April 8, 2005


John Paul the Great

Many Catholics are convinced that Pope John Paul II will go down in history as Pope John Paul the Great.

It’s impossible to know now whether he will ever join the ranks of Pope Leo the Great (440-461) or Pope Gregory the Great (590-604), the only two popes who were ever granted that title. Even such remarkable popes as Innocent III and Gregory VII never received this encomium, but it’s quite possible that John Paul will be so honored.

That, though, hardly detracts from the outstanding accomplishments of this first Polish pope and the first non-Italian pope in 455 years, since Adrian VI in 1522-23.

His pontificate extended for more than 26 years, since his election on Oct. 16, 1978. Then he was a vigorous man who, even after his election, continued to enjoy skiing and hiking in the mountains. He installed a swimming pool at his residence at Castel Gandolfo so he could exercise there.

As a sharp contrast to the popes of a century earlier who made themselves “prisoners in the Vatican,” Pope John Paul became the most-traveled pope in history. Many millions of people saw him in person as a result of his travels throughout the world. More people saw him than saw all of his predecessors combined.

He also canonized and beatified many more people than all of his predecessors combined.

Perhaps historians will remember him particularly for his role in the dramatic events leading to the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, including his home country. His visits to Poland and his support of the Solidarity labor movement there strengthened resistance to communism. This led to nonviolent liberation movements, the collapse of communist regimes, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the breakup of the Soviet Union.

His literary output—including 14 encyclicals—set another record. He was by far the most prolific writer as a pope. The encyclicals show his concern for the protection of all human life, for social justice (three social encyclicals), for ecumenism and interreligious relations, his love for the Blessed Virgin, and the relationship of faith and reason. He also wrote several books, and others were produced with his cooperation.

He worked tirelessly to promote better relations with Judaism and with other Christian, as well as non-Christian, religions. He apologized frequently for errors committed by Church leaders in the past against Jews, Muslims and others. There can be little doubt that he was admired by more people in the world than any other religious or political leader. Twice, he called leaders of all religions together to pray for peace—the only religious leader who could have done so.

Throughout his pontificate, he was extremely popular with youth. This was understandable when he was a strong athletic man, but his popularity with young people continued into his old age and infirmities.

He tried to put the ideas of collegiality with the bishops into practice by presiding over 15 synods of bishops, usually issuing apostolic exhortations following the synods. When the idea of a new catechism was suggested at a synod, he approved the project and then authorized the Catechism of the Catholic Church in 1992. He oversaw the revision of the Code of Canon Law and promulgated the new code in 1983.

He was sensitive to women’s issues while continuing to insist that the Church is unable to ordain women. His continued support for priestly celibacy also put him at odds with some people in the Church.

During recent years, as he suffered from Parkinson’s disease, the effects of the attempt at his assassination, a broken hip and an appendectomy, he taught us the value of suffering. No longer the energetic man he once was, he nevertheless believed that his sufferings were his vocation at that point in his life, his call from God to teach others how to offer their sufferings to God. He referred to his illnesses as “the mission Jesus entrusted to me.”

God has finally released him from those sufferings and taken him to his eternal reward. We thank God for giving us this great man to lead his Church during our lifetime.

— John F. Fink  

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