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Dossier Juan Pablo II  
03/04/2005 | Pope John Paul II - Polish pontiff with traditional politics and a sense of mission

P. and M. Hebblethwaite, and P.Stanford

Pope John Paul II, who has died at the age of 84, was seen in the flesh by more people than any other pope in history. He made more than 100 international journeys, each of them a marathon which left his suite limp and made his adrenaline flow.


Some said these trips were more show and ceremony than substance, but they had real political significance. In 1989, he went to Paraguay, where he publicly rebuked the long-serving dictator Alfredo Stroessner and greeted opposition leaders; months later, the regime fell. In 1998, on one of his most highly publicised journeys to Cuba, he had Fidel Castro eating out of his hand, even as he publicly challenged the Cuban president to grant "freedom of conscience - the basis and foundation of all other human rights". After the visit there followed the release of political prisoners, the easing of restrictions on religious liberty, and a softening of the US economic embargo.

The Polish-born Karol Wojtyla had almost become an actor before he became a priest, and he always retained his talent for creating a rapport with crowds. A bishop at 38, a cardinal at 47, and pope at 58, he was the outstanding outsider, his faith tested by decades of communist persecution, to break the 455-year tradition of Italian popes. On his first visit home as Pope, in June 1979, he stood before a million well-disciplined people in Victory Square, Warsaw, where a 60ft-high cross had been specially erected. No communist country had seen anything like it before.

In Poland, John Paul acted as a tribune of the people, a true populist, articulating the nation's deepest aspirations. He gave Poles the self-confidence they needed to found Solidarnosc as a unique alliance of workers and intellectuals. The dismantling of communism began there. Mikhail Gorbachev admitted that without John Paul the end of communism would not have come so swiftly; it was his greatest achievement, done without violence - history's first great "spiritual revolution".

He was less sure about what followed. The replacement of communism in Poland by (as he saw it) a soggy liberalism which, under the guise of "pluralism", tolerated pornography, permissiveness and abortion did not seem to him much of an improvement. Yet he could not restore the theocracy of which he might have dreamed.

Elected in October 1978, John Paul outlasted all other international figures of his era. True, he did not have the awkward business of submitting himself for re-election. The papacy is for life, and in his last years the strain began to show as he struggled with Parkinson's disease and intestinal problems. But even in his physically reduced state - hands shaking, speech slurred and gait unsteady - he retained such an undiminished vision that the cardinals would no doubt have given him a vote of confidence, had he asked for one.

Back in 1978, they had chosen John Paul as a strong, fit pope who would define Catholic identity against all fuzziness. The word "restoration" was used to describe the goal of his pontificate on his first visit to the United States, in 1979. He was never very happy about the US, seeing in it a hotbed of subversion, where "radical feminist nuns" vied for the headlines with gay priests. The 1990s scandal of paedophile clergy only confirmed his impression of a degenerate society in which Catholicism had lost its way.

Certainly, a key to understanding John Paul's pontificate is to see it as the repudiation of the policies followed under Pope Paul VI (1963-78). On his election, he took the name John Paul II because, he said, he wanted to stress his continuity with Paul VI and John Paul I, who died suddenly after just 33 days in office. Fine words, but Paul VI, although not widely regarded as a liberal, was the friend of liberals, and kept open some doors that John Paul quickly closed. Paul was ecumenically minded and sought genuinely to better relations with other Christians. John Paul made some rhetorical concessions early on, but soon showed that he regarded his office as an asset for Christian unity: all the problems would be resolved if only others would recognise the need for a return to his authority.

Yet, at first, he seemed to get on well with Robert Runcie, his first Archbishop of Canterbury. Together, as brother primates, they walked up the aisle in Canterbury cathedral during the papal visit of 1982 - made even more dramatic by the imminent Falklands war. Together, pope and archbishop venerated the ancient Canterbury gospel. "Ecumenism is now irreversible," said Runcie. "We have blocked the way back." Yet within two years, the dream had faded. The official Roman response to the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission agreements showed no understanding of the method of the documents.

Worse was to follow as the Church of England began ordaining women in March 1994. John Paul issued a peremptory apostolic letter declaring "definitively" that the church had no authority to ordain women. He forbade Catholics from discussing the matter further.

Relations with the Russian Orthodox church reached a new low despite John Paul's natural sympathy for eastern Christianity. So long as the Soviet Union lasted, theological dialogue was pursued in accordance with the Pope's theory that Europe should "breathe with two lungs".

He meant that it needed to combine the more rational, juridical, organisation-minded "Latin" temperament with the intuitive, mystical and contemplative spirit found in the east.

But as the Soviet Union fell apart, Ukraine proved a tough battleground. Stalin had abolished the 4m-strong Ukrainian Catholic Church in 1946. Gorbachev legalised it after visiting John Paul in December 1989. In western Ukraine, the result was unseemly fighting over the possession of churches, and the Russian Orthodox lost out to Ukrainian nationalism, inevitably.

John Paul annoyed the Moscow patriarch still more by creating Catholic dioceses on Russian territory. The new patriarch, Alexis II, talked darkly about "proselytism" and refused to take part in ecumenical events. The Russian bishops were constantly insulted by the evocation of their KGB past.

Many will remember John Paul II for his pronouncements on sexual matters. He endorsed everything that Paul VI had said, but sharpened it to an extraordinary degree. Catholics who practised artificial birth control, he said in 1984, were "denying the sovereignty of God", thus becoming, in effect, atheists. This illiberal doctrine surfaced again in the 1993 encyclical Veritatis Splendor, and the moral absolutes it laid down shaped the intransigence of the Holy See at the 1994 UN conference on population and development in Cairo. There was no space for debate or dialogue.

So, one by one, John Paul alienated the people he needed to have on his side in his grand project of a "second evangelisation". The Jesuits, with 23,000 members still the world's biggest male religious order, were the first to feel the lash. When their leader, the much-loved Father Pedro Arrupe, was felled by a stroke in August 1981, John Paul suspended constitutional procedures and imposed a "personal delegate of the Holy Father". An 80-year old Jesuit, Paolo Dezza, was named and, by astute footwork, enabled the tension to subside. Two years later, the Jesuits calmly elected a new general, Peter-Hans Kolvenbach.

The attempt to redirect the Jesuits failed, as did subsequent interferences with the Franciscans, and with the Carmelite nuns, who were ordered to return to their antiquated rule despite a majority vote for change. The synod on the "consecrated life" in October 1994 was another attempt to "control" members of the religious orders, who remained the most free-wheeling element in the church. It was the new movements - such as Opus Dei and Comunione e Liberazione - that John Paul thought embodied the charisms once possessed by the established orders.

The 1.1 million members of the religious orders took this on the chin. They had plenty of martyrs in this period, mostly at the hands of the Latin American military. The six Jesuits of the University of El Salvador, slain in 1989 along with their housekeeper and her daughter, were the best-known example. Yet John Paul barely noticed them.

Meanwhile, Opus Dei had a privileged place and role. In 2002, its founder, Josemaría Escrivá de Balaguer, was canonised with unedifying speed, especially for a man who had been an apologist for Hitler. In 1984, Joaquín Navarro-Valls, a lay member of Opus Dei, was appointed as Vatican spokesman. Comunione e Liberazione, a more Italian than Spanish movement, was weakened by the general collapse of the Italian Christian Democrats, in 1993-94. In July 1994, one of its members, Rocco Buttiglione, became the leader of the rump of the Christian Democrats. He is the author of a book on the Pope's philosophy, and, in 2004, was found too critical of homosexuality to become a European commissioner.

On the whole, John Paul thoroughly and needlessly offended theologians. In the first year of the pontificate, the story was mooted that he would attack five "symbolic" theologians to set an example to others. Within a short time, investigations were under way against the Swiss Hans Küng for his views on infallibility; the Flemish Dominican Edward Schillebeeckx for his allegedly defective teaching about Christ; the Peruvian Gustavo Gutiérrez for his "liberation theology"; the Brazilian Leonardo Boff for his bottom-up ecclesiology; and Charles Curran, of Catholic University, Washington, for his "lax and accommodating" moral theology. All were incriminated in different ways and with varying success. All remained priests - except Boff, who left the Franciscans, he claimed, to become a "better Franciscan".

Later, the most severe attack was launched against a Sri Lankan liberation theologian, Tissa Balasuriya, who was declared in 1997 to be an excommunicated heretic for a book which tried to present Christ in a way less alienating for those of other faiths. Balasuriya appealed to the Pope, only to be told that he had personally authorised every move. Such scandal was caused by the process against an aged and devoted priest that, more than a year later, six days of tough negotiation resulted in the lifting of the excommunication.

Behind all these controversial cases lay a vast array of theologians who shared the views of their colleagues and waited for the tempest to pass. They were not reassured by documents denouncing "dissent" and, it seemed, academic freedom generally. John Paul's mistake, no doubt learned in communist Poland, was to confuse honest disagreement with unacceptable "dissent". The notion of "loyal opposition" was foreign to him.

As Pope, he also offended bishops. First, he appointed traditionalists, often linked with Opus Dei, to "restore order" in troublesome sees - especially in Europe and Latin America. This produced a crop of bishops appointed for their very unpopularity, who were left stranded in their palaces. In Chur, in Switzerland, the congregation lay down in protest in front of the cathedral during the consecration of the deeply conservative Bishop Wolfgang Haas, who had been foisted on them by Rome.

Bishops were also disconcerted by John Paul's insistence that episcopal conferences (or national benches of bishops) had no mandate to teach and no theological status. This undermined what the reforming Second Vatican Council of the 1960s had said about teamwork or "collegiality". It was also insulting to the hard work which, say, the US bishops had done in their seminal pastoral letters on peace issues and economic justice - both the products of intensive consultation.

The French were equally nonplussed to find their imaginative catechetical work, Pierres Vivantes, scrapped and replaced in 1992 by The Catechism Of The Catholic Church. The English translation of this bestseller - more than 2m copies sold in the US alone - was held up until 1994 so that the innocently inclusive language of "the human person" could be replaced by "man" and "men".

The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (ex-Holy Office, ex-Holy Inquisition), was headed by the Bavarian Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger as prefect from December 1981. An excellent academic theologian before his appointment, he was much blamed for the papal hard line, perhaps unjustly.

According to the reform of the Roman curia devised by John Paul, Ratzinger should have retired after two five-year terms in 1991, but the rules were waived. His department produced a stream of intolerant documents condemning, among others, liberation theology and test-tube babies. In 1997, it published an extraordinary attack (signed by eight Vatican departments) warning the "non-ordained" off doing anything in the church that a priest could do instead. In 2003, it described the recognition of gay partnerships as "the legislation of evil".

It was not difficult to see why John Paul placed so much reliance on Ratzinger, for the Pope himself, in his previous role as professor of ethics at Lublin Catholic University, was essentially a philosopher rather than a theologian, schooled on the phenomenology of Edmund Husserl and Max Scheler.

He needed Ratzinger to tell him how far he could go - whether, for instance, he might make an infallible pronouncement.

It is to Ratzinger's credit that he averted this danger in regard to the Pope's teaching against women's ordination. But he could not endow John Paul with a sense of history, and the way theological concepts unfold slowly in time. John Paul's image of the "priest", for example, seemed to emerge fully armed from the Last Supper. They were to be unmarried, pious, non-political and suitably dressed, preferably in a clerical collar. He had been known to refuse to shake hands with tie-wearing priests.

Priests who had devoted their lives to implementing the liturgical reforms of the Second Vatican Council could not understand why John Paul spent so much time trying to accommodate Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, who rejected Vatican II as a Protestant, masonic or Marxist plot. Lefebvre was eventually excommunicated in 1991, but afterwards greater indulgence was shown to his followers who had left the church than to liberation theologians who had remained. Nor did priests much like the way Paul VI's compassionate legislation allowing priests to return to the lay state was arbitrarily set aside. It became almost impossible to leave the ministry honourably, without being pushed out into the cold for marrying without a dispensation.

On social and political issues, John Paul's stance was, on the whole, more progressive and attractive. His encyclical Centesimus Annus, on the 100th anniversary of Leo XIII's first "social encyclical" Rerum Novarum, contained his reflections on 1989 and the collapse of communism. In his 1987 encyclical Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, he had tried to remain equidistant between unreconstructed capitalism and unreformed collectivism, crying a plague on both houses. With communism put down, he made some concessions to capitalism, but still insisted that "there are many human needs which find no place in the market".

He was a redoubtable champion of the developing world in its dealings with the economic might of the G8. Time and again, he bemoaned the north-south divide, calling for a new global trading regime that would favour poor producers over rich consumers. He was critical of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, and gave vocal support to efforts to write off the debts of the most disadvantaged nations. He promoted figures from Africa, Asia and Latin America, breaking the European dominance of the College of Cardinals and opening up the real possibility that his successor would come from the developing world. His unrelenting attempts to resolve conflicts by peaceful means made him a strong, though unsuccessful, candidate for the 2003 Nobel peace prize.

The Pope was often criticised for failing to allow within the church the democracy he claimed to espouse outside it. Yet his attitude was always ambivalent: when he returned to Poland in June 1991, he said not a word about democracy; and, in Veritatis Splendor, he warned that "democracy without values easily turns into open or thinly disguised totalitarianism".

In Poland that year he hammered away against the notion of "catching up with Europe". Which Europe do they mean? he demanded. The Europe of abortions? Which freedom do they mean? The freedom to have abortions? Poland, he exclaimed, by the banks of the Vistula, not far from the sites of concentration camps, created Europe.

Jews were also part of this Polish European experience. John Paul had Jewish friends at the gymnasium at Wadowice, where he grew up, and a few survived. The Krakow ghetto was close to where he lived under the Nazi occupation. Auschwitz was 40 miles away. This made him sensitive to the Shoah. He was the first Bishop of Rome since St Peter's time to visit the Rome synagogue, where he greeted the congregation as "our elder brothers" in the faith of Abraham.

The signature of a fundamental agreement with the state of Israel in 1993 paved the way for diplomatic relations between the Vatican and Israel. In the run-up to the millennium, he led the church to examine its conscience on anti-Judaic attitudes. (Although an apology of a sort was issued, it was regarded as inadequate by Jews, who pointed out that the church had failed to apologise for its silences, or even admit that the institution had done anything wrong.)

In March 2000, John Paul achieved a lifetime's goal and went on pilgrimage to the Holy Land to walk in the footsteps of Jesus. He deftly avoided the question of the status of Jerusalem, and was obviously moved when he visited Yad Vashem, the memorial to those who died in the Holocaust.

But his instinctive support for the Palestinians - in 1990 he named an outspoken Palestinian Christian, Michel Sabbah, as Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem - affected his attempts to heal old wounds between Christianity and Judaism. And his determination in his last years to defend the reputation of Pius XII, the wartime pope who had failed to speak out against the Holocaust, raised the charge of anti-semitism. It was heard again when, in 2000, he beatified Pius IX, his 19th-century predecessor who described Jews as "dogs [who] bark in all the streets and molest people everywhere".

In 1984, John Paul held a great inter-religious spectacular at Assisi, with rabbis and imams and archimandrites and gurus, as well as Native Americans and African traditional religionists. They did not pray "together", but they prayed "at the same time". It was a great success. At a repeat exercise in January 1993, however, the chief guests were Muslims from Sarajevo, who denounced Serbian atrocities. It confirmed the Orthodox judgment that the Vatican's rapid recognition of Croatia and Slovenia in January 1991 was part of a Catholic plot.

John Paul's attempts to reach out to the world of Islam had mixed success. At Casablanca in August 1984, he addressed 60,000 cheering Muslim youths. His even-handedness during the 1991 Gulf crisis, almost unique among western leaders, won him praise from the Organisation of Islamic States, echoed in 2003 when he condemned the British-American attack on Iraq. But he continued to deplore the lack of religious liberty in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.

John Paul came to the papacy with a vision, a critique of his predecessor, and a policy. At his inaugural mass, he addressed the whole world, urbi et orbi, saying: "Open wide the doors for Christ! To his saving power, open the boundaries of states, economic and political systems, the vast fields of culture, civilisation and development. Do not be afraid! Christ 'knows what is in man'. He alone knows it."

There is not much point in asking whether John Paul's pontificate was a success or a failure. "Was the crucifixion a success story?" he would, no doubt, ask in reply. Different criteria apply in the church, and quantitative judgments do not count. In any case, he believed his election was providential: God wanted a Polish pope. The belief that he was divinely chosen shone in his eyes as he celebrated the new millennium and called for repentance on a global scale.

The fact that the bullets of Mehmet Ali Agca, the lapsed Muslim who shot him on May 13 1981, missed vital organs by millimetres, confirmed this almost messianic sense of mission. He believed his survival was a miracle, and that he had been spared for some divine purpose. Perhaps his greatest moments were his words of forgiveness for his would-be assassin, both publicly from his hospital bed, and privately when he went to visit Ali Agca in prison.

John Paul did not carry with him theologians and women, and many others, all of the time. He was a paradoxical and often unpredictable figure. If his pontificate is to be deemed a failure, it was a very Polish failure, on a vast, magnificent, heroic scale, conducted with zest and panache, comparable to those mythical Polish cavalrymen charging the German tanks in 1939. One admires the dash of it, while wondering whether it was quite the best thing to do.

· Karol Jozef Wojtyla, Pope John Paul II, born May 18 1920; died April 2 2005

[Peter Hebblethwaite died in 1994, since when this obituary has been updated by his wife and Peter Stanford]

The Guardian (Reino Unido)


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