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World: Record Papacy Bears John Paul II's Special Imprint

  • Breffni O'Rourke

The voice of Pope John Paul II rings out over the multitudes on his inaugural speech in Rome in 1978, after he became Pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church. It's a voice which the world has subsequently come to know, to love, to hate, to fear, to respect.

This week (May 22) John Paul becomes the longest-serving pope of this century, as well as celebrating his 78th birthday (May 18). Karol Wojtyla, the former archbishop of Krakow, the first Polish pontiff in history and the first non-Italian pope in 455 years, is arguably one of the most important figures of the latter half of the century.

The gospels say Christ told his chief apostle: "You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church". John Paul, the 264th in the line of St Peter, is undeniably a rock, with his unbreakable will and uncompromising vision. But is he a rock upon which the church finds safety in the storm, or against which it will shatter?.

It's easier to assess his contribution to political realities rather than to the spiritual realm. Karol Wojtyla experienced at first hand the tyranny of nazism and communism, and although authoritarian in character himself, became a deadly foe of totalitarianism.

His repeated triumphant visits to his homeland from 1979 onward are seen as a factor in the final breakup of communism. Exactly why that should be so is hard to say, as indeed, he had no missiles, no troops, no temporal power. But his vision of man as a free and reasonable being, one who must arrive at the truth through personal thought, was a vision which at that particular moment overmastered outworn collectivist philosophy.

Being a Slav and a Pole was an essential element. An Italian pontiff could have said the same words and changed nothing. But John Paul knew communism from the inside, he came not as an advocate of some opposing worldly ideology, but as one who understood the absurdity of the restrictions Marxism imposed on life, both physical and metaphysical. By flocking in their millions to hear his words, the Poles demonstrated with finality that the old order was dead.

In the spiritual realm, as the Bishop of Rome, the Pope's contribution to the century is much more controversial. His phenomenal record of traveling to all corners of the world to preach the Church's doctrine wins admiration for his zeal. But his message is unpalatable to many. Visiting underdeveloped countries suffering from overpopulation, poverty and all manner of other ills, and actively condemning any birth control seems to many to be cruel and irrational. Critics say that if man -- and woman -- are rational, then they must be able to use their sense to shape a better world. Prevailing opinion appears against the Pope on that issue.

Just as divisive but with clearer battle lines is the Pope's particular and absolute condemnation of abortion. It alienates him from the modernists who want this issue removed from the moral arena, but wins support from those who regard abortion as much more than a lifestyle choice. He is also unyielding on the role of women in the church, and priestly celibacy.

Has John Paul's refusal to bow to modern trends driven the church into irrelevancy, or has he brought the church intact through a century in which scientific developments have shaken the very foundations of religion? Probably the latter.

A pope who enjoys almost universal approval in memory is John the twenty-third (XXIII), pontiff from 1958 to 1963. Even at the time, John was sometimes called the most loved man in the world. The portly, humble and ever optimistic prelate was the peasant pope, the pope for the people, the man who put warmth and humanity back into the church after the long and bleak rule of Pius XII. Against the wish of his conservative cardinals, John opened the Second Vatican Council which in many important ways was to modernize the church and bring it closer to the people. At the height of the Cold War, his encyclical on world peace, Pacem in Terris, won acclaim even from political leaders.

John's priorities were human warmth, peace, openness, lack of pretension -- preoccupations which fitted surprisingly well with the impulses of the 1960s youth revolution which was just about to get underway. In the next two decades that revolution gathered momentum and managed to largely sweep away the old established norms of morality. Progressive trends inside the church responded to the mood of the times, and it was left to John's successors Paul VI and particularly John Paul II to put on the brakes, to announce that the church would not bow to the pressures and trends of the moment, that it stood by its traditions.

That John Paul has done this so rigorously and with so little regard for contemporary sensibilities has earned him the antagonism of many. But this pope and John XXIII must be seen as twin pillars of the same edifice. One moved the church into the modern world, the other prevented it becoming a plaything of fashion. It will be up to the next pope, who cannot now be many years away, to decide if the Church should adopt a position between these two opposites.