The passing of a giant

The death of Pope John Paul II closes a remarkable chapter in the history of the Roman Catholic Church. John Paul was more than just the spiritual leader of the 1.1-billion-member church; he was a world historical figure who played a key role in ending the Cold War and re-establishing the Catholic Church as a force in politics and international affairs. Yet for all his dynamism and readiness to challenge secular authority, the pope was also rigid and doctrinaire: He tolerated no challenges within his church. That too is a legacy his successor must face as the Catholic Church enters the 21st century.

Archbishop Karol Wojtyla of Krakow, Poland, was named pope in 1978. His selection followed a tumultuous year in which Pope Paul VI died after 15 years in office, and his successor, John Paul I, died after only 33 days as pope. When Pope John Paul II emerged at the age of 58, he was the youngest pope in 125 years. A Pole, he was the first non-Italian to be named pope in 455 years.

John Paul broke with tradition in big ways and small. He skied. He mingled with visitors to Saint Peter’s, worked the crowds during his travels in the “popemobile” and in the flesh. More significantly, he preached reconciliation. Throughout his papacy, John Paul reached out to Jews and reminded his church of the ways it brought suffering to them. The Vatican formally recognized Israel in 1993. Visiting Syria in May 2001, he became the first pope to enter a mosque. In Greece, he apologized for wrongs committed against Orthodox Christians. He visited the Holy Land to find his roots and preach the unity of the three great religions.

The last images of the pope, silent and still, were distant from those of much of his papacy. He was a dynamo. He wrote more than 14 encyclicals, or major statements of Catholic theology. The most traveled pope in history, he visited more than 120 countries, ranging from traditional Catholic nations, such as the Philippines and Mexico, to Japan. While he pressed missionaries to expand the church and seek out the faithful in Africa and Asia, he would visit tiny Guam, saying that no diocese should be neglected.

While he was the shepherd for his entire church, as a Pole he paid particular attention to developments in his native country and throughout the Soviet empire. John Paul was strident in his denunciations of communism. His unbending spirit, coupled with the anticommunism of U.S. President Ronald Reagan, helped mobilize millions of people living behind the Iron Curtain. His trips to Poland nurtured the Solidarity trade union and kept its spirit alive as the communist authorities cracked down. He called communism a false ideology that broke the human spirit. His fierce opposition made him enemies in the Soviet leadership. When he was shot in May 1981 in St. Peter’s Square, many argued that the Kremlin was behind the assassination attempt. Nothing was ever proved. In keeping with his nature, John Paul visited his assassin after the attack and forgave him.

John Paul’s primary concern was the soul. He denounced communism, consumerism, arms races, and denials of human rights for their deadening effect on humanity. He preached a conservatism — a moral absolutism — that left no room for the compromises of modernity. When scandal struck, in the form of priests abusing children, he condemned it without equivocation, saying it was rightly considered a crime by society and “an appalling sin in the eyes of God.”

Yet the firmness that many applauded and clung to was criticized as doctrinaire by others. John Paul was clear: “The church cannot be an association of freethinkers.” While he stared down the Communist Party in the Soviet bloc, he forbade priests from practicing “liberation theology” in Latin America, demanding that they stay out of politics.

Many Catholics challenged his views on contraception, abortion, euthanasia, female priests, homosexuals and divorce, arguing that modern life demands new doctrines. The pope refused to bend. Thus, as the Roman Catholic Church found many new converts in the developing world, it came under increasing pressure in developed nations to adapt. His successor will inherit this tension, but he is unlikely to depart from John Paul’s position.

History will look kindly on John Paul. He helped change the world for the better. He provided an energy, a solidity and a foundation for an institution that was divided and moribund. He has earned his rest.