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World: Despite Failing Health, Pope John Paul II Marks 25 Years As Pontiff

  • Breffni O'Rourke

Tomorrow, Pope John Paul II marks 25 years as head of the Roman Catholic Church. Polish-born Karol Wojtyla, now 83 years old and in failing health, has led world Catholicism through tumultuous times. He is credited with playing a key role in ending communism in Central and Eastern Europe, and he has shepherded the church through a period of modernization intensely hostile to traditional beliefs. His legacy will long be controversial. Has he succeeded in hoisting moral imperatives above the clamor for change, or has he striven in vain to make time stand still?

Prague, 15 October 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The scene is the square of St. Peter's in Rome. The Pontifex Maximus, the great bridge between God and man, is delivering his blessing to the multitudes. John Paul II sways the crowd with his call for toleration and an end to conflict.

Let's change the scene to a poor farmer's shack somewhere in Latin America. An exhausted woman lies on her deathbed, the latest of her many children by her side. She was a good Catholic and never used artificial contraception.

Cut once more to a field in Poland, the stocky figure of John Paul at the center of a sea of ecstatic fellow Poles. As chants of "sto lat" (may he live 100 years) rise in intensity, the foundations of the totalitarian state begin to crack and will soon crumble -- in Poland and the whole region.

John Paul II, the first Slavic pope, is at the center of all these scenes. With unparalleled vigor over the past 25 years, he has personally taken the message of the church to the ends of the Earth on more than 100 journeys. At the same time, that message has often been one of uncompromising conservatism, especially in regards to birth control.

How does one begin to quantify the legacy of such a man? For German theologian Marianne Heimbach-Steines of Bamberg University, the pope's legacy is many-sided. "The pope has engaged himself in so many issues in his long papacy, and he has done much to make the church an important voice in the world, or to keep the voice of the church important," Heimbach-Steines told RFE/RL. "And, of course, there are other fields in which his pontificate has made things difficult for the church. But when I think of the way the pope has worked for the cause of peace, the way he has supported human rights, and reconciliation between the various religions, particularly with the Jews, then he brought the church a great way forward."

Heimbach-Steines also cited John Paul's service to Europe. His unswerving support for the Polish Solidarity movement in the communist era is seen as helping to bring that movement to power in his homeland in 1989. From there, a wave of democratization swept through the region.

For theologian David Thomas of Birmingham University in England, one of the pope's greatest successes has been the improvement in inter-faith relations. "Undoubtedly, he will be seen as one of the great popes in terms of inter-faith relations -- his journeys to countries where there are substantial populations of other faiths, that symbolic gesture at the [Jewish] wailing wall [in Jerusalem], the fact that he visited the great Umayyad Mosque in Damascus -- [he was] the first pope ever to go inside a mosque", Thomas said. "These must be counted in favor of him being seen as a pope who has taken very positive steps towards inter-faith relations."

The papal efforts to mend relations with other Christians, such as the Orthodox, have not been quite so fruitful, however.

Thomas goes on to note the apparent contradictions between John Paul's hard line on some issues and his liberalism on others. He calls this a "curious mixture." "There is a curious progressivism in many of the things that he has done, and at the same time a very stolid conservatism, and I think that is the characteristic of the man, really," he said.

Not everyone sees the pontiff in a positive light. One of his most persistent critics is German theologian Hans Kung, whose right to preach was withdrawn by the pope but who has continued to speak out against John Paul.

"For me, the greatest pope of the century is no other than Papa [pope] Roncalli, John XXIII, who with the Second Vatican Council opened a new period of hope in church history," Kung said. John XXIII was a short-lived pontiff who called together church leaders in 1962 for deliberations to liberalize and modernize the faith after the long, frozen years of Pius XII.

Following John's death, conservatives in the church gradually but thoroughly reversed the liberalization, none more so than John Paul II. Kung said John Paul II is "the most contradictory pope of the century, who through his contradictions has done much good, but who after the Vatican Council plunged the church into an epochal crisis."

He continued: "The ship of the Catholic Church -- through a dogmatic and moral rigidity, and through the betrayal of the Second Vatican Council -- has drifted to the right and run aground. It can only recommence its journey when it is returned to a middle course, fully in the spirit of John XXIII and the reform impulses of the Second Vatican Council."

Kung said the church will continue to lose ground among young people until it faces the issues of human sexuality, contraception, celibacy, the status of women, and the right of women to share the offices of the church.

In the meantime, the pope is struggling with his health and the advanced stages of Parkinson's disease. He presided at his weekly general audience before tens of thousands of faithful today at St. Peter's Square. As he has in recent appearances, he had trouble speaking. Aides had to complete most of his remarks.

But there appears to be no chance that the pope will step down. As Polish Monsignor Tadeusz Styczen said this week: "The pope is suffering, but he won't resign. He will keep going to the end of his mission."