On Last Sunday, April 27, two new Saints were canonized, Popes John XXII and John Paul II. Last week I wrote about Good Pope John, and this week I want to look at Pope John Paul II. He reigned as Pope for a long time (the 2nd longest in history!), and many people call him “The Great” in recognition of his many accomplishments.
Pope John Paul II is often credited with helping move forward the collapse of the Soviet Union and Communism. Being the first Pope from Poland, this was an issue that John Paul II new intimately, and it was of course a great concern to him.
After the malaise that settled onto the Papacy after the disastrous reception (or non-reception) of Pope Paul VI’s Encyclical Humanae Vitae, and Pope Paul’s declining health and energy, the dynamism and energy of Pope John Paul II’s personality, so engaging, so athletic, so expressive and dramatic, restored the image of the papacy greatly. He had charisma!
John Paul II had been an actor, and in his papacy he used those skills to very good effect. I remember when he came to Columbia, SC to meet with ecumenical representatives of other Christian bodies. First he came out of the building where they were meeting and spoke to the crowd gathered there, mostly students from the Univ. of South Carolina at Columbia. The Pope read his short speech in his labored English and everyone applauded politely. Then he put down his speech, looked at the university students and said, “It is good to be young.” All the students applauded. Then he said, “It is good to be young and be a student of the University.” And the students applauded more enthusiastically. Finally he said, “It is good to be young and be a student of the University of South Carolina!” The crowd went wild. In just three short sentences, Pope John Paul II had them in the palm of his hand. He was a master at working a crowd.
John Paul II took the papacy all over the world on his many trips. This gave the Pope great publicity and opportunities to speak to world affairs. However, some feel that he did not such a good job of keeping track of what was going on back in the Vatican and that many of the problems and embarrassments that surfaced under the time of Pope Benedict XVI were really planted by insufficient control over the curia during the time of John Paul II, being that he was often away and then the long process of his dying.
Pope John Paul II responded quickly to the problem of clergy sexual abuse that broke in the United States once it became a major problem in early 2002. But he seemed to offer contradictory messages, for example making Cardinal Bernard Law Archpriest of the Basilica of Santa Maria Magiore in Rome in 2004, after Law had resigned as Archbishop of Boston in 2002 over his handling of the sex abuse crisis. There was also the close relationship of Pope John Paul II with Rev. Marcial Maciel, founder of the Legion of Christ. In spite of growing accusations against Maciel of bribery and sexual abuse of seminarians, of fathering children by two different women, and other crimes, John Paul remained friendly and supportive of Maciel. It is unclear how much Pope John Paul II actually knew of all this, or how much he wanted to know. Maciel was producing many ordinations in his new order, which greatly pleased John Paul II. As soon as Cardinal Ratzinger became Pope Benedict XVI, one of the first things he did was remove Maciel from head of the Legionnaires of Christ and send him to a monastery. This led many to speculate that he was held back from doing so during John Paul II’s papacy.
Finally, in his desire for Catholicism to show a united and robust face to the world, Pope John Paul II allowed no discussion within or from the church on several controversial topics, such as ordination of married men, artificial birth control, and the ordination of women. While this tactic kept the Church together in the short run, I fear that the lack of open discussion in the Church will serve us ill in the long run. Prohibiting open discussion does not make the issue go away—it only makes us weaker in confronting it and certainly in convincing others of our position.
So for me, the very long reign of Pope John Paul II is a mixed bag, but in the judgment of the Church, he was certainly a holy man, and is now a canonized Saint. May he pray for us!