IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

A papacy and church transformed

Even before John Paul II's first papal pronouncement, he was granted a place in history as the Roman Catholic Church's first modern pope, charged with leading the centuries-old institution into the next millennium — the "new springtime of Christianity," as he called it.
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

So much was expected of Karol Wojtyla when he became pope in 1978. Here, for the first time, was a pontiff plucked not from the Vatican's perfumed inner chambers, but a man of the world. He was not Italian; he skied, he kayaked, he acted in dramas. His fellow clerics compared him to John Wayne.

His faith, too, seemed tested. He had lost his mother early, lived in the shadow of Auschwitz, performed forced labor in a limestone quarry. "Do Not Be Afraid" was his motto at his inauguration, and one sensed that after living through Poland's brutal mid-century, he no longer was.

So even before his first papal pronouncement, he was granted a place in history as the Roman Catholic Church's first modern pope, charged with leading the centuries-old institution into the next millennium — the "new springtime of Christianity," as he called it.

And 26 years later, it's by that yardstick that Pope John Paul II's legacy will be judged, both in the church he transformed and in the world he tried so hard to influence.

'Man of the century' or man who changed little?
For those who expected more from the modernization — American priests ordained in the 1960s, say, Catholic women who wanted to be priests or Latin American leaders who wanted a partner in revolution — the pope not only betrayed his promise but locked the church in place for years to come.

"I'm of the generation of priests who were euphoric about the idea that the church could change," said the Rev. Andrew Greeley, an author and columnist. "And while I recognize all his great talents, I think he pulled the plug on it, and that greatly dismays me."

But to his many admirers, John Paul succeeded brilliantly. Armed only with the Gospel, using a title that could have easily faded into irrelevance in a secular age, he made himself a world leader on the order of Franklin D. Roosevelt or Winston Churchill.

"Not the man of the Catholic 20th century," his biographer George Weigel has said, "but the man of the century, period."

Cold War force
Less than a year into his tenure, he made clear what feats a modern pope — especially a former actor — could pull off on history's stage. June 1979, Victory Square, Warsaw, standing in front of a 36-foot-high wooden cross. "Do not be defeated," he told the gathered masses, and they shouted back: "We want God! We want God!"

For years after, Cold War historians debated how much that nine-day visit helped destabilize the country's Communist government or lent moral force to the Solidarity movement that eventually toppled it.

But even those who give him less credit acknowledge that whatever got stirred in Poland those days, the papacy itself was forever changed. Popes have always been diplomats, negotiating with local powers to protect the church's interests. But here was a pope who defined the church's interest in the broadest way possible — as the liberation of the human spirit, for Catholics and non-Catholics alike. Here was a pope who saw his role as a prophet for a troubled world, who derived his authority not from the institution but from a transcendent source.

"There is no more clear voice in the world for social justice in our time," said Mary Anne Glendon, one of a generation of philosophers, and not just Catholic thinkers, who credit him as their muse. "Whenever I get discouraged about the state of the world, I turn to his work to get galvanized."

Jet-age papacy
For the rest of his 84 years he pursued the prophet's calling, taking his portable altar to every forgotten corner, making more pilgrimages in a typical year than any pope before him had made in his entire tenure. The trips produced unforgettable moments: the pope kissing a concrete floor at the Auschwitz death camp; stirring teenagers at Madison Square Garden into rock-concert frenzy; touring a synagogue in Rome; visiting his would-be assassin, Mehmet Ali Agca, in prison to grant him forgiveness.

If a repressive government didn't want him to visit, he pleaded in letters and phone calls until it relented, such as in Chile, Indonesia and states of the former Soviet Union. When he arrived, he would repeat the performance at Victory Square, if on a smaller scale.

Recall January 1998 in Havana as the crowds shouted "Libertad! Libertad!" during John Paul's visit. Observers noted that a pained Fidel Castro looked as if he wanted to go to confession.

At each stop the crowds responded to his particular charisma, the showmanship of a former actor deepened by the serenity of a man who prays six hours a day. One minute on stage he was stealing rock star Bono's sunglasses; the next he was extolling the ministry of Jesus. He had a gift for using mass communication to criticize the affluent cultures that invented it. Teenage girls screamed at the sight of him. He made holiness buzz.

Catholicism at a crossroads
But over the years, it became less clear if his popularity translated into moral authority. Communism in Poland was an easy, familiar target and his victory was clean. But later in his pontificate, John Paul began to focus on more difficult targets such as capitalism. And here, the will of the people was not always on his side.

In his prodigious writings, he used church theology to fashion an alternative to modern materialism, to try to teach Catholics how to live in a world with fading respect for authority and human dignity, and amid scores of new-fangled temptations. He tried to find a way "to engage with the world without becoming of the world," explained Monsignor Lorenzo Albacete, a theologian and New York writer.

To accomplish that, he reoriented the theology of the church in fundamental ways. His writings emphasized the role of Jesus not just in revealing the mystery of the divine but also the mystery of the man. The result was to elevate the dignity of the human being, said David L. Schindler of the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family at Catholic University.

Simplified radically, his theology was this: Without fixed moral principles, people can fall into the trap of treating one another like objects of commerce or pleasure or vengeance. The proof was in nearly all realms of human activity. In "The Gospel of Life," his famous 1995 indictment of modernity, he cited the Second Vatican Council in listing murder, genocide, abortion, euthanasia, slavery, prostitution and disgraceful working conditions.

The task was his most ambitious, because it meant beating back not just one government or movement but the whole course of the modern world. The strain of his struggle showed. The pope meant his message to fill people with hope. Yet often his tone turned dark and brooding. "In addition to the ancient scourges of poverty, hunger, endemic diseases, violence and war, new threats are emerging on an alarmingly vast scale," he wrote in an encyclical that read more like a Human Rights Watch report than a spiritual message.

Balancing faith, modernity and freedom
The future looked even bleaker to him: "With the new prospects opened up by scientific and technological progress," he continued, "there arise new forms of attacks on the dignity of the human being."

He took this message with him back to Poland in 1995. This time he was in a new landscape of fast-food restaurants and red-light districts. The audience at Victory Square was distracted, and some reporters swore they heard boos. At one point the pope had to shake his fist like a grade-school teacher to get the crowd to listen.

"When people were free, it turned out they didn't go to church," said Albacete, the New York theologian. "They went to the nearest McDonald's."

Internally, similar battles were being played out over church discipline. In 1994, after the Anglican church became one of the last in the Protestant world to allow the ordination of women, the pope published an apostolic letter reiterating the historical and theological centrality of an all-male priesthood. As usual, he believed in communicating and explaining and debating his decision in passionate detail, but the answer was the same: There would be no budging.

Another challenge came in Latin America in the mid-1980s with the rise of liberation theology. The pope considered this movement a misguided Marxist revival and did not try to hide his impatience. On tours through Nicaragua and El Salvador, he lost his temper with crowds, yelling "Silencio!" He shut down seminaries and disciplined priests he saw as replaying the worst era of Poland in the Americas.

The 'American pope'?
In John Paul's struggle against the course of modernity, the United States held a special distinction. On the surface, it seemed the one place where the pope's vision had a chance -- the only country that had thoroughly modernized but where 95 percent of citizens still believed in God.

Some American Catholic intellectuals, mostly neoconservatives such as Weigel, implied he was the "American pope," indirectly blessing the American experience of liberalism. Others such as Schindler countered that there was too much that infuriated John Paul about the American experiment for him to be wholly embracing.

America, after all, was the mothership of the material goods flooding and corrupting his beloved Europe and the rest of the world. America's brand of spirituality was home-brewed, indifferent to institutions like the church. And Americans continued to support the practice that shocked him the most: the death penalty.

In the pews here, he faced a laity star-struck but not especially loyal. Very few Catholic Americans agree with the pope's teaching that even sex within marriage should have procreation in mind. His inflexibility on this question, coupled with his unwillingness to deliver a strong rebuke of the bishops involved in the sex abuse scandal, meant "the credibility of the church on sexual matters was diminished or destroyed," said the Rev. Richard P. McBrien, a theologian at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana.

Each time an encyclical was anticipated, many Catholics, especially in the United States, waited for a shift in policy. And each time they were disappointed, as the pope reinforced church orthodoxy on the role of women, sexual ethics, homosexuality. The pope enforced his rulings by appointing a huge percentage of the bishops and cardinals now serving worldwide, more than 90 percent in the United States alone, men who would be faithful to his vision.

A pontiff who defied definitions
To the Catholics who felt betrayed by how little he changed the church, his popularity was a kind of trick, the thing that most reminded them of the gap between what he appeared to be and what he was. "Because of his travels and television, he may have more prestige than any pope in history," said McBrien. "But he has very little influence on the lives of Catholic lay people. They see him and cheer for him. But there's not much substance" in his effect on them.

Ultimately, he was hard to categorize in the American context. The terms liberal and conservative "just don't apply to him," said Glendon, the philosopher. He opposed abortion and the death penalty; he was equally passionate about the role of the male priesthood as he was about workers' rights. Conservatives accepted his teachings on morality but played down his emphasis on social justice and the limits of the free market. Liberals did the opposite. "But you can't pick and choose," Glendon said.

The final years of his papacy were often defined by his physical limitations. Rumors would circulate that he was canceling a trip; he almost always showed up, but was barely able to move, his every clearly enunciated word a grand triumph. "A soul leading a body," his spokesman, Joaquin Navarro-Valls, often said during this period, and the sentiment could be read as either excruciating or inspiring.

In the end, though, he could not win over everyone, and his tenure ended for him with many disappointments.

He left his beloved Europe cold to his charms, more secular than ever. He left America more adoring than faithful. His evangelization of the Third World had only limited effect. But maybe he found spiritual fulfillment in his disappointments. The example of Jesus teaches nobility in suffering, so perhaps the pope's leadership can ultimately be measured not only by its accomplishments but also by its scars.