A strong pope, a broad impact

In his 26-year reign, John Paul II proved a charismatic, sometimes divisive, church leader.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

A charismatic, yet controversial, leader who captured the attention and admiration of the world for more than a quarter century, Pope John Paul II died on Saturday, ending one of the longest papal reigns in history.

During his 26 years, he redefined the papacy as that of pastor and evangelist, extending the reach of the church with his savvy use of the media and indefatigable travels to more than 130 nations.

"No human being in history ... had ever spoken to so many people, in so many different cultural contexts," according to papal biographer George Weigel, who was close to the pope.

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While deeply disappointed by the decline of Catholicism in Europe, John Paul II presided over rapid growth of the church in Africa and Asia, which fueled a 40 percent increase worldwide, according to church statistics.

Yet while widely respected for his courage and personal holiness, John Paul II was often a controversial figure globally for his conservative stance on issues such as contraception. He stirred dissent within the church as well, presid-ing over a growing polarization between conservative and liberal wings.

Tested in the crucibles of Nazism and communism, the Polish-born pope became an eloquent voice for freedom and justice, as well as the defender of traditional Catholicism.

He stirred millions - Catholic and non-Catholic alike - by demonstrating that a voice of strong faith and moral conviction could leave an imprint on the modern world.

For many, Pope John Paul II stands as one of the great leaders of the 20th century.

"He'll go down in history as the most important world leader in the second half of the century," predicts political scientist Thomas Reese, editor of America magazine, a Catholic weekly. "He started the avalanche that wiped out communism. His courage and political shrewdness in dealing with the regime in Poland was extraordinary." Former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, among many others, has acknowledged the pope's catalytic role.

The white-clad figure used his bully pulpit to speak out forcefully on moral issues, from abortion and euthanasia to the death penalty, war, and biotechnology. He also criticized the inequities of capitalism. This did not always win him favor.

Within his own flock, a growing number of liberal Catholics questioned his hard-line stances on social issues.

On the world stage, his opposition to the Iraq war created strains with the US administration. And the Vatican has been widely criticized for opposing contraceptive methods that could protect people from HIV/AIDS or reduce the demand for abortion.

Over the past year, the church initiated a campaign to protect marriage between a man and a woman, including opposition to civil unions for gays and lesbians.

While conservative on issues of personal morality, John Paul II was liberal on social and economic justice, advocating reliance on international law and calling on wealthy nations to address global poverty. His remonstrances had little impact on world leaders, but they did help inspire the grass-roots Jubilee 2000 campaign that won debt relief for the world's poorest countries.

To the pope, the secular, materialistic values of contemporary society - utilitarian world views that fail to put human dignity at the center of concern - represented "a struggle against God." As a philosopher, he used his prolific writings to lay out a Christian alternative to the humanistic philosophies of modern times.

"His profound insight into what it means to be truly human will be shaping Catholic thought for many generations," says Alan Schreck, a theologian at Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio.

The attempt on John Paul's life in 1981, and his forgiveness of the assailant, led him to apologize and seek forgiveness for aspects of the church's history, such as anti-Semitism.

One of the pope's most important legacies is his unprecedented outreach to other faiths, particularly Judaism. Rabbi James Rudin of the American Jewish Committee, who negotiated with the Vatican, says, "This pope has probably done more to strengthen Catholic-Jewish relations than any other in history."

Father Reese concurs: While difficulties remain, "500 years from now, people will look back at this as the turning point in Catholic-Jewish relations."

The pope also reached out to Muslims, and on a 2001 visit to Damascus, Syria, became the first pontiff to set foot in a mosque. His vocal opposition to the Iraq war helped reassure many Muslims that it was not a Christian campaign against Islam.

The church made significant strides in ecumenical dialogue under John Paul, but failed to achieve his highest priority - that of ending the schism with Eastern Orthodoxy.

The pope's outreach to the faithful of all ages and backgrounds - he seemed to enjoy a special rapport with young people - won him tremendous affection. But he left a church deeply divided and in some ways adrift.

"His support for many conservative lay movements such as Opus Dei ... and his rejection of opposing views in the church created a climate of unease among some parts of the Catholic population," says James Donahue, president of the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, Calif.

Traditionalists were heartened by his unwavering orthodox voice on doctrine and the way he clamped down on dissidents. He required oaths from those teaching at Catholic institutions and, under his tutelage, the Vatican reasserted authority over bishops.

In Latin America, the pope silenced and side-lined some priests in the 1980s who advocated "liberation theology," which called the church to be more politically active on behalf of the poor. Some considered liberation theologians to be too closely aligned to Marxist teachings.

At the same time, some felt the church was out of touch with the needs of the times. In America, particularly, millions of Catholics have gone their own way on questions of contraception, divorce, as well as abortion. Many were distressed by the pope's refusal to discuss the question of married priests (to say nothing of women's ordination), at a time when fewer men were entering the priesthood and hundreds of parishes were closing.

"He was a magnificent model of priestly, pastoral, spiritual, and ecclesiastical profundity, and generosity of spirit," says Martin E. Marty, a renowned historian of religion. "But his example did not lead to recruitment of new generations of priests; and the decline in numbers and morale among priests will be used to measure him."

Perhaps the biggest blow to his stature and moral authority in the US was the failure to act swiftly and compassionately on the clergy sexual-abuse crisis which burst into public view in 2001. Confidence in the hierarchy has been undermined. Today only about one-third of American Catholics attend mass in any given week.

At the same time, John Paul II enlivened the faith of millions and shaped a papacy with prodigious weight in the world. A small indication of his widespread appeal is that every year of his tenure, polls showed he was among the most admired men in the world.

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