Pope John Paul II

Taking stock of people and ideas in the news.
Aug. 6 1999 3:30 AM

Pope John Paul II

The fearless politician.

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In the early evening of Oct. 16, 1978, the newly elected Pope John Paul II appeared on the balcony of St. Peter's Basilica and told the crowd that he had accepted election even though "I was afraid in receiving the nomination." If so, it was the first and last time that the former Cardinal Karol Wojtyla of Krakow had known fear. Six days later, when he was invested as pope, John Paul II was commending the Christianity of courage. Echoing the assurances of the angel who told Mary of Nazareth that she would conceive and bring forth the son of God, the 58-year-old pope told the throng in St. Peter's Square: "Be not afraid."

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John Paul II is not afraid--of religion's cultured despisers, of geopoliticians who find his near-pacifism naive, of liberal Catholics who accuse him of betraying the spirit of the Second Vatican Council ("Vatican II"), of feminists who suspect that he sees only two acceptable roles for women--virgin and mother. He is unafraid of his own infirmity, caused by advancing age and by the residual effects of a 1981 assassination attempt. Finally, and perhaps most interesting, John Paul II has intimated that he might be unafraid even of a downsizing of the papal authority his charisma has done so much to dramatize.

Born in 1920 to the wife of a Polish soldier, the future pope was a precocious intellectual, actor, and poet who worked in a quarry and a chemical plant during World War II. Imbued with the popular Catholicism of Poland--marked by effusive devotion to the Virgin Mary (an aspect of John Paul II's spirituality that discomfits Protestants and liberal Catholics)-- Wojtyla began studies for the priesthood in 1942 in an "underground" seminary made necessary by the Nazi occupation.

After the war he studied in Rome, boarding an ecclesiastical fast track: auxiliary bishop of Krakow in 1958; archbishop in 1964; and cardinal in 1967. Though Communist officials regarded him as more pliable than other churchmen, he proved unafraid to confront them in the cause of freedom for the Polish church. When Wojtyla was elected pope, after the 33-day reign of the Italian John Paul I, the international press portrayed him as the darkest of dark horses. In hindsight, his ecclesiastical networking during and after Vatican II made him a logical candidate once it was clear no Italian cardinal could win election.

The rest is history, from which liberal and conservative Catholics draw strikingly contrary conclusions. The pope took the Gospel and his magnetic personality on the road--forsaking the throne, on which past popes were carried through St. Peter's Basilica, for the Popemobile. The year after his election, John Paul II returned to Poland for nine days and encountered a rhapsodic reception that more than one biographer credits with helping to sow the seeds of the Solidarity movement's later challenge to the Communist regime.

Elsewhere on his world tour, which has passed through 119 countries, he kept faith with his predecessors John XXIII and Paul VI in defending the dignity of workers and anathematizing the arms race. He called for negotiations rather than the use of force in the Gulf War and in Bosnia and Kosovo. He has been critical of international sanctions against Iraq, and he hopes next year to visit the birthplace of the biblical patriarch Abraham there. These and similar initiatives pleased political liberals inside and outside the church; not so the Vatican's use of its quasigovernmental status to oppose population-control initiatives that the pope feared would contribute to the "culture of death."

The style of John Paul II's papacy has occasioned as much comment as its substance. Past popes were remote and magisterial figures, but capitalizing on his relative youth, his actor's panache, and a mastery of mass communications, John Paul II changed all that--unafraid of diluting the papal mystique through overexposure.

The pope's roadshow has never had an exclusively Catholic cast. He has met with Rome's chief rabbi and has joined in worship with Lutheran bishops and, in a historic 1982 ceremony in Canterbury Cathedral, with the spiritual leader of the Church of England, which broke with Rome in the 16th century.

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S ome would dismiss this as photo-op ecumenism and note that Anglicans are not invited to take Holy Communion in Roman Catholic churches, despite agreements by an Anglican-Roman Catholic theological commission on the meaning of that sacrament. Anglicans were also dismayed when Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the pope's doctrinal watchdog, signed a document that seemed to rehabilitate a much-criticized 1896 papal bull declaring the holy orders of Anglican clergy "absolutely null and utterly void."

It isn't only in his policy toward other churches that John Paul II is accused of preaching reform and practicing reaction. Vatican II gave rise to a less hierarchical and more outward-looking Catholicism and set the stage for once-unthinkable innovations like plainclothes nuns and the celebration of the Mass in English and other modern languages. Liberal Catholics concede that John Paul II may follow the letter of the council's decrees but, mindful that "the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life" (2 Corinthians 3:6), they see in Vatican II a trajectory of further change that this pope has frustrated. John Paul II is not oblivious to these criticisms, just contemptuous of them. It is his duty, he writes in Crossing the Threshold of Hope, to "interpret [Vatican II] correctly and defend it from tendentious interpretations." It seems the pope enjoys confounding his critics. He recalls that on one trip to Poland he offended local adherents of the "enlightened agenda" by emphasizing the Ten Commandments. "For such people," he said, "the Pope becomes persona non grata when he tries to convince the world of human sin."

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