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Defender of the Faith

22 minute read
David Van Biema

And the truth, as that poet understood it, did indeed explode. Not in a sudden detonation but in a sustained blast that lasted more than a quarter-century. The reverberations of Pope John Paul II’s life and pontificate, the third longest in history, resounded through every nation on earth. They did their part to topple a superpower, helping free hundreds of millions of people. They reaffirmed the Roman Catholic message of salvation to millions more and may even have introduced it in some few parts of the world where it had not yet penetrated. And they boomed through the poet’s own church. In the end, not every Catholic–certainly not every American Catholic–considered Pope John Paul II’s explosion a joyful noise unto the Lord. But the 264th occupant of the throne of St. Peter was no more silenced by their misgivings than by the assassin’s bullet he survived in 1981 or the progressive ailments, including Parkinson’s disease, that he withstood for at least a decade. He pursued God’s truth with a fearless, anachronistic, nearly stunning purity of purpose, and the world was left to adapt as it might.

So powerful was his vision that even his death, while it occasioned profound mourning among at least a billion people worldwide, cried out to be interpreted in Christological terms. After all, he had already turned his life’s final decade into an object lesson in the dignity of suffering, whereby a stooped shuffle and a slurred voice could be understood, as he once wrote, as an extended moment of “transcendence,” in which supporters glimpsed the glory of Christ’s sacrifice for humanity. Similarly, so incandescent was his faith that believers, through tears, could easily understand his death not as an ending but rather as a well-earned passage into the company of his God and his beloved mother Mary.

In life, no other great figure in the second half of the 20th century seemed to inhabit his role so utterly–yet in so many different ways. There was the itinerant evangelist with the lit-from-within smile, conducting his never-ending crusade. There was the mystic who, as an observer noted, “makes decisions on his knees.” There was the subtle geopolitician who refuted Stalin’s famous sneer “How many divisions has the Pope?” at the expense of the dictator’s heirs. The moral philosopher who lectured at Harvard. And, finally, the suffering servant. “He was a thoroughly, radically committed Christian disciple who really believed, as he put it, that ‘Jesus Christ is the answer to the question that is every human life,'” says George Weigel, a biographer of the Pope. “The rest followed from that.”

But for many among the U.S.’s 67 million Catholics, significant qualifiers attached to John Paul’s career. Between the rise of the hero disposed to combat one of his age’s great scourges and his undaunted denouement was an unsettling second act, as more liberal believers realized that their shepherd could be autocratic, hardheaded and disapproving. For such disaffected followers, John Paul was not unlike another great Slavic moralist, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, lionized while his prophetic voice was raised against the Soviet behemoth and less welcome when he turned it on the victorious West. James Carroll, a former priest who has written frequently on the church and the Pope, says, “Americans clearly loved this man’s goodness. But we were very, very uncomfortable with his absolute claims to moral certitude.”

Globally, that may not have been the majority assessment. The Pope was wildly popular among the faithful in Africa and Latin America, whose growing numbers of Catholics constitute the church’s long-term future. Along with an increasingly confident generation of conservatives in the West, they would affirm the assertion by Archbishop Jean-Louis Tauran, a former Vatican Foreign Minister under John Paul, that “in this crazy world, he is the only moral reference.” Then, too, a remarkable number of fans came from other creeds. The Rev. Billy Graham said, “He’ll go down in history as the greatest of our modern Popes. He has been the strong conscience of the whole Christian world.” “We believe the world needs him because he speaks for peace, for the poor and the deprived,” said Chief Mufti Selim Mehmed, head of Bulgaria’s large Muslim community, after meeting the Pope in 2002.


The key to John Paul’s early papacy and to his almost instantaneous rise to heroic status was the very aspect that made his election in 1978 so stunning. Unlike generations of Italian Popes brought up to pronounce on the world’s great events yet largely cloistered from them, Karol Wojtyla lived in the early 20th century world about as intensely as it was imaginable to do and still survive it. Born in 1920, as Poland, a once great power, was moving toward its postwar sovereignty after more than a century of bitter subjugation, the army officer’s son planned to study the Polish language at Krakow’s Jagiellonian University. That aspiration–along with Poland’s short-lived autonomy–was dashed when Germany invaded in 1939 and Wojtyla was plunged into a firsthand study of successive totalitarianisms. Forced to work at a limestone quarry, he risked his life by studying at a clandestine seminary and narrowly escaping arrest by the Nazis by hiding in a basement apartment. Observing his countrymen in bondage and hearing of Jewish friends carted off to certain death, the long-pious youth gravitated to the church, one of the few centers of even passive resistance.

After the war, in the late 1940s, as the communist government settled in, the young priest embarked on what would be a rapid rise through the still embattled church’s hierarchy. By 1967 he was a Cardinal. Mixing aggressiveness with accommodation, Wojtyla managed to build a huge church for 100,000 Catholic citizens in the industrial city of Nova Huta and reach out to a wide cross section of workers, youths and intellectuals. Yet what turned a provincial prince into a rising church star was the churchwide reform of Vatican II. At the Second Vatican Council (1961-65), Wojtyla contributed to several key documents, most notably on the church in the modern world, at one point causing an observer to make note of his “magnetic power” and “prophetic strength.” But Wojtyla declined to embrace change uncritically, prefiguring a lifelong love-hate relationship with the modern era in a speech describing it as “new in good [and] new in evil.” After the council, he was elected to an important position in the Bishops’ Synod and was later regarded as a protégé of Pope Paul VI. Yet after Paul died in 1978 and his successor John Paul I succumbed to a heart attack only 34 days into his papacy, Wojtyla was so oblivious to his impending fate that he spent the first day of the new papal conclave nonchalantly browsing through a quarterly review of Marxist theory. When the two leading Italian candidates, a Vatican power broker and an ultraconservative, deadlocked, the Cardinals began looking over the Alps for the first time since 1522. Elected on the eighth ballot, Wojtyla modestly chose to be called John Paul II.


Then John Paul’s personal history, his duties as Pontiff and the late 20th century’s greatest drama merged in a breathtaking manner. The election of a Polish Pope posed an implicit challenge to Poland’s Soviet-backed regime, a challenge John Paul quickly made immediate with two visits home. His first, in 1979, drew enormous, bloc-shaking crowds. On the next trip, after he told the restive populace to “be not afraid” and declared in the holy town of Czestochowa that “man cannot remain with no way out,” the new Solidarity free-trade-union movement made him its virtual patron saint, flying the papal flag at the gate of the Gdansk shipyard.

For the next decade, John Paul, in secret contact with Polish leader Wojciech Jaruzelski and Soviet and U.S. leaders, adroitly balanced his role as the union’s champion with his resolve that no Polish blood be spilled. When Jaruzelski, fearing a Soviet invasion, declared martial law in 1981, the Pope mystified the West by disagreeing with U.S. sanctions. But his forbearance allowed him to attain a position of near partnership with the communist regime. Poland rolled back martial law in 1983 and–with the acquiescence of Mikhail Gorbachev–communism itself in April 1989. The largely peaceful transition seems to have influenced Gorbachev’s approach to the other seceding East bloc nations and forever linked John Paul’s name with communism’s demise. Wrote the former Soviet leader in 1992: “Everything that happened in Eastern Europe in these last few years would have been impossible without the presence of the Pope and without the important role–including the political role–that he played on the world stage.”


And the world was a stage every last inch of which the Pope appeared determined to tread. Three months after his election, he boarded a plane for the Dominican Republic and Mexico on the first of scores of global pilgrimages that established the exultant rhythm of his papacy. People expected the youngest Pope in 132 years–a 58-year-old outdoorsman described by an Australian newspaper as “built like a rugby front-row forward”–to be energetic. Yet even St. Paul, the archetypal evangelist, might have wondered at John Paul’s 1989, a fairly typical year, featuring stops in Madagascar, Reunion, Zambia, Malawi, Norway, Iceland, Finland, Denmark, Sweden, Spain, South Korea, Indonesia, East Timor and Mauritius. His visits, especially to the Third World’s farthest outposts, projected a sense of a true church universal. The Pope would arrive at each destination and kiss the airport tarmac. With his square jaw, actor’s timing and facility with languages, he established an electrical connection with hundreds of millions of people. “He transmits hope,” explained Philadelphia Archbishop Justin Rigali. John Paul’s friend Monsignor Lorenzo Albacete told PBS’s Frontline in 1999, “John Paul II knows that no one reads the encyclicals of a dead Pope … That is why he has taken to the streets. It can only last a minute, but you’d think people had 10 hours of the most intimate mystical experience. For many people, it is that one moment when they say, ‘I saw another possibility in life.'”

As his travels propelled the papacy out of what had effectively been its First World ghetto, tens of thousands of believers joined the church in countries where its potential for growth is the greatest. Worldwide, there has been a 41% increase in the number of Catholics (from 757 million in 1978 to 1.09 billion in 2003). Africa has seen the most rapid growth, a 168% jump in members. Similarly, while the overall number of diocesan priests rose a mere 2.5% during the Pope’s reign, that count in Africa went up 237%.


One more incident beyond John Paul’s control burnished his aura as someone of more than religious prominence and, indeed, beyond mankind’s lower passions. On May 13, 1981, during his weekly audience in St. Peter’s Square, shots rang out, and he toppled back, his white cassock stained red. Mehmet Ali Agca, a Turkish rightist and a murderer who had earlier written a letter threatening to kill John Paul, was trying to follow through. The bullet passed within millimeters of a major artery and within inches of several vital organs. “Mary, my mother,” John Paul gasped as he collapsed. Doctors removed part of his intestine and, over the next few days, replaced almost all his blood with transfusions.

Agca’s motives remain shrouded. Italian police believed he was working at the behest of a Bulgarian government trying to satisfy a Soviet wish to be rid of Solidarity’s patron. Italian journalists recently claimed to have seen East German files on Soviet involvement in a plot to kill the Pope.

In any case, there can be no doubt as to the attempt’s spectacular failure. Four days later, the Pope taped a message to believers; within nine months, he recommenced his travels. He had no doubts about the reason for his recovery. At least since the death of his mother when he was 8, he had experienced an intense mystical spirituality. In his youth, he applied to join the Discalced Carmelites, a monastic order, only to be gently rebuffed by superiors who saw in him another sort of potential. But he had maintained a contemplative practice. (Rocco Buttiglione, a friend and an author, once described the Pontiff’s reverie: “The faith is like a strike of lightning, illuminating everything.”) His devotion to the Virgin Mary, to whom his personal motto–Totus tuus (All yours)–referred, was lifelong, and he was known to prostrate himself before her statues. Since the shooting occurred on the anniversary of the 1917 apparition of the Virgin near Fatima in Portugal, he was convinced he owed his life to her. He made a pilgrimage of thanks to Fatima, and the near fatal bullet was fitted into a jeweled crown worn by her statue. In 1983, out of the same wellspring of faith, emerged an act of stunning virtue: his forgiveness of Agca in the would-be assassin’s jail cell.

The Pope never lost his mystical side. He added five events in the life of Jesus to the Rosary, raising from 15 to 20 the number of its mysteries. A similar commitment to Christlike example led to his making an astonishing 482 saints over his career. They included good Samaritans and ethnic representatives, but observers noted an uptick in paragons of the austere faith that the world came to realize was his unbending law.


If one had to arbitrarily assign a tipping point in the American perception of the Pontiff, it might be 1994. The year began with plans for an ambitious tour, including a visit to the U.S. But the trip was postponed for health reasons, and in the interim, the Pope sent a pastoral letter to his bishops. The issue of female ordination, he declared, was an official nonissue. Not only could women not become priests, but there was to be “no more discussion” of the topic. Many laypeople were appalled that in the throes of a priest shortage, the Pope could so conclusively spurn so many willing to help. The Vatican claimed the decision was infallible–an apparent extension of that status beyond its historical boundaries that startled even some of the Pontiff’s ardent supporters. That stern patriarch was the Pope, just as much as the genial pilgrim on the plane.

At the time of John Paul’s election, Catholicism was still trying to discern how expansively to interpret the modernizing reforms commenced at Vatican II. The Pope pledged that the council’s resolutions would guide his agenda, and some Americans hoped he might promote ideas of greater lay autonomy (under the banner of individual conscience) and hierarchical openness (collegiality). He did not. As it turned out, he favored only the “most exact execution” of the council’s directives, rebuffing not only traditionalists who derogated it but also those who saw it as a blueprint for church democracy. For all his support of freedom in the outside world, he enforced an ever more stringent conformity within his own.

That inclination expressed itself early, in his suppression of liberation theology, a Marxist-tinged philosophy that attained popularity in the ’70s among the Latin American poor. Critics wondered why the Pope would fan the flames of a people’s struggle in Eastern Europe while dousing a similar movement elsewhere. The simple answer was that liberation theology smacked too much of communism. But as time went on, it became clear John Paul was equally offended by a broad spectrum of doctrinal creativity and criticism. He dismantled the Jesuit leadership, presumably because of its perceived leftist sympathies. (In its place of papal favor, he raised the extremely conservative organization Opus Dei, elevating the once obscure group to the status of his “personal prelature.”) Catholic scholars who deviated from orthodox interpretations of the faith–often, it seemed, those who questioned papal prerogative–were silenced or deprived of their teaching positions and expected to take a kind of loyalty pledge.

He was not much more open to greater collegial participation among his bishops. His papacy saw the centralization of church authority. He published a decree effectively requiring national bishops’ conferences to get Vatican approval before making statements on doctrine and made episcopal appointments subject to seeming litmus tests on topics like abortion and homosexuality. Even conservatives like Father Richard John Neuhaus, editor of the interfaith journal First Things, feel that the result, at least in the U.S., has been the advancement of “team players, CEOs and managers. They have genuine piety, but they are not the kind of people who are very spiritually flammable.”

Regarding the laity, the Pope made it clear that he did not consider individual conscience a legitimate rationale for believers’ second-guessing the church’s positions on birth control, abortion, female ordination and a host of other teachings. “Opposition to the church’s pastors,” he wrote, “cannot be seen as a legitimate expression of Christian freedom. It is prohibited–to every one in every case–to violate these precepts.”


The Pope faced no opposition greater, at least in the developed West, than that on topics regarding women. That was no doubt a frustration to him. He had many close women friends and continued establishing such affinities throughout his life. He favored women in the workplace, and early in his career, he was a co-author of the book Love and Responsibility, which, among other things, championed the female orgasm.

But the book came out against contraception, and Karol Wojtyla went on to draft much of the language in Pope Paul VI’s controversial 1968 directive reiterating that church prohibition. (Although many U.S. Catholics have long ignored the ban, some found their anger reignited in the 1990s when the Pope opposed AIDS-containment programs because of their use of condoms.) As Pope, he irritated both abortion-rights and population activists at a 1994 U.N. conference in Cairo by insisting on passing language that stated, “In no case should abortion be promoted as a method of family planning.” In 1988 the Pope, despite standing up for female workers, asked women not to compromise their feminine “originality,” which he identified with their God-given role as mothers. He ordered a draft of the English translation of his landmark revision of the church’s catechism to be rewritten to remove gender-neutral language. References to “humanity” and “men and women” were out, and back in went “mankind.” “Although he was second to none in talking about women and honoring women as mothers and nurturers,” says former Congresswoman Geraldine Ferraro, a practicing Catholic, “the flip side is that’s not the calling for every woman. And that’s where he failed women.”


Consistently, John Paul was easier on groups outside Catholicism than he was on his own flock. He never ceased in his efforts to achieve some reconciliation with the Orthodox Christian tradition that parted with Roman Catholicism in the 11th century. In 1986 he gathered an extraordinary rainbow of religious leaders, from the Dalai Lama and the Archbishop of Canterbury to Sikh clerics and Zoroastrian priests, in the Italian town of Assisi, despite objections by Christian ultraconservatives. He was the first Pope to visit a mosque. But his most persistent and eloquent outreach was to Jews. At Vatican II, Wojtyla supported language clearing Jews of deicide and reaffirming Judaism’s integrity. As Pope, he lived those words. He was the first modern Pontiff to enter a synagogue and the first to establish diplomatic relations with Israel. He referred to Jews as Christians’ “elder brothers” in faith–an embrace that will make it harder for any future Pope to return to the old position that Christianity fulfilled and superseded Judaism.

John Paul II had the courage to revisit the painful past, if not the willingness to let his church stand totally naked before it. Toward the end of the 20th century, reflecting on the Catholic Church’s two millenniums, John Paul issued extraordinary apologies for the Inquisition and the Crusades. He rehabilitated Galileo for the “heresy” of espousing the theory that the sun, not the earth, was the center of the solar system. In 1998 he released “We Remember,” a much anticipated penance for the Holocaust. Many Jews criticized the document for confining itself to the culpability of individual Christians rather than admitting church complicity and for defending the wartime Pope, Pius XII. That did not prevent them from shedding tears in 2000, when during a trip to the Holy Land, John Paul prayed at Jerusalem’s Western Wall without making reference to Jesus and was reunited at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial with a Jewish concentration-camp survivor who remembered him as the young cleric who had saved her life as the war ended. Recalling “friends and neighbors” who perished, he said, “Men, women and children cry out to us from the depths of the horror that they knew. How can we fail to heed their cry?” “He understood Jews, not just with his head but with his heart,” says Rabbi James Rudin of the American Jewish Committee. “His contributions are historic, and probably in history, he’s the best Pope the Jews ever had.”


Over time, it became clear that the Pope’s world view was considerably distanced from U.S. attitudes, many of which he found annoying. Dismayed by what had been called the cafeteria Catholicism of a flock that continued to attend Mass while largely ignoring much of what he preached, he grumbled that “you cannot pick and choose.” Conversely, liberals in the U.S. and Europe came to see the Pontiff as a gloomy authoritarian whose ideology was a raft of contradictions–the doctor of philosophy who wanted to limit intellectual discourse, the vigorous advocate for human rights who defined homosexuality as a disorder.

Yet careful analysts found–agree with it or not–a powerful internal consistency to John Paul’s thought, although not along the individual-rights paradigm so central to Western secular social philosophy. His oft-repeated concept of the “dignity of the human person” defined person as a divine creation intrinsically inclined toward God and thus subject to divine laws best enunciated through the church. In his view, that dignity, which commenced at conception, was mortally affronted by contraception, abortion, euthanasia and the death penalty and wounded by war, anti-Semitism and the crushing debt repayments imposed upon poor nations. The pursuit of individual freedoms, untempered by moral teaching, meanwhile, would eventually lead to a “culture of death” corrosive to respect for family, for church and, eventually, for life. The West, he warned, was in the grip of that culture.

Believers lived the final chapter of John Paul II’s papacy in simultaneous frustration at his decreasing ability to exert church leadership and admiration for his courage in the face of age, medical setbacks and Parkinson’s syndrome. U.S. Catholics were confused and perturbed after priestly sexual abuse–and its enabling by at least some bishops–became a searing national issue in 2002. At the Pope’s directives, the U.S. bishops’ conference proposed a variety of get-tough measures, which were subsequently watered down in Rome. Observers wondered whether that was the most egregious example of papal preference for church authority over lay concerns or simply a function of his growing inability to stand up to his own bureaucracy. Similarly, some thought a younger John Paul would have more forcefully addressed the Sept. 11 attacks and his opposition to the allied invasion of Iraq. A few wished aloud that he would set an example for an age when medical intervention increasingly prolongs life but not vitality and become the first Pope in 590 years to retire.

Instead, he was another kind of example. Once proud and private, John Paul showed a youth-obsessed world that illness and old age are not badges of shame. From a wheelchair, he gave audience after audience and celebrated Mass after public Mass, one of which was witnessed, with some awe, by Beverly Firmin of Augusta, Ga. “I was up close enough where I could see the drool just coming down,” Firmin said, “… and I thought, ‘How sad.’ Then I thought, ‘Really, how beautiful.’ What a strong man it takes to let people see you in that condition.”


Having appointed all but three of the 117 Cardinals who will choose his successor, John Paul, by sheer longevity, has assured that the church will deviate little immediately from his doctrinal course. He would have understood this as part of God’s design. In his memoir Gift and Mystery, he makes a telling observation regarding the period in the 1940s when he attended a secret and illegal school for priests. “I could have been arrested any day and taken away to a concentration camp,” he wrote later. “Sometimes I would ask myself: so many young people of my own age are losing their lives, why not me? Today I know that it was not mere chance.” The trust that he was God’s instrument, that he was not roughly predestined but specifically preserved to find his place at the turn of the millennium, lay behind his every act. In his evangelization, he was so terribly urgent; in his doctrine, so unbending; for the children, so utterly hopeful. He was unconscious of self. He was so full of energy and reluctant to acknowledge when he was spent. He was so Christlike in his sense of fate. He was so Pauline in his quest. He was so dedicated to his mission, so certain that this was God’s plan and himself a part of it. He believed always that nothing less than salvation was at stake. •

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