Karol Wojtyla, the first Polish pope; a rare honest, compassionate voice on the world stage (he has nothing to hide - we know he only answers to one person). A former jock and aspiring actor, he gave that up to study for the priesthood. Became pontiff after the brief tenure of John Paul I (JP2's name is a tribute to his three predecessors). A fervent anti-communist and an equally fervent critic of the amoral excesses of contemporary capitalism.

I see him on TV sometimes; he's old and frail, and his speech is slurred to the point that I need subtitles, even when he's speaking a language I can understand. I ask God, "Can't you bring back the old JP - that vigorous, dynamic, bulletproof man?" For even that mischievous twinkle in JP's eyes are gone, replaced by a gravity befitting a man for whom even commonplace physical actions are a strain.

God tells me to look past the old, frail exterior: the vigor and the twinkle are still there.

OK.

Editors Note:

On Sunday, 27 April 2014, John XXIII and Pope John Paul II were declared saints on Divine Mercy Sunday.

Before JP2, the Catholic Church was becoming truly catholic (lowercase 'c', as in universal). It was coming to terms with its old theocratic feudalistic self. It was becoming a truly modern (in the best sense of the word) Church. That process started when Pope John XXIII opened the window (literally) and said, let us allow fresh air enter the Church. The process was continued by Paul VI, and by John Paul I, though his pontificate only lasted for 33 days.

Then came John Paul II. At first, the world was ecstatic - the first non-Italian Pope in a long, long, time. He was expected to bring the process of aggiornamento (modernization) to the new level.

No one realized JP2 was an aparatchik who seemed modern only because he believed the Pope was someone to be followed and obeyed blindly and without questioning. He did just that while he was still the archbishop of Krakow. It turned out that once he became the Pope, he expected the same blind loyalty from everyone else.

JP2 did not bring the process of modernization to the new level. He nipped it in the bud. He thrust the Catholic Church way back to the Middle Ages. He started by recreating the Church hierarchy in his own image. He systematically replaced leading hierarchs by ultraconservatives. He did not know how much time he had (though, for a Pope, he was quite young), so he mandated that bishops and archbishops had to resign at a certain age (which, incidentally he failed to do when he reached that age himself), so he could speed up the replacement process.

This has brought about many problems. For example, fewer men decided to go to the priesthood. He blamed that on the lack of commitment among young men of this generation.

He made it impossible for a priest to leave the priesthood with Church's blessing.

He redefined the meaning of ecumenism, i.e., dialog with other Christian churches and denominations into meaning: You want union? Come back to the Catholic Church! Hardly an ecumenical attitude.

A standing joke in Rome is:

Jesus came to check on JP2, and asked: "Are priests getting married?"

"Not while I am the Pope!"

"Are nuns leaving convents?"

"Not while I am the Pope!"

"Are monks leaving their orders?"

"Not while I am the Pope!"

At that point, Jesus decided he had seen enough and was ready to leave. But JP2 said, "I have a small request, Lord."

"What is it, Son?"

"Please make sure the next Pope is Polish, too."

Jesus turned to him slowly, and said: "Not while I am the Son of God!"

Editors Note:

On Sunday, 27 April 2014, John XXIII and Pope John Paul II were declared saints on Divine Mercy Sunday.

Karol Wojtyla was born on 18 May 1920, in the Polish town of Wadowice. Today he is far better known as Pope John Paul II.

Soon after Wojtyla began studying at university the Germans invaded his country and closed the university. Wojtyla managed to continue his studies in secret, and was ordained as a priest in 1946.

Wojtyla rose steadily through the church as his abilities and talents came to the notice of his superiors. In 1963, Wojtyla was made Archbishop of Krakow. In the following years he opposed the repressive Communist government of his country, but was astute enough to keep the Church out of serius trouble. At the same time, his writings and abilities brought him world renown in Church affairs.

When Pope John Paul I died unexpectedly, Wojtyla attended the Conclave of October 1978 and was elected Pope. Since his election John Paul II has shown himself to be a firm and popular church leader. He has travelled extensively, taking the teaching of the Roman Catholic church into the lives of millions.

Editors Note:

On Sunday, 27 April 2014, John XXIII and Pope John Paul II were declared saints on Divine Mercy Sunday.

"Totus Tuus"

 

 

When I was in Rome, I had the privilege of being granted an audience with His Holiness John Paul II, PM. This was only a few years ago. The deterioration of his body, due to Parkinson's disease and the assassination attempt on him, was already evident. The world now saw that his mission of life also included being an example of the suffering of Jesus. People were taking bets on when he'd go. Most of them were wrong.

As I approached him, I could see that the bishop of Rome was a very decrepit man, who could not get up from his wheelchair, framed by cardinals and archbishops who watched diligently for any sign of discomfort or worse. He mumbled barely comprehensible French, with slavic rolled R's. I remembered the handsome face of the young Pontiff, "God's athlete," whose naturally strict features were so often lit up by an almost whimsical smile; I was now facing a decayed, twisted, trembling visage. It barely had human form. And as I looked at Jesus Christ's vicar on Earth, the only thing I could think was: "My God, he's the most beautiful man I've ever seen."

Life

Youth

Karol Józef Wojtyła ("voy-tih-wah") was born on May 18, 1920 in Wadowice, a suburb of Kraków, Poland, the son of an officer in the Polish army. He was brought up in the Catholic faith by his parents and received the sacraments of a Catholic child. As early as primary school, he got top grades in every area. Kraków had a thriving Jewish community (up until the Nazi invasion), with which young Karol was involved, and which impacted his life.

At 14, as is often the case, the defining traits of his adult personality began to show. He started acting in local theatre plays; he would consider acting for a living before realising he was called to priesthood. During the same year he became president of a Christian youth society, the Society of Mary. With this society, he took up his first pilgrimage, to the Polish sanctuary of Częstochowa, which would remain one of his favourite in the world, with Fatima and Lourdes.

At 18, after he finished school and military service, he enrolled in the Faculty of Philosophy of a university of Kraków, which was a college town. This was 1938. The totalitarian ogres drooled over the world, sharpening their fangs, and the so-called civilized countries prudely looked the other way, preferring dishonor to facing their responsibilities. Weak Catholic Poland was sandwiched between mighty Nazi Germany and enormous Communist Russia. England and France had broken their previous engagements to Czechoslovakia and abandoned the hapless country to Hitler's appetites. Meanwhile Karol, who took up Literature on top of Philosophy, studied the writing of Catholic mystics such as John of the Cross and Teresa d’Avila. He was acting in small experimental theater groups, writing plays and poetry. He had a natural gift for foreign tongues and he was a talented sportsman.

A storm of steel and fire crashed down on Poland, and the world changed forever.

Vocation

The secret clauses of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact were mostly about the conquest of Poland, and dividing the country between the two conquerors. Kraków, and therefore Karol, was in the Nazi occupied part of Poland. The Catholic Church was banned, persecuted. Students were hardly better off, and in order to avoid imprisonment and deportation, Karol had to drop out of the university and take up a job as a stone cutter in quarry. He still studied philosophy and literature secretely. Most theater groups that weren't in line with the powers-that-be were banned, but they still rehearsed secretely and held representations in private houses, with which Karol was involved. In 1941, he hid in his home the wanted family of Mieczysław Kotlarczyk, founder of an underground theater movement, at the risk of his own life if they were caught.

The faith in which Karol had been brought up, his experience as a young pilgrim, his studies of Catholic literature as an adolescent, probably also the Nazi occupation, all of these were ingredients of the subtle alchemy by which the human soul functions. Real, life-changing decisions are the result of seeds long planted in the soul, of a subtle and mysterious process which we will never fully understand. In 1942, at a time when anybody belonging to the clergy was arrested, tortured, and deported to die, at a time when the world seemed at its darkest, Karol Wojtyła began clandestine studies for the priesthood in Kraków's underground seminary.

In 1943 he took his first and last lead role as the eponymous Samuel Zborowski during a clandestine performance for friends in a private house. In 1945 the Red Army liberated Poland. In 1946 Karol finished his seminary and was ordained priest. However, the Communist authorities weren't much friendlier to the Catholic faith than the Nazis had been. Father Karol left Poland for Rome to continue his studies in November of 1946.

He travelled accross western Europe, notably pastoring to Polish immigrant communities in France, a country for which he would always have a tremendous fondness. In 1948, he earned a doctorate in philosophy. He returned to Poland and earned another doctorate, this time in theology, summa cum laude, from the Jagellonian University of Kraków. At the time, he spoke nine languages fluently, in addition to his knowledge of Latin. He would speak eleven by the time he became Pope.

Priesthood

Karol Wojtyła was an intellectual, but also a devout. People who have known him from his pastoring as a young priest all testify to the power and earnestness of his faith, and his love for his fellow men. However, his piety and intellect did not make him withdrawn from reality or daily life. He was also the young man who took care of organizing summer pilgrimages for teenagers. He was already "God's athlete." His pastoring was a very hands-on one. He went around, talked to everyone, started and led projects inside his parish.

He became professor of ethics at the university in Kraków, and began publishing essays, something he would do throughout his life. Like himself, his writing style is clear, intelligent, earnest, and full of love. His first published essay was on the topic of marriage, an institution which he greatly admires. He would later have the opportunity to work more on his views, notably through his contribution to Pope Paul VI's encyclical Humanae Vitae and later through his pontificate, sparking (often unnecessary) controversy.

This mix of intelligence, virtue, and leadership skills made him rise effortlessly through the ranks of his ecclesiastical community. In 1958, he was appointed Auxiliary Bishop to the Archbishop of Kraków. He accepted a professorship in the Chair of Ethics at the Catholic University of Lublin. His first widely remarked essay, Love and Responsibility, was published in 1960. In 1962 he was promoted Vicar Capitular of the Archidiocese of Kraków, before leaving Poland to attend the Second Vatican Council. In 1964, inbetween sessions of the Council, he was appointed Archbishop of Kraków. And in 1967, when Paul VI announced the next Consistory, among the names of the new Cardinals elect was that of Karol Wojtyła.

In 1978, following Paul VI's death, he participated in the conclave that elected Pope John Paul I. At 65, Cardinal Albino Luciani was a young man by papal standards, but he died after only 33 days in the Papacy. There have been many rumours about the reasons for his death. Depending on who you talk to, the mafia, the KGB, or both, slipped something in his afternoon tea. I'm afraid the truth is much less glamorous. Luciani had a severe heart condition which could strike him down at any moment. In order to not wreck his chances at the papacy, he kept this condition a secret, so that he could serve as Pope for whatever time would be given to him. And that he did.

Election

Karol therefore returned to the Vatican to participate in the second conclave in less than two months. Like last time, his only ambition going in was to vote for whoever seemed like the best candidate for the papacy. Given that the conduct of papal conclaves is strictly confidential and that any cardinal revealing the details would face instant excommunication, for a long while the circumstances of his election were unknown. However, around the 20th anniversary of his election, he gave an unofficial okay to the surviving cardinals to recount anecdotes.

The second conclave was divided between two particularly strong candidates for the papacy: Cardinal Giuseppe Siri, who was seen as the "conservative" choice, and Giovanni Benelli, the Archbishop of Florence and a close associate of Pope John Paul I, who was the more "progressive" choice. In early ballots, Benelli came very close to victory. One of the reasons why it slipped by him was that one of the minority candidates suddenly started racking up votes. His name was Karol Wojtyła, a cardinal from Poland, respected in Vatican circles but largely unknown, who was the most surprised by this surge in popularity. Cardinal Franz König, a friend of Karol's who admired him, began lobbying the rest of the conclave to vote for him as a compromise candidate. Meanwhile Karol, who had no idea what to think of these developments, remained mostly in his cell, thinking and praying.

He won over the cardinals thanks to his humility, piety, intelligence and great moral standing. Probably also because of his history as a sportsman, which indicated a robustness that would make him last longer than John Paul I. The symbolism of the first non Italian Pope in five centuries also did not escape them, especially one from one of the countries of what was still, at the time, the Soviet bloc. To the very end, as Karol's score overtook that of Siri and Benelli, getting closer to the required two thirds mark with each ballot, he had no idea if he would accept the papacy. Eventually, over two thirds of the conclave voted for him, and he listened to the Cardinal Dean ask him the traditional question: "Do you accept your canonical election as Supreme Pontiff?" Tears of joy streaming from his eyes, he nodded and blubbered his consent. He chose the name John Paul, as an hommage to his predecessor, and for the same reason he had: to signify that his pontificate would be a middle way between the "progressive" pontificate of John XXIII and the "conservative" pontificate of Paul VI.

White smoke above the Vatican. The Cardinal Deacon on the balcony, before the crowd waiting in Saint Peter's square, shouting to them in Latin: "I announce to you a great joy: we have a Pope!" Habemus papam! Afterwards, he must announce the last name of the cardinal, and the name he chose as Pope. The crowd quiets after the long-awaited name is unknown. Voy-tee-what? Still shaken up, Karol, now John Paul, goes up to the balcony and pronounces his historic, improvised blessing, in Italian: "The cardinals of the Church have elected a Pope from a faraway land. I don't speak your– our language very well yet. ...If I make a mistake, you'll correct me!"

The crowd suddenly cheers. The cardinals around him smile and exchange glances. They made the right choice.

 

Pontificate

Some say that, as Pope, John Paul II broke almost all the rules. Of course he did not break the rules, he upheld them. But, like Jesus did, he interpreted them with conformity to their intent. He made sure that through his pontificate, he would really be the servus servorum Dei, one of the Supreme Pontiff's titles: "the servant of the servants of God." And he was also the white bishop from the third vision of Fatima...

Continuity

A lot of people say that John Paul II changed the continuity of his predecessors. His decisions regarding the humility of the papacy. His so-called conservative views. He certainly was a Pontiff with a different style than his predecessors, but he was also undeniably in their continuity. John Paul and Paul VI had begun to bring more humility to the papacy, by removing some its most ostentatious traditions. Paul VI was called "The Pilgrim Pope" because of the many foreign trips he took on, even though they were still much less than John Paul II's.

More importantly, there is a view that John Paul II imposed his "conservative" views on areas such as sexuality on the rest of the Church. That the Church was going to proceed further on the path set out by Vatican II, had John Paul II not stopped that process. First of all, this reflects a misunderstanding of the Church, what the people who make it up are like, and how the oldest, largest institution on the planet thinks.

Political labels such as "conservative" and "progressive" don't really apply to the religious and theological views held inside the Church. It can't be placed on a spectrum with "left" and "right" or "conservative" and "progressive" on the ends. And anyway, the Church does not want to "modernize" more than it already has. Some within the Church want to. Some want to go back to the way it was before the Vatican II Council: there are a lot of different opinions within the Church. John Paul II, as his chosen name suggests, represents the continuity of the Church in the same direction it has had since Vatican II.

Communism

John Paul II has radically changed the world. He has changed the world in many ways, most of which will probably only be obvious a long time from now. But a way he's changed the world that is hardly debatable was his key role in the fight and eventual victory against the totalitarian ideology of communism.

The myth has it that, commenting on one of Stalin's decisions, his subtle minister of foreign affairs Molotov pointed out that it would anger the Pope—and everyone likes the Pope. Stalin famously quipped: "The Pope? How many divisions?" John Paul II answered the question on his 1979 return visit to his homeland. He was bathed in an outpouring of popular devotion that stupefied almost everybody, from Warsaw's dissidents to an appalled Politburo. Millions turned out to sing, weep and pray with the new Pope. From then on, the Soviet Union began losing its grip on its East European vassals, and the end of the Soviet bloc was in sight.

There seems to be little doubt now that the KGB originated the attempted murder of John Paul II, in Saint Peter's square on May 13, 1981, where he was shot and nearly killed. Files found in the headquarters of the Stasi implicate them. Apparently, they hired the Bulgarian secret services, who often took on "wet affairs," as they called them, on behalf of the Russians, and they themselves recruited the Turkish extremist group to which Mehmet Ali Agca, the shooter, belonged. Take this scenario cum grano sali, since such documents are easily forged and the intelligence business often likes to bundle lies inside deceptions wrapped in a plot; however, the Soviets were the most likely suspect way before these files were found.

The event is closely tied to John Paul II's fate.

First of all, it is linked to the secrets of Our Lady of Fatima. Fatima, Portugal is a tiny village where, at the beginning of the 20th century, the Virgin Mary appeared to three young kids in visions. After the Church had wind of this, and confirmed that they were having supernatural visions and not just hallucinations, and that they were really from the Blessed Virgin, they instructed them to write down their visions. The texts are of great clarity and erudition, especially considering these were children who herded sheep and had no formal education to speak of. Among these visions were the three secrets of Fatima, three visions from Mary to the Pope. The first one was a vision from Hell; the second one predicted the advent of World War II and described that Russia would "spread its errors around the world." The third one was kept a secret for the rest of the century, read only by the popes. It was made public by John Paul II in 2000. It mentions "a bishop dressed in white," "killed by a group of soldiers who fired bullets and arrows at him."

John Paul II was convinced that he survived thanks to Our Lady of Fatima, and that the third secret vision was about the assassination attempt. The attempt happened on the feast day of Fatima, and John Paul II maintained consciousness—and, under these conditions, that meant his life—on the way to the hospital by concentrating his thought on Mary of Fatima. He is convinced that the Virgin Mary diverted the bullets from their path; Agca was an excellent marksman, it's hardly likely he could've missed his target.

The fact remains that John Paul II's life was altered forever by what happened on that day. The skilled sportsman, who had been affectionately dubbed "God's athlete" during the first years of his pontificate, was crippled for life. He would tell the world a great message of life through the suffering of the last act of his life, in voluntary imitation of the Passion of Jesus Christ. It was believed that the Pope always stubbornly refused to even consider resigning his post because of how incapacitated he was. However, after his death, his old friend Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger revealed that he had seriously considered it, and decided that he could send a much greater message for perseverance.

After Christmas of 1983, he visited Agca in prison, to which he is sentenced to life. He had already sincerely forgiven him shortly after the attempt. Agca seems to have been profoundly changed by his interview with John Paul II.

Ecumenism

John XXIII was the first Pope to do work for ecumenism, reaching out to other religions. John Paul II brought his work much further along the same path, reaching out to almost all religions, and all of humanity.

He was the first Pope to enter the Great Synagogue of Rome. The first Pope to preach in a Lutheran church. The first Pope to meet an English monarch, and to pray alongside the Archbishop of Canterbury. He has reached out to every major religion, trying to work toward reunification with Christian sects, and trying to get along with other religions.

After his death, I got a very sweet e-mail from a religious Jewish friend, who had been quite touched by the Pontiff. I'll just quote these few sentences from Wikipedia, because they sum up the facts: "John Paul II wrote and delivered a number of speeches on the subject of the Church's relationship with Jews, and often paid homage to the victims of the Holocaust in many nations. He was the first pope to have visited Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland, in 1979. One of the few popes to have grown up in a climate of flourishing Jewish culture, one of the key components of pre-war Kraków, his interest in Jewish life dated from early youth. (...) In March 2000, Pope John Paul II went to the Holocaust memorial Yad Vashem in Israel and touched the holiest shrine of the Jewish people, the Western Wall in Jerusalem, promoting Christian-Jewish reconciliation."

Allow me to cut off the Wiki dryness. Remember that moment. The lonely, white figure against the wall extending in the distance, as it was painted by Dalí—years before it happened. The prayer he put on the wall of the temple, which the Jews are still expecting to be rebuilt by the Messiah, not the temple Jesus rebuilt in three days. When he put his hand on the wall before leaving, the way it trembled, it wasn't Parkinson's. It was emotion. "The Pope has said that Jews are 'our older brothers'."

Relations between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church have been tense for about, what, 1,500 years? There has been the Great Schism of course, but during the schism all that happened was that the bishops of Rome and Constantinople excommunicated each other; the church itself has kept its unity; the community of bishops is still the one that was started by Jesus on the day of Pentecost. That's in canon law; in practice, the two churches have been completely separated since even before the Schism. From a religious and institutional standpoint, the two churches are the closest. But they're also the ones with the most traditional distrust and resentment. East vs West. Latin vs Greek. Feelings are very mixed, both among the poeople and among the higher rungs of the Orthodox Church. John Paul II's visit to Romania was met with a lot of warmth from the Patriarch of the Romanian Orthodox Church and from the Romanian populace, but he was snubbed during his visit to Greece. It's been almost a millenium since the Schism. The clock is ticking, guys.

John Paul II has brought the Church closer to many other religions. I've mentioned the move closer to the Anglican and Lutheran faiths. He has also met the 14th Dalai Lama, and I guess they get along since both their faiths are being oppressed by the Chinese communist regime as we speak. He's been the first Pope to set foot inside a mosque, and has built relationships between the Church and the muslim communities. Conservative catholics have resented him for that, including old friends from when he was a young philosophy professor.

This process culminated with the ecumenist conference of Assisi where representatives from most religions on earth got together to speak declarations of intent on such controversial things as "war is bad" and "let's all get along," and to pray. It was during this conference that the Pope let out his famous cry: "Mai più guerra, mai più guerra, mai più guerra!" No more war, no more war, no more war. The conference still shocked a lot of catholics, as they thought it smacked of syncretism, the thought that every religion is right, that they're all equivalent, that kind of impossible bullshit that we all consider one day. I was even a little shocked to read that a statue of the Buddha had been lifted above the tabernacle at some point in the ceremony. Cardinal Etchegaray, who had initiated the Assisi conference, defended it with sophist-like declarations such as: "It's not about praying together, it's about being together to pray." Unlike what some believed, the conference was not about reaching some dogmatic or spiritual common ground, which would be impossible without castrating or abdicating our faiths; it was about dialogue between religions. Religions in general are a force for good in this world, and they could do a lot more good by cooperating to make the world a better place, at least in the cases where they agree on what "better" means. This process of world betterment owes almost everything to John Paul II.

Church

The sheer scale of the work done by John Paul II outside the Church makes it easy to forget the work he did inside the Church; most people forget the sorry state it was in when he took over.

The Vatican II council had been the starting point of a raging intellectual battle. Traditionalists refused the teachings of the Council, even going as far as to break away from the Church. Modernists, on the contrary, advocated anything that was popular in lefty news media. Dangerous ideologies popped up, like liberation theology, which misunderstood Marxism and Christianity into believing the two are compatible. More worrying was the fact that when these diverging factions were told to behave themselves, they began questioning the primacy of the see of Rome, i.e. the authority of the papacy, which is the cornerstone of the Church, since it is the only thing that guarantees its unity. This kind of dissent happens every once in a while (a while of Church time being a few centuries of human time) and is always the sign of a deep-seated malaise.

John Paul II fixed those tensions before they escalated into real division, while alienating a surprisingly small amount of people. He united the Church through sheer charisma at first, but also through his reforms of the Code of Cannon Law, the compedium of ecclesiastical law, which is the one of the oldest legal system still in existence (Jewish law is older, but I can't think of any other; msg me if you can) and also of the Roman Curia, the governing body of the Church, which was very Italian-centric and aloof, showing disinterest or even contempt for the needs of other divisions of the Church around our troubled world. Now the Curia is made up of extremely talented men, and most of its institutional hurdles have been streamlined, making it a very efficient body; its makeup is also a lot more representative of the globality of the Church. However, more than his personality or his work, what really united the Church was the strength of his spiritual message, which combined all-encompassing love with intransigence in maintaining the truth and consistency of the Church's message.

Another thing that has been greatly improved, by Vatican II in general but also by John Paul II, is the sheer quality of the clergy. I can't remember the last time I met a priest I didn't like and who didn't immediately strike me as a man of God, in the strictest sense of the expression. I've met a lot of priests, pretty much from every continent, every walk of life, every ecclesiastical occupation, every rank, and I can safely say that the clergy is simply very very good at what it does, and that this owes a lot to the arrival of the so-called "John Paul II generation" (sounds better than the MTV generation, don't it?)

I get approached by a surprisingly large of lapsed or simply questioning Catholics, who seek spiritual advice. However I wouldn't be Catholic if I didn't believe that, no matter how much advice I give them, true spiritual help comes from prayer and from the sacraments. Therefore I don't let go of them without instructing them to grab the first priest they find and get a confession; shit, if you're baptized, why don't you do it? Priests have an obligation, when asked for a confession, to drop whatever they're doing and give it right away. Just walk in a Church, tackle the first man in black you see, and tell him you want a confession. It's always done wonders for me. Anyway, when telling people this stuff about confession, I assure them that whatever priest they find will find exactly the right words for them; this used to take a silent leap of faith in the Holy Spirit that It would put the right priest in that person's path. Now I can send them on their way with a clear head, because I know from experience that (almost) every priest knows the right words.

Travels

Paul VI was called "the Pilgrim Pope" because of his many travels, but his amount of foreign trips was dwarfed by that of John Paul II, more than all previous popes put together. Much was also talked about the attendance. One million people, one quarter of the population of Ireland, attended his mass in Dublin in 1979. In 1995 in the Philippines, seven million people attended his mass: this was the largest crowd ever assembled anywhere.

He had a great devotion for the Virgin Mary, and visited her sanctuaries wherever he went. One of his first acts as bishop of Rome was to visit her shrine at Monterolla in Rome. He also visited, among others, Knock in Ireland, Fatima in Portugal, Guadalupe in Mexico, and Lourdes in France. France doesn't like the religion it was brought up in. During his first visit he wasn't very well received. His first message was stern: "France, eldest daughter of the Church, what have you done with the promesses of your baptism?" However, during the recent World Youth Day in Paris, the whole city ground to a halt. One of the noisiest cities in the world fell silent for a day. You could hear birds chirp. You could hear the voice of the bishop in white.

Literature

I have in other writeups defined literature as any words which increase the liberty of the reader. John Paul II has always had a keen interest in literature. First as a young playwright and poet, as a student in the Faculty of Literature, as a young man who strengthened his Catholic faith through the readings of other Catholic saints; even as an actor, who played out literature. And of course, once he was a priest and a professor, his highly intellectual mind, his affinity for literature and his faith turned him into a prolific and very talented writer.

One of the major works of his pontificate, even though it wasn't written by him, was initiating and overseeing the writing of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. After Vatican II, many within the Church, not just churchgoers but some priests, were unsure about some aspects of Church beliefs. John Paul II decided to commission the writing of a book summarizing the Church's religious teaching. There had been some efforts at a local level—my grandparents can recite fragments of the Catechism of the Bishops of France they were taught as a child—but nothing that had the scope of the Church's entire teachings, and at the same time made them so accessible. If you don't own a copy, I suggest you go get one now, no matter where you stand religion-wise. It's great reading on the largest religion on earth, and also one of its most fascinating; it speaks a unique message about human nature and the contemporary world. By my earlier definition, the Catechism is fantastic literature.

During his pontificate, John Paul II published 14 encyclicals, 15 apostolic exhortations, 11 apostolic constitutions and 45 apostolic letters. Constitutions are documents of canon law, and apostolic letters are documents regarding government of the Church. That leaves about 30 book-length essays on matters of faith, religion, human life, and the world: everything that he has had to deal with during his pontificate. In addition to these he has published five books as Pope: Crossing the Threshold of Hope (1994), Gift and Mystery: On the 50th Anniversary of My Priestly Ordination (1996), Roman Triptych - Meditations, a book of poems (2003), Rise, Let Us Be On Our Way (2004) and finally Memory and Identity in 2005.

His writing style is very clear, intelligent and rational. But you can also tell something else. There is a sort of earnestness to his style. It's going to sound like a cliché, but I can't describe it any other way: there is love there. Just love; and lots of it.

Teachings

John Paul II put most of his teachings in his writings, but he has taught through every aspect of his life. His views have been the subject of controversy. Not just because they were controversial, but because people didn't know what they were.

Throughout his pontificate, John Paul II has emphasized the importance and beauty of life. He has written and preached extensively about the culture of death that exists in the modern world, which gnaws at the edges of human life through things like euthanasia and abortion. John Paul II himself personally opposed the death penalty, even though the Church's teachings do not find capital punishment to be sinful. His views on sexuality are in accordance with Paul VI's encyclical Humanae Vitae, the writing of which he participated in during Vatican II.

The Church's stance on contraception is misunderstood. It is believed that it is always forbidden. Actually, what the Church says is that it's useless, since people should only have sex within marriage, and marriage is about building a family, which usually involves kids. If you really can't help humping outside marriage, then of course you should make it safe. The Church has never said that condoms are bad or evil; simply that, ideally, they're unnecessary.

John Paul II and his country sufferred under the two worst regimes of history. The horrors of totalitarianism have had a profound effect on him. He denounced it whenever he could, like Pius XII who fiercely denounced nazism and whose Church saved tens of thousands from the horrors of the Holocaust. I have already mentioned the world-changing effects of his struggle against communism. He also opposed every phenomenon which took away man's freedom and dignity, and he has therefore also denounced the evils of contemporary consumer society and of reckless economic liberalism. He also had a strong stand on other issues such as reducing poverty and world debt forgiveness.

All this goes to show that he wasn't a Pope of the past, but on the contrary, a Pope for the third millenium. The world as we know it faces many problems which will probably significantly alter it. Terrorism, and a possible clash of civilisations. The malaise of contemporary developed societies. Anyone who claims to see clearly through those issues is either an idiot or a genius. John Paul II probably was a genius, but he did not claim to have any other answers that the ones that were revealed to humanity by its Creator. He was a Pope for the third millenium because he had no preconceived notions; whatever the millenium has in store, he could have faced it with his usual humility and love. Some might say God didn't want him to be a Pope in the third millenium, but on the contrary. The influence of his pontificate will extend far beyond the grave.

Future

On April 2, 2005, John Paul II returned to his Father, from complications due to the various diseases which have ailed him since the attempted assassination. He had remained lucid to the very end of his several days of agony. At the time of this writing, the name of his successor is unknown. (Edit: Benedict XVI.)However, he has streamlined Gregory the Great's process for the conclave a lot, so the successor should be elected only a few days after the conclave gathers. (Edit: Hey! Looks like I was right!)

It's as good a time as any to wonder about the future of the Church. Not about the name of the next Supreme Pontiff, which is impossible to figure out. People are throwing names, nationalities, continents, colours. Bah. One of the things which John Paul II achieved during his pontificate was to really increase the quality of the clergy, as human beings, especially at the higher rungs. The College of Cardinals is a group of great, hugely qualified men, who, guided properly by the Holy Spirit, will undoubtedly elect a great Pope, as unique as the other great Popes of the 20th and 21st centuries have been.

Practically, if you think a new Pope can remove the no-no on abortion or bring in women priests, you're dead wrong. As I've said, John Paul II has never "held back" the Church to a more "conservative" stance. The Church is set on rails, and whatever Pope comes next will probably stay the course it has stayed since Vatican II. Remember that the last council on the scale of Vatican II was the Council of Trent, 400 years before.

Most importantly, the Church will have to address the contradictions, evils, and major unanswered questions of the modern world. The Church is called to provide answers to these questions for the peoples of the world. Just like standing as a beacon of light against Communism helped bring it to its knees, how the Church will answer to the challenges of the third millenium will probably determine the future of the human family.

A bishop in white

None of this was on my mind as, somewhere in the gold-plated bowels of the Vatican, I approached His Holiness John Paul II. He didn't know me, but after I was introduced his face lit up as if he recognized an old friend. He looked directly at me. His eyes were sparkling, and his smile was open, bright. This broken body, its entire tortured life a prayer, I saw in his eyes that it was full of earnest love for his fellow man, which radiated from his face with a compelling presence. And honestly, he is the most beautiful man I have ever met. I managed to hold back my tears as I knelt before our bishop in white.

Editors Note:

On Sunday, 27 April 2014, John XXIII and Pope John Paul II were declared saints on Divine Mercy Sunday.

 

Sources:
  • Inescapably, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pope_John_Paul_II
  • http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/john_paul_ii/biography/index.htm
  • http://www.vatican.va/news_services/press/documentazione/documents/ santopadre_biografie/giovanni_paolo_ii_biografia_breve_en.html
  • http://www.vatican.va/news_services/press/documentazione/documents/ santopadre_biografie/giovanni_paolo_ii_biografia_prepontificato_en.html
  • http://www.vatican.va/news_services/press/documentazione/documents/ santopadre_biografie/giovanni_paolo_ii_biografia_pontificato_en.html
  • http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cfaith/documents/ rc_con_cfaith_doc_20000626_message-fatima_fr.html
  • http://www.dw-world.de/dw/article/0,1564,1538173,00.html
  • http://www.economist.com/agenda/displayStory.cfm?story_id=3622703
  • Other readings, and personal experience.

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