April 08, 2005


John Paul II, A Truly Global Pope

By Paolo Pontoniere

John Paul II has doubtless arrived in Paradise to join the most diverse group of canonized saints ever — due to his own canonization of the greatest number of women and minorities in Church’s 2,000-year history.

It was precisely because he wasn’t an Italian that Karol Wojtyla was able to see that the Church is not a Rome-centric institution. The first Polish pope in history and the first non-Italian in almost a half millennium, John Paul saw that the Holy See belongs to the people of the world. He knew instinctively that he had to make the Church more of a reflection of the nations of Earth.

In the beginning I didn’t like Karol Wojtyla. His appointment followed the sudden death of Albino Luciani, Il Papa Buono — “The Good Pope,” as people called him. While Luciani was humble and reserved, Wojtyla appeared boisterous, overly energetic and unabashedly public. Luciani professed the return of the Church to its simpler roots, promising to end the age of luxury and to return the house of God to the poor of the world. Wojtyla instead seemed to be a man of the machine, bent on playing power-politics and pursuing, from the bully pulpit of the Throne of Peter, the destruction of communism worldwide.

For some Italians like me who faced the Vatican’s daily intrusion into Italian civic life, Wojtyla seemed to embody much of the same old Church. Even his first acts as a pope seemed to confirm the suspicion that he would shepherd a Church deaf to human suffering and social justice.

His first moves seemed to support this view. He quickly attempted to establish a dialogue with schismatic French Bishop Monsignor Marcel Lefebvre, the founder of a society that staunchly opposed the reforms introduced by the Vatican II Council. He then lost no time trying to quash the Theology of Liberation, an exquisite expression of Latin American Catholicism that advocated human rights and economic reforms and often direct political participation of clergy. In 1979, attending a meeting of Latin American bishops in Mexico, John Paul warned that those who misrepresented Jesus as a revolutionary figure were operating out of a vision of class warfare and not the primacy of His love.

In 1983 he went even further. During a visit to Nicaragua, Wojtyla publicly admonished high-ranking Sandinistas who were priests. They were later suspended from duties by Nicaragua’s bishops. Keeping with the pope’s views on liberation theology, in 1990 the Salesian order ejected Jean Bertrand Aristide, a Catholic priest newly elected president of Haiti.

As it turned out, Lefebvre was excommunicated in 1988 upon failure of negotiations with the Vatican.

However, now, 26 years after Wojtyla became pope, the Catholic Church is more ethnically diverse and far-flung than ever. Under his stewardship it has grown stronger in Africa and in Latin America, where, even though tens of thousands of believers are turning to evangelical Protestant groups, it has grown 89 percent. It has grown in Asia. Catholics now number 1.2 billion worldwide. On Easter eve in the United States, 20,000 adults newly embraced the Roman faith.

A true theologian of liberation, during his many pilgrimages to 172 countries, John Paul II spoke constantly in support of the poor, in defense of life, of the environment, the oppressed and of the weakest of the weak. His rejection of racism was also radical. “Every honest conscience must decisively condemn racism, in whichever heart or place it finds a home,” the 81-year-old pontiff said in 2003.

Even though he staunchly refused to ordain women priests, Wojtyla spoke tirelessly in support of women’s rights. In 1988, he expressed the church’s hope that women would be recognized as equals in human dignity and that their particular gifts would, one day, be adequately appreciated. He celebrated tirelessly the sanctity of motherhood and invited the Church to accept the fact that woman is at the center of the salvation event, and that she is the mother of God.

During Wojtyla’s papacy, the Church became also more inclusive and ecumenical. He is the first Pope to ever visit a Synagogue — Rome, in 1986 — and in 2000 at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem pleaded God’s forgiveness for Christians’ crimes against Jews. Dialoguing with Muslims, in 1999 Wojtyla kissed the cover of the Sacred Koran, and in 2002, barefoot during a visit to the Mosque of Damascus, he declared that Muslims and Christians worship the same God. But his major ecumenical achievements came from bridging the rift with other Christian denominations, in particular with the Church of England, the Greek Orthodox and the Lutheran Churches.

The section of Vatican II relating to the sanctity of human rights was in fact penned by then Archbishop Wojtyla. Wojtyla embraced AIDS sufferers, who he called children of God, and denounced the evils of capitalism and consumerism, which he saw on par with the dissolution of the family as major threats to human survival.

John Paul canonized and beatified 1,338 believers, including the greatest number of women and ethnic minorities ever. He appointed the greatest number of minority cardinals. As John Paul returns the Church to his flock, I am hopeful that, standing on Wojtyla’s legacy, the church may now elect a Third World pope.

Paolo Pontoniere is a correspondent for Focus, Italy’s leading monthly, and a graduate of the School of Pastoral Leadership of the Archdiocese of San Francisco.

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