John Paul II at 100 – His Life and Legacy
As we mark the centenary on May 18 of the birth of Karol Wojtyla, we particularly celebrate the epochal papacy of Pope John Paul II.
When Pope John Paul died in April 2005, The Southern Cross produced a special memorial edition. On the cover we titled the late pontiff “John Paul the Great”.
Many tributes since have echoed that title. One need not agree with all of its directions to see that Pope John Paul II’s 26-year papacy, the third-longest in history, was marked by greatness, if such things are measured by leadership, impact, prophetic witness, integrity and service.
Pope John Paul’s papacy, much as that of Pope Francis today, forces us to reconcile positions which may at first glance be irreconcilable.
The Polish pope’s contribution to bringing down Soviet communism delighted Western capitalists to such an extent that they saw John Paul as one of theirs (as did many of their opponents). But he was also a fierce critic of capitalist systems that fail to serve the common good, and especially the poorest.
And his historic visit to Cuba in 1998 brought the island nation’s enemies, chiefly the United States, much discomfort.
But during that visit, he also criticised the Castro regime. Often, John Paul would use foreign trips to intercede prophetically in political affairs.
For example, when he controversially visited Chile in 1987, he told fascist dictator Augusto Pinochet — a murderous tyrant as well as a pious Catholic — to accede to demands for a referendum on his continued leadership. Pinochet did, and lost.
Pope John Paul also sent a clear message to the apartheid regime, whose system he despised, by excluding South Africa from his 1988 tour of the region.
When he was forced to land in Johannesburg, he met foreign minister Pik Botha with a studied lack of warmth.
Pope John Paul had a special love for Africa: both synods of bishops concerning the continent were called by him (though the second one was presided over by his successor, Pope Benedict XVI).
In the bloodiest of centuries, Pope John Paul epitomised, by word and deed, the pursuit for peace. In that, he stands alongside the likes of Gandhi, King and Mandela.
In a world that increasingly had lost its moral direction, John Paul provided an ethical compass. He spoke from convictions that were not shared by everybody, but his moral stature demanded that he — and the Church he led — at least be heard.
A conservative on doctrinal issues and a progressive on social justice, John Paul attracted criticism from many within the Church.
Some objected to his preferential option for the poor or his ecumenical initiatives, others were opposed to issues of Church governance or certain inflexible positions in moral teachings.
And, like any of us, John Paul had flaws. He was so convinced of his own positions and devotions that he could not entertain the notion that others might legitimately not share in these. It has been said that Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, his doctrinal chief and eventual successor, at times had to put the brakes on the pope.
John Paul was also a poor judge of character, an affliction shared by many popes before and after him. Several of the individuals he appointed to lofty curial and other positions of great influence were particularly regrettable choices.
Some of them can be held responsible for the Church’s disastrous response to the sexual abuse scandal; some were even guilty of sexual abuse themselves.
There are people who resent the late pope for “dialling back” the progress of the Second Vatican Council. There is a fruitful debate to be had on that subject, but such claims also miss the point that the pope did implement the fruits of the council to which he had contributed — in the way he understood it.
In our front-page editorial in 2005, we noted: “People will remember John Paul in many ways: the people’s pope, the Polish pope, the African pope, the pilgrim pope, the teacher pope, the pope of the youth, the Marian pope, the media pope, the pope of peace, the evangelising pope, the pope of social justice, the saint-maker pope, the writer pope, the pro-life pope, the innovator pope, the suffering pope [and] the holy pope.”
On the centenary of his birth, we recall Pope St John Paul II in all of these attributes.