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He strode the planet like a Christian colossus Since the time of Peter, only two popes have been designated as 'Great.' Will John Paul II become the third? MICHAEL VALPY explores the life of the man we knew simply as the Polish pope

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John Wilkins, editor of the influential British Catholic magazine, The Tablet, once wrote that John Paul had many of the psychological characteristics of an orphan. "He listens widely, hears few and decides alone."

If his stature in history is debatable, his claim on statistics is set in concrete.

When he was enthroned in 1978, he became the first non-Italian pope in 455 years, the youngest pope -- at 58 -- in more than a century, and history's first Slavic pope. At his death, he was the fourth-longest-reigning pope.

He was by far the most-travelled pope (to more than 130 nations) and the most prolific pope (author of 13 encyclicals and, indeed, author of published poems, plays, essays and academic writings filling more than three metres of bookshelf space).

He created the most cardinals (more than 200) and authorized the most canonizations of saints (more than 475) and beatifications (about 1,300).

He routinely celebrated masses before millions, once strode to a microphone in New York's Madison Square Garden to bellow at chanting, adoring teenagers: "Woo-hoo-woo -- John Paul II -- he loves you!" and, until he required a hip replacement in his 70s, often sneaked away from the Vatican on quiet winter mornings to go skiing.

He was obsessed by romantic symbols, like the start of a new millennium -- "A key to my pontificate," he called it -- and saw life to be dramatically structured around the gap between "Who I am" and "Who I ought to be." He thought of himself as the spiritual reincarnation of St. Stanislaus of Krakow, the 11th-century Polish bishop, martyr and patron saint whose name he briefly considered taking as pope.

He transformed the papacy from a stiff, remote Vatican bureaucrat's office into a colourful global stage for moral teaching and evangelism.

He was a seminal figure, a moral giant, in the collapse of the Soviet empire and European communism -- although not its central architect, as portrayed by some American journalists and overimaginative popular historians. In the words of former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev in 1992: "Everything that happened in Eastern Europe in these last few years could have been impossible without this pope."

He was an academic philosopher -- among the most scholarly of popes -- writing on marriage, love, Thomas Aquinas, the Christian mysticism of John of the Cross (the subject of his doctoral dissertation), on how culture far more than political ideology or economics shapes humanity's path through history and on how atheism undermines human dignity and freedom.

He wrote a play, The Jeweller's Shop, a reflection on married love, that became a Burt Lancaster film. Columbia Records put out a CD of his prayers -- recited by Britney Spears, Celine Dion, 'Nsync and other celebrities.

He became the first pope to write a bestseller (on yellow legal pads, during long plane trips), 1994's Crossing the Threshold of Hope, published in 21 languages and sold in 40 countries, for which he received an advance of $9-million (U.S.), surpassing advances paid to Ronald Reagan, Marlon Brando and Colin Powell. (Like most of his writing, it's a dense read: an assessment of the villains of philosophy who have chipped away at religion.)

He refused to modify his church's opposition to birth control. He had, in fact, as archbishop of Krakow and a favourite of Pope Paul VI, written most of Paul's 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae that affirmed the church's prohibition against birth control and shocked the liberal Catholic churches of North America and Western Europe.

He apologized to women for his church's treatment of them, but refused to follow the lead of Roman Catholicism's sister church, the Anglican Communion, and allow the ordination of women as priests.

He refused to consider ending the celibacy rule for priests. He refused to soften the church's rules against remarriage of divorced persons. In his papacy, the Vatican labelled homosexuality unnatural and abhorrent and campaigned against legislation extending benefits and legal protections to same-sex couples.

He was severely criticized by American Catholics for failing to intervene early and firmly as allegations of priestly sexual abuse of young people spread throughout the U.S. church.

It was said that his inaction, his solidarity with the U.S. Catholic hierarchy and the apparent feelings of John Paul and his inner circle that the allegations contained more anti-Rome media fluff than substance were horrendously destructive to U.S. Catholicism.

He liked good wine, good food (usually Polish) and almost never ate alone. He delighted in unwrapping gifts. He sent regular handwritten postcards to all the priests he had ordained. He kept in touch with his school and university friends and held reunions with them at the Vatican.

Weakened in the final years of his papacy by disease, shattered bones and the bullet from a 1981 assassination attempt, he became a heroic, struggling figure, a poster pope for the elderly, "a body pulled by a soul," in the words of his spokesman and adviser, Joaquin Navarro-Valls -- propelling himself in pain and fatigue through his world travels and weekly audiences in St. Peter's Square, awash in constant media speculation that he was at death's door.

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