Karol Wojtyla, the Polish archbishop of Krakow, made history 20 years ago today when he became Pope John Paul II and the first non-Italian pontiff in 456 years.
And that was just the beginning.
The most traveled pope in history, he has visited 119 countries. He has likely been seen in person, and on television, by more people than anyone before him. He has put a lasting stamp on the church by appointing 90 percent of the cardinals who will vote on his successor.
And at age 78, he is not ready to quit yet. Just yesterday, he issued his 13th encyclical, "Faith and Reason," which asserts the existence of divine, eternal truth and emphasizes the importance of a philosophical underpinning, especially the classical masters such as Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas, for theological study. Next year, he has trips planned for Mexico, St. Louis, Poland and possibly Romania. And he has a full year of activities planned for the millennial jubilee celebration.
George Weigel, whose biography on the pope will be published next year, believes that history will remember him as John Paul the Great.
Like the two popes acclaimed as "great" -- Leo I and Gregory I -- Pope John Paul has defended Rome against barbarian invaders, in this case, the culture and values of the 20th century, said Weigel, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington.
"He has been the great defender of human dignity against the barbarism of his own time, including Nazism, communism and the reduction of human beings to objects for human manipulation, which is the new post-Communist threat," Weigel said.
Papal observers believe that Pope John Paul will be most noted for the role he played in bringing about the end of communism through his support of the Solidarity labor movement in his native Poland.
"I think he's going to go down in history as the most important world leader in the second half of the 20th century because of the impact of ending the Cold War and liberating Eastern Europe from communism," said the Rev. Thomas J. Reese, S.J., a Jesuit priest who is an authority on the Vatican and the editor of America magazine, an influential Catholic periodical.
"When I was growing up in the 1950s, I thought I'd perish in a mushroom-shaped cloud," Reese said. "Kids growing up today aren't worried about that."
Said Cardinal William H. Keeler: "You have to go back to Gregory the Great or Leo the Great to see a pope that's had this kind of impact in the public life of nations: The collapse of communism, the giving of new hope to people in places like Cuba."
Critics and fans of Pope John Paul agree that it is his background in Poland, living first under the Nazi regime, and then under the Communists, that formed his temperament and allowed him to assume his role in history.
Karol Jozef Wojtyla was born May 18, 1920, in Wadowice, a town about 30 miles from Krakow. When the Nazis occupied Poland, they closed down his university. When he decided he wanted to be a priest, he had to study at a clandestine seminary.
As archbishop of Krakow, he asserted himself against the Communists, winning his most important battle when he succeeded in getting a church built in the Socialist city of Nowa Huta, an industrial town in a suburb of Krakow.
It was Pope John Paul's experience of seeing Jewish classmates being seized by Nazis in his hometown that made him such an advocate of a closer Catholic-Jewish relationship, said Rabbi A. James Rudin, an interreligious affairs expert for the American Jewish Committee.
"So he actually saw with his own eyes as a young man the Shoah, the Holocaust, on the ground. Not as a diplomat, not as an ambassador, not as an academic, not as a political leader, but as a young man living in this town in Poland," Rudin said.
But Catholics who dislike Pope John Paul's leadership also point to his life in Poland as an explanation of why they believe he is so authoritarian. "His whole experience as a priest and a bishop in Poland was one of the church living in a context where the dTC government was the opponent of the church," said the Rev. Richard P. McBrien, S.J., a Jesuit who teaches theology at Notre Dame University in South Bend, Ind.
"And in a situation of grave and serious oppression, the church could not afford to manifest to its enemy a divided faith," he said. "The mistake he makes is to project that onto the whole world scene."
Many Catholics believe that Pope John Paul has been too hard-line in centralizing authority and not allowing discussion of church teachings such as the ban on contraception and the prohibitions on the ordination of woman or married priests.
McBrien, whose "Lives of the Popes" was published last year, said he considers Pope John Paul's pontificate to be "restorationist," an attempt to turn back the clock to the Catholicism of the 1950s when the bishops were the princes of the church, the pope was its king, and the laity were the subjects who obeyed. That model was supplanted by a more collegial style at the Second Vatican Council of the early 1960s.
This week, a coalition of liberal Catholics from six continents issued a letter expressing the hope that Pope John Paul's successor would be more open to collaboration. "We would certainly want somebody who is dialogic and listening and who gives great weight to the sense of the faithful and welcomes the people of God in the decision-making of the church," said Sister Maureen Fiedler of the Hyattsville-based Catholics Speak Out, which helped organize the We Are Church coalition.
But Weigel has a different view.
"His critics say he lives in another century. They're right, but they've got the wrong century," he said. "He has been living imaginatively in the 21st century for 20 years. It's a sadness that some people confuse authoritative teaching with authoritarianism. But I'm afraid the confusion is theirs, it's not his."
Pub Date: 10/16/98