blending traditional Catholic theology with the philosophical insights of the 20th century, especially the “personalism” of the phenomenologists. Many Catholic traditionalists were critical of John Paul for departing from the tried-and-true system of neo-Scholasticism, another instance in which the stereotype of a “conservative” pope runs out of gas.
Wojtyla had a special fondness for young people, including young married couples. He spoke with them frankly about married love, including its sexual aspect. That period in his life later flowered during his pontificate in a remarkable set of teachings delivered in general audiences about human sexuality. He spoke openly and warmly about sexuality as a gift that unites men and women in the depths of their being. Critics said that John Paul, in refusing to budge on issues such as birth control or homosexuality, refused to draw the conclusions of his own reasoning on human dignity as the ultimate basis of sexual morality.
There is little reason to believe, as Kwitny has asserted, that Wojtyla actually wrote Paul VI’s encyclical, Humanae Vitae. There is every reason to believe that as Paul VI looked around for support when deciding not to accept his Birth Control Commission’s recommendation to permit artificial contraception, Wojtyla was one of the few publicly providing it, and supplying Paul with letters, documents and arguments in support.
Wojtyla was a member of the Birth Control Commission, but not a reform-minded one. He did not attend a single meeting.
As the cardinal of Kraków, Wojtyla was an effective leader, but hardly the wunderkind that biographer George Weigel describes. (Weigel asserts that Wojtyla was one of the most effective diocesan bishops in the world, in an example of the ex-post-facto inflation of one’s biography that always occurs after a man becomes pope).
Council, father and pope
Wojtyla kept a low profile under Stalinism and wrote much of his published poetry under a nom de plume. Biographer Tad Szulc remarks the ever-busy Wojtyla also wrote poetry throughout the first session of the Vatican Council. After the council ended, he published a cycle of poems about the experience. His literary output from this period also includes Love and Responsibility, on sexual and marital ethics, and Person and Act, a philosophical reflection on the human condition.
Kwitny tells of a Polish episcopacy meeting at which Wojtyla was reading at the rear of the room while Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski, the absolute monarch of the Polish church, conducted the meeting. Wyszynski, eyeing Wojtyla still reading, abruptly called on him to summarize. Wojtyla did, flawlessly.
The first council session opened on Oct. 11, 1963. Wojtyla was there with a distinct advantage over many of the 2,860 council fathers: his Latin was superb. He spoke up on questions of the liturgy and submitted written interventions on issues of social communications. Without attributing any of its faults to Wojtyla, one council expert later described the Decree on the Means of Social Communications (approved at the second session) as a “third-rate constitution written by second-rate minds on a first-rate topic.”
Active in the committees that drafted Gaudium et Spes (the “Constitution on the Church in the Modern World”) Wojtyla had his first opportunity, as Szulc states, to present his social philosophy before a world forum:
“The modern world is new in good and it is new in evil. It contains new values but also new crises. It is a world of new closeness between people and nations, but at the same time, a world that is threatening and dangerous in a new way for each person and entire societies. It is a world of progress and luxury in which the majority of humanity suffers simultaneously from hunger.”
Wojtyla was the only speaker at the council to address the basilica “Venerable Fathers, Brothers and Sisters,” recognizing the women auditors. During the final session, with the religious declarations on which he’d worked approved, Wojtyla voted against a formal council condemnation of communism.
After Vatican II, Wojtyla was a frequent participant in synods of bishops, and was often elected to the post-synodal council. He was popular enough in certain circles that at least some prominent churchmen thought of him as a papabile, or candidate to be pope. On May 18, 1978, three months before Paul VI died, Cardinal Jean Villot sponsored a small luncheon in honor of Wojtyla, who was in Rome celebrating his 58th birthday. Villot pointed at the young Pole and said something the others present would later recall as prophetic. Wojtyla, he said, was perhaps the only candidate who could get two-thirds of the vote in a future conclave.
Still, going into the second conclave of 1978, most regarded Wojtyla or any non-Italian as a long shot. Cardinal Franz König of Vienna was one of the grand electors of 1978 and the man who first proposed Wojtyla after the conclave deadlocked between Italian heavyweights Giovanni Bennelli and Giuseppe Siri. König told NCR in a 1999 interview at his residence that he is convinced the other cardinals embraced Wojtyla as a shot in the arm for the church behind the Iron Curtain, and as a break with the Italian monopoloy. Beyond that, König said, they really didn’t know what they were getting.
König said he recalls vividly one cardinal walking up to him after the voting was over and asking: “What have we done?” It was not a rhetorical question; he really wanted to know who the man they had just elected pope really was.
Whatever may be said publicly, John Paul II did not endear himself to some of his brother bishops, either in the exercise of “collegiality” or in the way in which he permitted some Vatican Congregations in particular, and the Roman curia in general, to deal with them.
To take the latter point first: This pontificate’s relationship with the national hierarchies was marred by the manner in which the Roman curia communicated with the archbishops and bishops of the world. Frequently the missives, often drafted by subordinates, ranged from the arrogant to the impertinent. It was not rare for cardinals to resent the tone of some letters, and a few would remonstrate with department heads the next time they were in Rome.
The other point, “collegiality,” is open to considerable interpretation. Indisputably, one goal of the council was to change the distribution of power inside the church: first to ensure a system of balance between the needs of the bishops to be able to act independently, while still being responsive to the center; next, that all the bishops in concert with the pope would participate in the governance of the church.
Government in a collegial church means the pope in consultation with the bishops. The bishops in turn represent the particular needs of their people, in their specific place and era of historic development as Christians.
During John Paul II’s reign, some bishops put a good gloss on a poor situation, and others didn’t. The truth was that the “imperial papacy,” under construction since Pius IX in the 19th century, when the popes lost the final vestiges of their temporal authority, reached full flower under John Paul II. Using TV and other modern means of communication, the pope and the Vatican injected themselves into the daily life of local churches in a way never before seen.
To the pope, collegiality meant the synods of bishops. Independent these synods were not. The agenda, like the final report, was always on the pope’s terms. One Western archbishop has argued that a better approach to collegiality could come from regular and open consultation by the pope with the presidents of the national hierarchies who, because they are elected, would be representative.
Over time, a few bishops and cardinals refused to participate in the synods because they saw them as a sham. The synods, these frustrated prelates said, offered the appearance of consultation without its substance.
The 1998 papal document Apostolos Suos put an exclamation point on John Paul's centralizing approach. It said that only individual bishops in their dioceses and all the bishops gathered in a council have teaching authority. For a document of a bishops’ conference to be binding it must receive the unanimous approval of the conference (in which case it shares in the authority of all the individual bishops) or it must be approved by Rome (in which case it reflects the pope’s authority). The move was clearly intended to weaken bishops’ conferences as a counterpoint to Rome.
In a 1998 article in the English periodical The Tablet, König of Austria pulled no punches about the disjunction between John Paul’s style and the vision of Vatican II. “In the post-conciliar period ... the Vatican authorities have striven to take back autonomy and central leadership for themselves. ... The style of leadership of the universal church which is being practiced today is not entirely in keeping with the council’s intentions.”
Powerful members of the national hierarchies, dealing one-on-one with the pope, said they found an excellent host and an agreeable listener. But in other Vatican domains, they could equally find themselves dealt with quite peremptorily on substantive issues.
In an otherwise sociable setting, one cardinal-archbishop, bearer of a lengthy report on Catholic attitudes in his country, specifically asked the pope to read just two pages - those on his national flock’s and clergy’s reactions to Humanae Vitae. The pope gestured dismissively with his hand and murmured, “yes, yes” in a manner that indicated it would never be done.
On a lighter note, John Paul was quite a character with his flair for languages, memory for faces and incredibly detailed recall of places and events. A single instance suffices. In 1992, a group of American priests were in a general audience. As the pope walked along the line, an accompanying priest provided the name of the priest being introduced and where he was from.
When Msgr. Wallace Harris of Harlem was introduced, the pope asked which parish he was from. When Harris said St. Charles Borromeo, the pope spoke of his own visit there in 1979. Then he asked what the parish had done with the three abandoned buildings on an adjoining corner. Harris said they had been torn down and low-income housing built.
John Paul then asked about the fate of a derelict building across from the church. Harris said it was now 69 units for the elderly named the Pope John Paul II Center. The pope pursed his lips in a wry smile, nodded and moved on.
The pope as mystic
There is no doubt about the depth and constancy of John Paul’s personal piety, prayer and mysticism. Few popes have worn their private devotions and spiritual preferences on the sleeve as John Paul did. As a young man, Karol Wojtyla considered a vocation to the Carmelites because of his attraction to the daring, passionately emotional spirituality of John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila. His mystical streak gave him a profound conviction that his pontificate was part of a larger cosmic drama, at the heart of which was the apocalyptic struggle of good against evil.
At the heart of John Paul’s spirituality was a deep devotion to the Virgin Mary. Wojtyla chose as the motto of his pontificate the Latin phrase Totus Tuus, drawn from the spiritual writings of the French author St. Louis de Montfort. (In the third post-conciliar version of the Roman Missal, issued in 2002, John Paul fixed April 28 as a feast of de Montfort for the universal church).
John Paul believed Mary stood watch over his pontificate, most notably in preserving him from the assassination attempt on May 13, 1981. On a trip to Fatima the following year, the pope deposited the bullet doctors removed from his body in the crown atop the statue of the Virgin. During the Jubilee Year, John Paul had the bishops of the world join him in a public recitation of the rosary that climaxed with this statue being carried in triumphal procession around St. Peter’s Square, a gesture that some found moving and other excessive.
Fatima is not the only private devotion of John Paul that went public when he became pope. The Catholic church now has a special Mass dedicated to Divine Mercy, a devotion spread by the early 20th century Polish nun St. Faustina Kowalska, a personal favorite of the Polish pope. John Paul believed it was no accident that God chose to reveal a message of mercy to Sr. Faustina between the two World Wars, arguably one of the most pitiless periods in human history. For Wojtyla, it was a reminder that human schemes shorn of God and truth are fated to end in disaster.
John Paul also decreed universal feasts for many saints whose halos he awarded, including Maximilian Kolbe and Edith Stein, two martyrs of the Second World War. (John Paul declared Kolbe a martyr despite the fact that he did not meet the traditional criteria, being killed for the faith and because of the faith. Kolbe offered his life in Auschwitz for another prisoner, an act of heroism but not a classic martyrdom. The pope brushed such niggling aside).
John Paul was without doubt a man of deep prayer. Cardinal Julian Herranz, who worked in the Roman curia for more than 45 years, said that beyond the trips, the saint-making, and the media spectacles, there was yet another “first” about John Paul’s pontificate that was perhaps more revealing about the man: No pope, Herranz asserted, ever spent as much time in the front of the Tabernacle, where Catholics believe Christ is present in the form of consecrated bread, as did John Paul.
People who had the chance to watch him celebrate Mass in his private chapel speak of his reverence, his concentration, his absorption in the liturgy. It was no doubt that reservoir of faith that gave him the strength to carry on when his physical limits would have stopped most other men.
Cardinal Jorge Medina Estévez, who served the pope in the Roman curia, said he was once present when the pope was asked why he didn’t resign. “Because Jesus didn’t come down off the cross,” was his response.
A personal summary
In 1996, the famed U.S. liturgical authority Benedictine Fr. Godfrey Diekmann, then 87, participated in Rome at a meeting of the International Commission on English in the Liturgy. This commission, responsible for translating liturgical texts from Latin, emerged in the latter stages of John Paul's papacy as a political football; in 1999 the Vatican moved to take control of the commission, which had previously been a joint project of English-speaking bishops’ conferences, in order to steer it in a more conservative, “Roman” direction.
At the meeting, there was an opportunity to say Mass with, and meet, John Paul II. Diekmann had had six other opportunities to meet the Holy Father, he said, but never took them.
In his heart, he said, he could not bear to do it. For while he acknowledged that the pope was a holy man and took actions with the best of intentions, he felt John Paul was robbing the church of the biggest changes that had taken place in modern times, especially regarding the role of the laity and collegiality.
Nonetheless, Diekmann, who died in 2002, was prevailed upon and celebrated a Mass with the pope. Later, the participants discussed the Mass and agreed they had never seen a liturgy celebrated with such complete conviction and piety and absorption in God. Two days later, Diekmann took relatives to a general audience and watched the pope take care of “the halt, the lame and the blind, and the children.”
Diekmann pondered and decided that this, too, was an experience of the pope’s holiness, his compassion.
Finally, “I told myself,” said Diekmann, “that perhaps in the long run what is most important is that the Holy Father represents the compassion of Christ in the world at the present time. Perhaps all our concerns are of minor import to that. Perhaps the Holy Ghost will know how to get us out of this quandary, for things have gone so far that the laity have taken over much of the ministry and much of the sacramental life of the church.”
Whether John Paul II wanted them to or not.
The final days
What then of Pope John Paul II toward the end? That image of him sitting slumped over in his rolling throne (the Vatican would never call it a “wheelchair”), his eyes either closed or almost, his face contorted. Was it pain, anxiety, a crushing sense of so much still to do?
In the end, Karol Wojtyla, deeper than his politics and beyond his early 20th century Polish Catholic cultural formation, was a mensch. He was a strong, intelligent, committed human being, someone whose integrity and dedication represent a standard by which other leaders can be measured.
John Paul was a selfless figure in a me-first world. Cardinal Roberto Tucci, who planned John Paul’s voyages before retiring in 2001, once said he had briefed John Paul hundreds of times on the details for his various trips. Not once, Tucci said, did the pope ever ask where he was going to sleep, what he would eat or wear, or what his creature comforts would be. The same indifference to himself could be seen every time the pope stepped, or, in the end, was rolled upon the public stage.
This is the key that unlocks why John Paul drew enormous crowds, even where his specific political or doctrinal stands may be unpopular. It’s a rare ideologue for whom condoms or the Latin Mass represent ultimate concerns. Deeper than politics, either secular or ecclesiastical, lies the realm of personal integrity - goodness and holiness, the qualities we prize most in colleagues, family and friends. A person may be liberal or conservative, avant-garde or traditional, but let him or her be decent and most of the time that’s enough.
This realm of menschlichkeit, authentic humanity, is where John Paul’s appeal came from. For a pope of a hundred trips and a million words, perhaps the most important lesson he offered was the coherence of his own life. When he urged Christians to Duc in Altum, to set off into the deep, it resonated even with those who sought very different shores.
He was part of all our lives, but he would not let us be part of his. He was seen, heard but not fully understood. Admired, not always liked. Outside the church, the democrat. Inside the church, the autocrat.
Karol Wojtyla, motherless boy, proud, confident priest, controlling pope and fearless world leader in death challenges history to describe who he was and what he did.
He was a formidable pope. It will be a formidable task.
[John L. Allen Jr. is NCR Rome correspondent. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Arthur Jones, NCR editor at large, contributed to this article.]
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