THERE WAS a time when Catholics who wanted a glimpse of the pope had to travel to Rome. But for the better part of two decades, since John Paul II assumed the office in 1978, the papacy has virtually become a traveling institution. Around the world, millions of Catholics and non-Catholics alike have felt the aura exuded by the man in white.
But if John Paul II is masterful in the papal role of the compassionate shepherd of a worldwide flock, he is an equally forceful leader in other aspects of church life. Agree with him or disagree, this is a pope to be reckoned with.
Many people would say that good Catholics have no business disagreeing with the pope. That may be true; yet we now have the curious phenomenon that while admiration for Pope John Paul's leadership continues to rise, large percentages of American Catholics say they disregard his teachings on private sexual matters and disagree with his refusal to discuss the ordination of women or marriage for priests.
While this may suggest disrespect for the pope or lack of XTC commitment to the church, some observers offer a different interpretation: Being Catholic, they say, means remaining united, claiming your heritage and staying even when you disagree. After all, a church preparing to enter its third millennium is an institution that can survive these tempests.
Yet the curious thing about the pope's message is the selective hearing people seem to use in absorbing it. Americans tend to focus on papal pronouncements on sexual matters. They pay less attention to a message of social justice that is equally disquieting to ideologues of the left and the right. In places as diverse as Singapore and Baltimore, the pope brings the same message, one that calls on the world to recognize that the essential dignity of each person is more important than any economic system.
Even so, Pope John Paul II has clearly put a more conservative face on the church's hierarchy, creating an atmosphere less tolerant of debate and dissent about church doctrine. This has been especially hard on theologians, who see their role as raising questions, pushing the boundaries of imagination as they explore the church's relationship to God and God's relationship to the people of the church.
It is too early to define John Paul's legacy as pope; although frail, this is a man who is looking forward to leading the church into the new millennium. But it is clear that, 17 years into his papacy, John Paul leads a church that may sometimes seem fractious but is clearly vibrant and flourishing. Like its leader, and in no small part because of his leadership, the modern-day Roman Catholic Church is a forceful presence in the world.