WE DON’T HAVE TO AGREE WITH ALL KAROL WOJTYLA STOOD FOR to acknowledge that he was one of history’s giants. The second-longest serving pope and the most-travelled by far in history, John Paul II was the first pope to visit a synagogue, the first to visit Auschwitz, the first to give diplomatic recognition to Israel, the first to celebrate mass with an Orthodox leader, the first to apologise for treatment of dissenters like John Hus and Martin Luther, the first to visit a mosque and the first to confess the sins of the Roman Catholic Church.
He spoke out boldly against atheistic communism. He attacked the false freedoms offered by western capitalism. He chastised American leaders for their choice of war as foreign policy tool. He cajoled European Union leaders opposed to inclusion of Europe’s Christian heritage in the proposed EU constitution.
He issued clear teaching to his global flock in times of rapid change and moral confusion. His fourteen papal encyclicals addressed social and economic issues, moral and doctrinal questions, the dignity and sanctity of life, global poverty and inequity, and many other matters of faith and reason.
He demonstrated his message of forgiveness by visiting his would-be assassin, Mehmet Ali Agca, in prison. (Agca, still in prison in Istanbul serving multiple sentences for robbery and murder, had been praying for his ‘brother’ the pope over this past week, his lawyer told newspapers over the weekend.)
He lived out his convictions of the dignity of life and the meaning of suffering before a watching world throughout his final years, afflicted with Parkinson’s disease and the gradual collapse of his life systems.
He embodied hope and a future for millions in spiritual, economic and political oppression.
Truly, the world has lost its most lucid voice of conscience with the passing of Karol Wojtyla. His memory however is likely to exercise a powerful global influence for years to come.
Few remember the improbable circumstances surrounding his election, precipitated by the possible murder of his predecessor. Late in September 1978, John Paul I was found dead in his bed only thirty-three days after his election. David Yallop, in his best seller, In God’s Name, argued that the death resulted from a widespread conspiracy involved leading figures in financial, political, criminal and clerical circles around the world.
It’s a strange quirk of history that Wojtyla’s election under such sinister circumstances was to inaugurate one of the most successful papal careers ever. Both Mikhail Gorbachev and Lech Walesa credit the pope with a major role in the collapse of communism, starting in his home country of Poland. If John Paul I had not died so prematurely, how would history have unfolded? No one can say.
For in 1978, the future was not very hopeful. I remember it well, as my wife and I had spent four months of that year in Italy as part of YWAM’s effort to purchase and launch the ministry of the Anastasis, then docked in Venice. Red Brigade terrorists had spread fear in Italy with the abdication and murder of the former premier Aldo Moro. The Cold War was being presided over by Leonid Brezhnev and Jimmy Carter.
Into this uncertain state of world affairs, the new pope spoke a clear word to the world: “Be not afraid!” This was his inaugural message in St Peter’s Square, and he wasted no time taking it personally to his compatriots, two million of whom gathered to hear him in Krakow in June 1979.“Be not afraid!” he repeated to the crowd, giving courage to Walesa to birth Solidarity, the trade union movement which successfully challenged the grip of the communist party in Poland. Within a decade, the whole communist empire had imploded.
I remember from visits to Poland in 1979 and 1981 the impact of the pope’s visits on the mood in that land, a mood of hope that the future could be different. Wojtyla was the first non-Italian pope in 450 years and the Poles were rightly proud of their spiritual leader. I recall a black and white photo of him on skis hanging in an Oasis retreat centre he used to frequent in the hills of southern Poland. He was one of them, and he had returned with a message of hope.
Catholics the world over will be praying for the election of the new pope, aware that the outcome could carry great consequences. Surely, in the light of John Paul II’s impact on world affairs, that is a matter of prayer for all believers.
The choice of an African, Asian or Latin American pope would send a strong signal to the world that the centre of gravity of Christianity has shifted from the west. In 1900, two out of every three Catholics lived in Europe; today only one in five does. Latin America now has 200 million more Catholics than in Europe. As many Catholics live in Asia and Africa as in Europe. This trend also parallels protestant trends. The Assemblies of God in Brazil alone has more members than all the evangelicals in Europe. Philip Jenkins (The Next Christendom) alerts his fellow academics to the rising wave of non-western Christianity that will reshape the world in the 21st century.
Perhaps future historians will view Wojtyla as the watershed pope, presiding over one of history’s greatest turning points.
Till next week,
Till next week,