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John Paul II had global, human impact

Justin Tardiff | Monday, April 4, 2005

In contrast to his immediate predecessor Pope John Paul I, who served for only 33 days before dying, Pope John Paul II served for 27 years, the third-longest papacy in history.

He entered the papacy during a time of world tumult. While the Church was bouncing in the wake of Vatican II, an iron curtain was cloaking parts of the world. Later, lightning-fast progress would strike, sparking a storm of changes.

The pope was never afraid. He seized the new opportunity that air travel presented, eventually becoming the most-traveled pope in history. He visited places where he was unwelcome or his message was rejected. And he always kissed the ground of those places when he deplaned, a tribute to the humanity of Jesus Christ.

John Paul II always defended human rights, especially in the face of communism. He also defended the Church’s post-Vatican II stances, despite their unpopularity in radical or liberal parts of the world.

The changing world was not a problem for Pope John Paul II. Even Vatican City now has its own Web site.

Global reach

Pope John Paul II became the leader of an ancient establishment on the “threshold of the globalized media world,” said history professor and director of the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies R. Scott Appleby.

With air travel reaching new possibilities and the arrival of the Internet, the papal office had more globalization opportunities than ever before.

In the face of such challenges, Appleby said, “his presence, his visibility, his charisma … assured that the Church and particularly the pope would be at the center of attention.”

“He brilliantly brought the Church to the media and global age,” Appleby said.

Pope John Paul II made 104 trips outside Italy and more than 150 within Italy during his papacy. He visited every continent, except Antarctica.

According to the Chicago Tribune, the pontiff’s penchant for world travel stemmed from his first trip abroad as pope, when he visited Mexico in 1979. One of his first stops there was the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe, where he spent more than an hour praying alone.

“It was while praying to Guadalupe, the pope later said, that he had an epiphany,” the Tribune article said, “suddenly understanding that it was his mission to become the pilgrim pope, bringing the word of God to people around the world.”

Indeed, the pope did not limit his travel to any one area of the world, although he personally visited almost all of Rome’s 334 parishes.

Born and raised in Poland, he “really embraced that relation with Poland and Eastern Europe,” said Kathleen Cummings, associate director of the Cushwa Center and professor of history.

John Paul II was also “tremendously beloved in Latin America,” said Timothy Matovina, director of the Cushwa Center, for his “commitment to justice, considering these countries struggle with poverty.”

Matovina referred to an article by 20th century theologian Karl Rahner to characterize Pope John Paul II’s papacy.

“Rahner said that following Vatican II, we’re moving from being a Western European church to a truly world church,” Matovina said. “… [B]ecome a world church, that’s happened in Pope John Paul II’s papacy.”

Matovina offered the diversity of bishops as evidence of the globalization of the church. While European bishops used to travel to places like Africa, South America and Asia, more and more bishops native to these continents are emerging.

The pope did not hesitate to enter countries that, due to communism, outlawed the very religion he represented. He visited Poland twice when it was under martial law, once in 1979 and then again in 1983. He also made a trip to West Germany in 1987, two years before the end of communism, and to Cuba in 1998.

During these visits, as always, the pope stressed religious freedom, Appleby said.

“He was a great champion of freedom – the freedom to fulfill your destiny as a human being, to fulfill your destiny in God, to be fully in touch with the spirit of love and forgiveness,” Appleby said.

He was always concerned with human rights, which he called “non-negotiable, inviolable, not something that’s transitory,” Appleby said.

Some of these governments were profoundly changed following these visits. One month after the pope’s second visit to Poland, the current leader there, Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski, ended martial law. The pope was also “one of the primary causes” of the fall of the iron curtain, Matovina said.

“Not many people have the moral gravity to be part of that counter-force,” Matovina said.

While the pope was not effective in ending communism in Cuba today, his visit nonetheless meant a great deal to Catholics in Cuba, whose worship had been so restricted by the 40 previous years of communism, Matovina said. Cummings called John Paul II’s ecumenical work with Jews one of the highlights of his papacy.

“His moral voice was heard throughout the globe,” Matovina said.

Humanity

The pope should be remembered for his humanity, Matovina said.

Appleby agreed, noting that “[t]he Church often emphasizes the divinity of Christ,” but that Pope John Paul II said what we learn from Christ is to be human.

“His gestures – hugging children, kissing the ground after getting off a plane – are all signs of his presence in humanity,” he said.

“On the one hand he emphasized aspects of the Church that are hierarchical, patriarchal,” Cummings said. “But he also made the papacy seem more human with his willingness to embrace and be embraced.”

And just as his arms were open for an embrace, his mouth was open about the pain he endured near the end of his life.

“On his trip to Lourdes [in August of 2004], he talked about suffering,” Cummings said. “He shared his suffering with the world.”

Leading the post-Vatican II Church

When it came to defending Church teaching, Pope John Paul II was quite different from his predecessors. Pope Paul VI, Appleby said, was “unpopular” and “retreated” from the public near the end of his life. In contrast, Pope John Paul II “provided answers at a time when there were a lot of questions,” Cummings said.

For example, Cummings said many thought the Church’s stance on birth control and female ordination was going to change with Vatican II – it did not. The time following that was a period of “tumult and change,” she said.

“But [Pope John Paul II] was not apologetic,” she said. “He defined these things as central to Catholic teaching.”

Law professor Vincent Rougeau also highlighted the pope’s rigid adherence to Catholic teaching.

“He was a very traditional pope for people who thought that there might be more conversation about the role of women … he shut that conversation down,” he said.

While he defended male-only ordination and urged women to seek out roles as mothers and wives, Cummings said, John Paul II also decided to classify sexism as a sin.

Integrity in death

“People may disagree with him, but there’s no doubt he was a faithful and holy man,” Cummings said of the reaction to John Paul II’s death.

“We’re seeing various world leaders complement the pope [following his death],” Matovina said, “and that’s unprecedented. Not everyone agrees with him, but people admire his integrity.”