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Special to msnbc.com
updated 4/2/2005 5:24:48 PM ET 2005-04-02T22:24:48

Christ at the center of all things was a theme to which John Paul II returned until the very end of his life and which served as his unceasing prayer for the church and the world.  On Oct. 22, 1978, only a few days after his election as pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church, Pope John Paul II called upon the world: "Be not afraid.  Open wide the doors to Christ. To his saving power upon the boundaries of states, economic and political systems, the vast fields of culture, civilization and development.  Do not be afraid."

In his first major papal document, “Redemptor Hominis” ("The Savior of Man"), John Paul wrote, "Our spirit is set in one direction; the only direction for our intellect, will and heart is toward Christ our Redeemer."

This Christocentric theology had profound ramifications for the Catholic Church in the modern world as it presented humanity not in isolation from God but reaching its fullness through God's Son.  By proclaiming that human dignity can be seen only in the light of Christ, John Paul II challenged modern thinking and oriented the church to defend the human person against the great threats posed to true freedom and dignity by the political and philosophical systems of the 20th century.

Karol Wojtyla had witnessed first-hand two of those dehumanizing movements, Nazism and communism.  He emerged from those experiences refined and resolute that the church offered the only antidote to a spiritually arid age.  John Paul saw the church not in a static defensive posture but in fidelity to the call of the Gospel to preach to all nations.  As one of the most active members of the Second Vatican Council, the pope knew that the council had mandated a dialogue with the modern world.  In the long conversation of his reign, he spoke for the church and apologized for the past errors of its members, pleaded for the reunion of the splintered Christian family.

He also called for unity in Christ for all, even if the world seemed unwilling or unprepared to listen. To the frustration of Western secular humanists, he rejected anew abortion, contraception and euthanasia. In the face of moral relativism, he confirmed church doctrine on both natural law and absolute moral norms as integral to the development of the authentic person.  At the same time he confounded social conservatives by his opposition to the death penalty, and in his social teachings he brought the church squarely into the arena of economic development, social justice, the rights of workers, a "radical capitalistic ideology" and rampant consumerism. Beneath this oft-criticized stern and unyielding face of the pontiff's teachings, however, was a genuine optimism rooted in the Gospel.

In every instance of his teachings, he returned the church to Christ as the model for humanity, the restoration of the dignity intended by God, and the triumph over fear and sin. As he wrote in his book “Crossing the Threshold of Hope”: "The power of Christ's Cross and Resurrection is greater than any evil which man could or should fear." John Paul II preached freedom for the world — not the ephemeral freedom of material possessions and moral license of modern culture, but the liberating horizon of acknowledging the sovereignty of God.  Of this liberation, the pope declared, "To accept the Gospel's demands means to affirm all of our humanity, to see it in the beauty desired by God, while at the same time recognizing, in light of the power of God Himself, our weaknesses: 'What is impossible for men is possible for God.' (Luke 18:27)."

Matthew Bunson is editor of the Catholic newspaper Our Sunday Visitor.

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