The Heroic Papacy
by George Weigel
Paul II dramatically revitalized the world's
oldest institutional office and always continued
He was the Pope neither the Church nor the world expected. The
surprises that characterized his twenty-six year pontificate
began on the very night of John Paul II's election.
On October 16, 1978, the Catholic Church was in a state of
spiritual shock. The fifteen-year papacy of Paul VI, whom many
veteran churchmen considered the perfectly prepared pope, had
concluded in division and exhaustion. The bright promise of the
Second Vatican Council was a fading memory. Paul's successor,
John Paul I, seemed on the verge of revitalizing the papacy when
he died after a mere thirty-three days in office. To whom would
the college of cardinals turn now?
Few expected that
they would turn to Karol Wojtyla, the 58-year-old archbishop of
Kraków. But after the first day's balloting had revealed a
deadlock between the two leading Italian candidates, the
cardinals made the historic decision to look beyond Italy for a
pope, and Wojtyla was quickly chosen. His appearance on the
loggia of St. Peter's Basilica that night was the first
surprise; many in the vast crowd had never heard of "Wojtyla,"
thinking the name Asian or African. But the surprises continued
as John Paul II broke centuries of precedent and began his
pontificate with an impromptu address in Italian, reassuring the
worried Romans that, from this moment on, he, too, was a Roman.
When he asked them to correct any mistakes he might make in "our
Italian language," they cheered wildly.
Six days later,
at his papal inauguration, the surprises continued. In his
homily, John Paul II challenged the Church to regain its
evangelical fervor and its nerve, particularly in defending the
fundamental human right of religious freedom throughout the
world. After the three-hour ceremony ended, he refused to
retreat into the Vatican basilica but walked toward the vast
throng in the Square, waving his papal crozier as if it were a
great sword of the spirit. When a small boy burst through the
security cordon to present him with flowers, fussy local clergy
tried to shoo him away; John Paul II swept him up in an embrace.
The crowds refused to leave until John Paul told them, "It's
time for everyone to eat lunch, even the Pope!"
surprises continued throughout his pontificate. John Paul acted
as he thought a pastor should act, rather than according to the
venerable script written by the traditional managers of popes.
He invited guests to his private Mass and his meals, every day.
He visited more of Italy and Rome than any of his Italian
predecessors. He held seminars in his summer residence with
agnostic and atheist philosophers. His world travels--wearing a
tribal headdress in Kenya in 1980, holding a koala bear in
Australia in 1986, gathering the largest crowd in human history
in Manila in January 1995, improvising a Polish Christmas carol
in New York's Central Park nine months later, solemnly
commemorating the Holocaust in Jerusalem in 2000--made him the
most visible pope in history.
It would be a
serious mistake, though, to think of this as the showmanship of
an accomplished actor. John Paul II's conduct of the papacy,
however surprising it was to some, was based on a firmly held
set of convictions. Bishops, he believed, were primarily
evangelists and teachers, not managers. That was the way he had
been the archbishop of Kraków, and that was how he thought he
should be the Bishop of Rome. In doing so, John Paul II, 263rd
successor to St. Peter, brought the papacy into the 21st century
by retrieving the first-century model of the Office of Peter in
the Church. In the New Testament, Peter is not the chief
executive officer of a small niche company, "Christianity, Inc."
Peter is a witness, an evangelist, a pastor, the center of the
Church's unity. John Paul II revitalized that ancient concept of
the Office of Peter for the third millennium, using all the
instruments of the communications and transportation revolutions
to bring Peter to the world.
In the course of
this dramatic renovation of the world's oldest institutional
office, he continued to surprise. Throughout his pontificate, he
was a magnet for the world's young people, who flocked to him by
the millions. In the early years of his papacy, some of this
almost certainly reflected the contemporary cult of celebrity.
But that was not all it was, and his status in the 1980s as a
global superstar did not explain why John Paul II continued to
attract the young when he was visibly weakened by disease and
Why did the Pope
remain a compelling figure for the young? One reason was his
transparent integrity. Young people have acutely sensitive
hypocrisy detectors; in John Paul II, they saw a man who
believed what he said and acted out his beliefs. There was no
"spin" here--only integrity all the way through, the integrity
of a man who committed every facet of his life to Jesus Christ.
This was immensely compelling.
The Pope was also
attractive to the young because he defied the cultural
conventions of our age and didn't pander to them. Rather, he
challenged them to moral grandeur. While virtually every other
authority figure in the world was lowering the bar of moral
expectation, John Paul II held it high. You are capable of moral
heroism, he told young people. Of course you will fail from time
to time; that is human. But don't demean yourself by holding
your lives to a lower standard. Get up from your failures, seek
forgiveness and reconciliation, try again. That, he insisted, is
the path to the fulfillment all young people seek.
listened. Not all of them agreed. But they came, in their
millions, and listened. There is little doubt that many were
changed by the encounter.
John Paul II, the
Pope from intensely Catholic Poland, also surprised many by his
ecumenical initiatives and the passion of his commitment to a
new relationship between Catholicism and living Judaism.
No Pope since the
split between Rome and the Christian East in 1054 did as much to
close that first massive breach in the unity of the Church. No
Pope since the Reformation spent more time in dialogue with
Protestant Christians. No Pope ever asked Orthodox and
Protestants leaders and theologians to help him think through an
exercise of the papacy that would serve their needs.
None of this bore
immediate fruit. After an immensely difficult twentieth century,
Orthodox Christianity was in no condition to respond to John
Paul's suggestion that he sought no jurisdictional role in the
East and that it ought to be possible to return to the way
things were before 1054. And while significant theological
advances were made in the ecumenical dialogue with Protestants--
notably the 1999 Joint Declaration on Justification by Faith by
the Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation--it became
clear throughout the pontificate that new, Church-dividing
issues had emerged since the sixteenth century. Yet despite
these frustrations, John Paul II secured the quest for Christian
unity in the heart of the Catholic Church. Seeds he has planted
will germinate in the third millennium.
The dialogue with
Judaism saw more concrete accomplishments. After John Paul's
1986 visit to the Synagogue of Rome, his repeated condemnations
of anti-Semitism, his multiple apologies for centuries of
Christian prejudice and persecution of the Jews, and his Jubilee
year pilgrimage to Israel, Jews and Catholics stood on the edge
of a new conversation, of a depth and range unseen for more than
nineteen hundred years. Jewish leaders throughout the world have
testified to the fact that John Paul II has been the best Pope
for Jews ever. And if this is surprising to some, it was to the
Pope himself an expression of the veneration for the living
Judaism he learned in his boyhood, playing goalie on the local
Jewish soccer team and occasionally visiting the synagogue in
his hometown, which was 20% Jewish.
John Paul II
canonized more saints than any Pope in history and beatified
hundreds of other servants of God--another surprise to some, and
a practice that came under criticism. But the Pope, who thought
there was sanctity all around us, believed that the "universal
call to holiness" of which Vatican II had spoken was being
answered on every continent and among people in every walk of
life. God, he believed, is quite profligate in making saints.
conviction about the abundance of grace inspired John Paul's
enthusiastic endorsement of a host of lay renewal movements in
the Church. These movements--Focolare, Regnum Christi, the
Neo-Catechumenal Way, Communion and Liberation, among many
others--make some bishops and Church officials nervous; where
did these movements of radical discipleship "fit" in the
organization chart? John Paul II was content to leave that
question to the future and encouraged every new movement that
committed itself to "thinking with the Church."
He was a Pope of
many surprises. French journalist André Frossard understood that
when, shortly after John Paul's election, he wired his French
newspaper, "This is not a Pope from Poland. This is a Pope from
Galilee." And that, in retrospect, was the greatest surprise of
a Senior Fellow of the
Ethics and Public Policy Center, is a Roman
Catholic theologian and one of America's leading
commentators on issues of religion and public
life. He holds the William E. Simon Chair in
Catholic Studies at EPPC. He
the author of Witness to Hope: The Biography of
John Paul II, published by HarperCollins.
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