December 9, 2016

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

20th-century Church: The papacy of Pope John Paul II

John F. Fink(Twentieth in a series of columns)

Karol Josef Wojtyla became Pope John Paul II on Oct. 16, 1978. He was the first Polish pope, and the first non-Italian pope in 455 years. His pontificate extended for more than 26 years, until his death on April 2, 2005.

For the first years of his papacy, the world had to get used to an athletic pope. He took skiing vacations and he had a swimming pool built in the Vatican because, he said, it was cheaper than another conclave.

He became the most-traveled pope in history. More people saw him in person 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. His visits to Poland and his support of the Solidarity labor movement there strengthened resistance to communism. This led to nonviolent liberation movements and the collapse of communist regimes, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the breakup of the Soviet Union.

His 14 encyclicals showed 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 promoted better relations with the Jews and with other Christian communities. He apologized for errors committed by Church leaders in the past against Jews, Muslims and others.

Twice, he called leaders of many world religions together to pray for peace—the only religious leader who could have done so.

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

His “Theology of the Body,” developed before he was elected pope, helped many people, especially the young, to gain a better understanding of the Church’s teachings regarding sex.

He presided 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 completion of 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 his last years, as he suffered from Parkinson’s disease, the effects of an attempted assassination, a broken hip, and an appendectomy, he taught the value of suffering. No longer the energetic man he once was, he nevertheless believed that his sufferings were his call from God to teach others how to offer their sufferings to God.

Many Catholics are convinced that Pope John Paul II, who was declared a saint in 2014, will go down in history as Pope John Paul the Great. †

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