In the autumn of 1978, when I had just begun graduate studies in Toronto, a pope died after only 33 days on the throne. Breaking their travel budgets for the second time in slightly more than a month, the College of Cardinals assembled once again in Rome and did something unprecedented: they elected a Pole as pope. He was Karol Józef Wojtyla, archbishop of Krakow. At the time he was still a fairly young 58 years of age -- a vigorous athletic type who enjoyed skiing in the Tatras Mountains of southern Poland. He was an intellectual and a playwright, schooled in phenomenology and possessing a philosophical sophistication warranting comparisons with his great predecessor, Leo XIII, whose encyclicals had long been recognized as a groundbreaking body of Catholic social teachings.
Born in 1920, Wojtyla, along with his countrymen, experienced the turmoil of the 20th century, including the sheer destructiveness of the ideologies which had defaced its spiritual landscape. Poland itself had only recently been restored to independence for the first time since 1795. The year of Wojtyla's birth also saw a war between Poland and a newly bolshevik Russia over the former's ill-determined eastern boundary. At the age of 19 Wojtyla's homeland was once more partitioned between Hitler's Germany and Stalin's Soviet Union, with the Second World War quickly ensuing. At war's end Poland found itself under the brutal thumb of Marxist-Leninist ideology, and a largely Catholic people was forced to accept rule by an officially atheistic régime.
Wojtyla became a priest in 1946, and from this point he advanced steadily within the ranks of the church's hierarchy, becoming archbishop of Krakow in 1963 and a cardinal in 1967. After Pope Paul VI's death in August of 1978, a Polish pope was definitely not on the horizon, and an Italian, Albino Luciani, the Patriarch of Venice, was selected for the position as John Paul I. Yet scarcely more than a month later, the landscape had changed and Wojtyla was on the pontifical throne, much to everyone's surprise.
The world of that time was in many respects a different place from the world of today. The cold war was still going on. An ageing Leonid Brezhnev was the leader of the Soviet Union, and the Soviet sphere of influence in eastern Europe was still intact. Did Brezhnev tremble at the thought of a Pole on the papal throne? He might well have done so, because history will likely judge that John Paul II played a decisive role in the collapse of global communism. Indeed, he knew first-hand the destructiveness of the secular ideologies, which put him in a good position to recognize them when he saw them, as well as to combat them, employing the unique spiritual weapons of his office.
In 1979 John Paul visited his homeland of Poland. His message to his compatriots, "Be not afraid," electrified his audience, emboldening them to follow Lech Walesa's leadership in establishing the independent trade union, Solidarity. Walesa himself has said that, prior to the Pope's visit, he had difficulty finding 10 people to join the movement, but afterwards he had 10 million on side. The people had lost their fear of the régime, and we now know that it was only a matter of time before the entire fabric of communism unravelled. Indeed this will probably be judged to be his chief legacy to the world.
Other elements of his legacy would almost certainly include:
(1) A body of official writings working out the teachings of the Church in a variety of fields, but especially the larger culture and society. Like Pope Leo, John Paul was a "teaching pope." Among his better known encyclical letters are Centesimus Annus (1991), Veritatis Splendor (1993), Evangelium Vitae (1995), Ut Unum Sint (1995), and Fides et Ratio (1998).
(2) A fidelity to revealed truth as he had come to understand it. Many people criticized John Paul for holding the line on the male priesthood, priestly celibacy, abortion and sexual ethics. Others criticized him for averring that the fulness of truth lies in the Catholic Church and that other churches do not possess this same fulness. However, such criticisms often amounted to the complaint that he was too consistently Catholic and refused to treat the body of the Church's teachings as if it were the negotiable programme of a political party.
(3) A concern for the unity of the church and a desire to better relations with other religions. The Pope's critics tended to forget that he dearly desired a reunion of the churches and had a special burden for reaching out to the Orthodox. During his visit to Greece in 2001, he apologized for the sack of Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade in 1204 -- despite the fact that his predecessor on the papal throne, Innocent III, had already condemned the Crusade and excommunicated the crusaders shortly thereafter. Unfortunately, John Paul's ardent desire to visit Moscow never came to fruition, due to the Patriarch of Moscow's persistent opposition. One must also mention in this context the Pope's efforts to improve Christian-Jewish relations, including efforts to make amends for past antisemitism within the Church.
(4) A number of prominent converts to Catholicism, whose decisions were considerably facilitated by the person of John Paul himself. One thinks in this regard of Sheldon Vanauken, Thomas Howard, Richard John Neuhaus, Bishop Graham Leonard, Peter Kreeft, Dale Vree, Malcolm Muggeridge, Scott Hahn, and many, many more who are less well known.
(5) More than a million miles travelled around the globe. John Paul was a pilgrim pope, bringing the message of the gospel and drawing huge crowds wherever he went. Three years ago he was in Canada for World Youth Day, and two of my students were privileged to see him. Indeed, I wish I had had the opportunity, not only to meet him, but to spend time talking with him.
John Paul II will certainly be a tough act to follow. In a way, it's too bad another Pole couldn't succeed him. We've grown used to the connection between Poland and the papacy, and it somehow seems appropriate for that to continue in some fashion. Of course the College of Cardinals could return to the practice of electing Italians. On the other hand, a precedent has been set, and there are a number of prospective candidates from, e.g., Africa, South America and elsewhere, who might well fill the papal shoes.
As a non-Catholic I am quite comfortable aknowledging that Pope John Paul was a great man -- indeed one of the greatest of his era. I pray that his ecumenical vision will catch on and that all Christians will one day find themselves united in the service of Jesus Christ and his kingdom. This is something for which he prayed and for which the rest of us should be praying as well. May he rest in peace and may God bless his successor.