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03/04/2005 | The Church Loses Its Light

J.Y. Smith

In John Paul II, World Found a Direct, Dynamic Leader


Pope John Paul II, who died yesterday at the age of 84, was an obscure Polish prelate who became the supreme pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church, a statesman who helped bring down Eastern European communism, and a defender of the faith who insisted that the church confront the sins of its past to prepare it for the third millennium.

When John Paul was elected the 263rd successor to Saint Peter on Oct. 16, 1978, at age 58, he was the youngest pope in 132 years, the first Polish pope and the first non-Italian pope in 4 1/2 centuries.

The former Cardinal Karol Wojtyla, archbishop of Krakow, the ancient capital of his native Poland, quickly declared a "new evangelization" and began an extraordinary series of journeys that made him one of the most familiar figures in the world.

His destinations included the United Nations in New York, remote islands in the farthest reaches of the Pacific, the Mall in Washington and the Lutheran strongholds of northern Scandinavia. He visited the barrios of Latin America, the rice fields of Southeast Asia and the plains of the Indian subcontinent. He made more than a dozen trips to Africa.

His messages were that faith must be grounded in truth and that the key to freedom is love and service to God. His themes were peace, justice and the sanctity of life. He warned that a spreading "culture of death," in forms ranging from genocide and "ethnic cleansing" to abortion, euthanasia and the frenzied pursuit of material goods, was leading to a "blunting of the moral sensitivity of people's consciences."

His defense of traditional church dogma on sex and gender issues proved controversial in the developed world, where it tended to overshadow other church issues.

John Paul brought a global outlook to an organization that had been Eurocentric throughout its history. He took unprecedented steps toward opening dialogues with other religions. He spoke frequently and forcefully on political questions. He was a scourge of communism but also a critic of capitalism and its treatment of the poor.

With the passage of years, his insistence that the Roman Catholic Church atone for the Inquisition, the bloody hunt for heretics that began in the 15th century, and for other sins committed in its name became a dominant concern. Despite reported opposition from many high church officials, John Paul held that while the church itself is holy, and therefore infallible, its servants are human and sometimes stray from the teachings of Jesus.

In March 2000, he issued an unprecedented apology for the mistakes committed by the church throughout its history. Saying "we humbly ask forgiveness," John Paul said Catholics needed to undergo a "purification of memory" of past errors as the only way to prepare for the future.

Nowhere was this aspect of his papacy more evident than in his relations with Jews and Judaism. In 1986, he became the first pope to visit a synagogue and prayed with Rome's chief rabbi. In 1994, he directed the Vatican to establish full diplomatic relations with Israel. In 1999, he ordered the Vatican to issue a document that it described as an "act of repentance" for the church's failure to deter the Nazi genocide against Jews in World War II.

The process of reconciliation reached a dramatic climax during the pope's visit to the Holy Land in March 2000. At Yad Vashem, Israel's monument to Holocaust victims, he declared: "I assure the Jewish people that the Catholic Church, motivated by the Gospel law of truth and love and by no political considerations, is deeply saddened by the hatred, acts of persecution and displays of anti-Semitism directed against the Jews by Christians at any time, and in any place."

Missing from the statement was an acknowledgment, sought by some Jews, of Pope Pius XII's silence in the face of the Holocaust.

In Jerusalem, John Paul prayed at the Western Wall, the most sacred site in Judaism, and visited the Dome of the Rock and the al-Aqsa mosque, the third-holiest site in Islam. He visited a Palestinian refugee camp and said Palestinians have a "natural right" to a homeland.

Dynamic Despite Ills

John Paul was an indomitable figure despite increasing infirmities. He never fully recovered from wounds he suffered at the hands of a would-be assassin in 1981. In 1992, doctors removed a benign intestinal tumor. The following year, he underwent surgery for repair of a dislocated shoulder, and in 1994 surgeons replaced a broken hip. With the advance of years, he suffered from severe arthritis and had difficulty walking. His left hand developed a tremble, the result of Parkinson's disease.

Recently, speculation had mounted that John Paul's failing health might force him to resign, though he repeatedly said he would not. On a visit to Bulgaria and Azerbaijan in May 2002, he was unable to walk unassisted and delivered his messages in a wavering and sometimes inaudible voice. In September 2003, he was forced to cancel appearances at the Vatican, and two cardinals publicly expressed alarm about his failing health.

John Paul was an intellectual, a pragmatist, a scholar who held degrees in theology and philosophy, and an essayist, poet and playwright. A linguist, he spoke eight languages, including Latin. He was a defender of liberty who had experienced oppression at the hands of Nazis and communists. He was a mountaineer who loved hiking and skiing.

An actor in his student days, he brought to his exalted position a keen sense of pageantry and a sure understanding of the reach and power of television and radio. The news media adored him. When Time named him "Man of the Year" for 1994, it was the 12th time he had appeared on the magazine's cover in 16 years.

Appeal Transcends Church

He was enormously popular with ordinary people, whether Catholic or not. In the early 1990s, a compact disc on which he recited the Rosary in Latin against a background of music by Bach and Handel rose to the top of the charts in Europe. John Paul souvenirs -- coffee cups, plates, T-shirts and photographs -- sold by the millions wherever he went.

He was famous for his smile and the warmth of his personality, and on his travels he routinely drew mammoth crowds. An estimated 175,000 people turned out for a Mass he celebrated on the Mall in Washington in October 1979; on a visit to Poland in 1999, a million people stood on a muddy field in Krakow waiting to hear him say Mass in a pouring rain, but illness prevented him from appearing.

He was said to have been seen by more people than anyone else in history.

The example of his life added to his appeal. This was demonstrated when he prayed for Mehmet Ali Agca, a 23-year-old Turk who had gone to Rome by way of Bulgaria and shot him in an assassination attempt on May 13, 1981. The attack occurred as the pope was standing in the back of a jeep being driven through a crowd of worshipers in St. Peter's Square. Gravely wounded in the abdomen by pistol shots fired at a range of 20 feet, John Paul was rushed to the Agostino Gemelli hospital, where he underwent surgery.

In July 1981, Agca was sentenced to life in prison. Later, he sought to implicate others in the attack, and in 1984 three Bulgarians and five Turks went on trial in Rome. Although a second trial in 1986 yielded no conspiracy convictions, questions persisted about whether Agca acted alone. On Dec. 27, 1983, John Paul visited Agca in his prison cell to forgive him in person, and the two sat face-to-face for 20 minutes. After 19 years in jail in Italy, Agca was pardoned in 2000 and returned to Turkey, where he is serving a sentence for the murder of a journalist.

In matters of faith and morals, John Paul was guided by the church's core teaching that God made humankind in his own image and that the right to life is fundamental and universal. In the encyclical Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life), published in 1995, he declared: "Man's life comes from God; it is his gift, his image and imprint, a sharing in his breath of life. God therefore is the sole Lord of this life: man cannot do with it as he wills."

The same perspective informed his special interest in the welfare of families, his opposition to divorce and his teachings on sex. In his book "Love and Responsibility," the pontiff said, "Sexual intercourse between husband and wife has the value of love only when neither of them deliberately excludes the possibility of procreation." He held that artificial contraception subverted this principle and demeaned women.

John Paul refused to alter the general prohibition against priests marrying, or the prohibition against ordaining women. He reminded the faithful that the church deems homosexual behavior a sin. In addition, he safeguarded the pope's prerogatives as the ultimate power in the church, refusing to grant a larger role to the bishops, the clergy or the laity.

These doctrines were prominent in disputes that have wracked the Catholic Church since the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s. Critics charged that by sticking to them, the pope was distancing himself and the church from modern reality.

Church membership passed 1 billion by the end of the 1990s, with much of the growth in Africa, Asia and Latin America. But in Europe and North America, millions of the faithful turned to "cafeteria Catholicism," picking and choosing which parts of dogma they would obey, or left the church entirely.

In 2002, many American Catholic parishioners became upset by what they saw as a weak response from the Vatican as scandals involving sexual misconduct by priests swept the U.S. church. In April of that year, John Paul summoned a dozen U.S. cardinals to a special Vatican summit, where he said, "People need to know that there is no place in the priesthood and religious life for those who would harm the young." But critics in the United States said his response should have been more prompt and more forceful.

For John Paul, worldly dispute was nothing compared with the duty to obey God's word. In a homily that could serve as a summary of his stewardship, he said: "I am not severe -- I am sweet by nature -- but I defend the rigidity principle. God is stronger than human weakness and deviations. God will always have the last word."

In the encyclical Veritatis Splendor (The Splendor of Truth), published in 1993, he spelled out sharp limits on dissent:

"While exchanges and conflicts of opinion may constitute normal expressions of public life in a representative democracy, moral teaching certainly cannot depend simply upon respect for a process. . . . Opposition to the teaching of the Church's Pastors cannot be seen as a legitimate expression either of Christian freedom or of the diversity of the Spirit's gifts."

This thinking often contributed to prickly relations with the U.S. church hierarchy. The Vatican disciplined Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen of Seattle for perceived doctrinal missteps. Partly as a result, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops insisted on new guidelines to govern relations with the Holy See. In 1986, Bishop James Malone of Youngstown, Ohio, the outgoing president of the conference, noted "a growing and dangerous disaffection" between the Vatican and the U.S. church.

Among theologians who experienced John Paul's wrath was the Rev. Charles E. Curran of Catholic University in Washington. In 1986, he lost his teaching license for asserting that a person could "dissent in theory and practice" from the condemnation of artificial contraception and still be a loyal Roman Catholic. The action against him was a "definitive judgment" that had specific papal approval.

Practicality vs. Principle

John Paul was fascinated by science. In contrast to the church's traditional wary approach to the subject, he established a Pontifical Academy of Sciences, a body made up of eminent scholars, Catholics and non-Catholics, to advise him on developments in the field. He also commemorated the 100th birthday of Albert Einstein and directed that Galileo, imprisoned by the Inquisition in 1633 for asserting the truth of Copernicus's theory that the Earth circles the sun, be fully rehabilitated.

In October 1996, he declared that physical evolution is "more than just a theory," advancing the church's view, held for a half-century, that the process was worthy of discussion but still open to question.

At the same time, he deplored the Enlightenment, the 18th-century movement that gave the Western world many of its scientific, economic and humanitarian glories. Its triumphs included the Industrial Revolution and the propositions embodied in the Constitution of the United States. But its central idea was that the human being, not God, is the center of the universe. This struck at the heart of Catholic dogma.

In "Crossing the Threshold of Hope," a book of reflections that became a bestseller in 1994, John Paul traced these developments to Rene Descartes, the 17th-century French philosopher and mathematician. His dictum, "Cogito, ergo sum" ("I think, therefore I am"), countered the teaching of Saint Thomas Aquinas, the landmark theologian who said being was a gift from God that preceded every human activity, including thought.

John Paul spoke repeatedly and movingly against the modern tendency to make profit and efficiency the measures of success. He blamed this trend for the alienation of individuals, the disintegration of the family and the abandonment of objective standards of behavior in modern society. In 1993, he used the occasion of a World Youth Day gathering in Cherry Creek State Park near Denver, one of a series of biennial events he began in 1986, to summarize his thoughts on the "culture of death":

"In a technological culture in which people are used to dominating matter, discovering its laws and mechanisms in order to transform it according to their wishes, the danger arises of also wanting to manipulate conscience and its demands. In a culture which holds that no universally valid truths are possible, nothing is absolute. . . . Good comes to mean what is pleasing or useful at a particular moment. Evil means what contradicts our subjective wishes. Each person can build a private system of values."

At a Mass the next day, he cut short a homily that said, in its widely quoted prepared text: "In our own century, as at no other time in history, the 'culture of death' has assumed a social and institutional form of legality to justify the most horrible crimes against humanity: genocide, 'final solutions,' 'ethnic cleansings' and the massive 'taking of lives of human beings even before they are born or before they reach the natural point of death.' "

Religious Rapprochement

John Paul made novel and far-reaching gestures toward establishing closer ties with many faiths, not just Judaism. In 1986, he organized a prayer-for-peace meeting at the shrine of Saint Francis of Assisi to which he invited non-Christian leaders as well as Christians. Among those attending were the Dalai Lama, the archbishop of Canterbury and Mother Teresa.

In 2001, during a visit to Syria as part of a pilgrimage retracing the journey of Saint Paul, he became the first pope to enter a mosque.

But John Paul was unable to realize one of his most cherished goals, that of reconciling with the Eastern Orthodox Church, which split with Rome in 1054. He was able to visit the predominantly Orthodox countries of Bulgaria, Romania, Ukraine and Greece, but was not allowed into Russia.

Recognizing that more than half of the world's Catholics now live in developing countries, he transformed the church's leadership, greatly reducing representation from Italy and elsewhere in Western Europe.

In 1994, after he made appointments to bring the voting strength of the College of Cardinals, the body that will select his successor, to 120, 60 percent of the members were from Africa, Asia, Latin America, Eastern Europe or the United States.

By October 2003, John Paul had named all but three of the 117 cardinals eligible to vote in a conclave on his successor.

John Paul presided over 482 canonizations and 1,338 beatifications, more than all in the preceding 400 years. Many of those chosen for elevation were from developing countries.

A Political Papacy

In the realm of politics, John Paul opposed the U.S.-led wars against Iraq in 1991 and 2003 and the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia during the Kosovo crisis in 1999. He called for an end to the U.S. embargo on Cuba and U.N. sanctions against Iraq, and he declared that the rich nations should forgive the debts of the developing world.

His proclivity for politics grew out of his personal experience. As a priest and bishop in Poland, he conducted a more or less continuous political dialogue with the communist government, which was imposed on the country by the Soviet Union after it drove the Germans out late in World War II. He met with every U.S. president from Jimmy Carter to George W. Bush.

Many people regarded his support for the Solidarity trade union movement in Poland in the 1980s as a crucial factor in that country's peaceful transition to democracy and the subsequent collapse of communism in the Soviet Union and its former satellites. "All that has happened in Eastern Europe over these last few years would have been impossible without the presence of this pope and without the important role . . . that he played on the world stage," Mikhail Gorbachev, the last president of the Soviet Union, declared in 1992 in an article in the Italian newspaper La Stampa.

John Paul's election as head of the world's oldest international organization was itself a significant development in the politics of the Cold War. Communist leaders in Warsaw and Moscow could not ignore his enormous influence among the Polish people, to whom the Catholic Church is an inseparable part of the national identity.

In "His Holiness: John Paul II and the Hidden History of Our Time," published in 1996, Carl Bernstein, who gained fame for his work for The Washington Post uncovering the Watergate scandal, and Italian journalist Marco Politi argued that the pope and President Ronald Reagan in effect planned the demise of Eastern European communism during their first meeting in 1982, and that the pontiff and the United States exchanged intelligence information.

Robert M. Gates, a former director of the Central Intelligence Agency, said in a comment on the book that although the Vatican and the White House had similar goals, he believed they worked along parallel tracks "that did not intersect." He added that he was unaware of any information the Vatican supplied to the CIA.

In "Witness to Hope," a noted biography of the pope, author George Weigel said John Paul believed that culture, rather than politics or economics, was the engine that drove history. It was clear from the beginning of his papacy that he had a particular interest in bringing Eastern Europe back to its Christian traditions. In his first visit to Poland as pontiff in June 1979, he said:

"After so many centuries, the Slav peoples have heard the Apostle of Jesus Christ speaking in their own tongue. And the first Slav pope in the history of the church cannot fail to hear those closely related Slav languages, although they may still sound strange to ears accustomed to the Romance, Germanic, English and Celtic tongues. Is it not Christ's will that this pope should manifest at this precise moment the spiritual unity of Europe?"

Throughout the 1980s, John Paul was an observer-participant and mediator-partisan in Polish developments. The decade began in a turmoil of strikes and protests. In September 1980, shipyard workers in Gdansk formed the Solidarity trade union under the leadership of Lech Walesa. In December 1981, Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski, the strongman of the Warsaw government, declared martial law and jailed most of Solidarity's leaders, including Walesa.

John Paul announced that the church was "on the side of the workers." A few weeks later, he told worshipers in St. Peter's Square that respect for civil rights in Poland and the country's independence were necessary conditions of world peace.

"My land is bathed with the blood and sweat of its sons and daughters," he cried. "I put this problem before the conscience of the whole world."

Impassioned though these words were, the pontiff's chief role was that of moderator. The problem for all parties -- the church, the government and the Solidarity leadership -- was twofold. First, they wanted to keep the situation sufficiently calm that the Soviet Union would not intervene militarily. Second, they wanted to move toward reform quickly enough to avoid civil unrest among ordinary Poles, as occurred in 1970 with the loss of scores of lives at the hands of police and security forces.

In 1983, during his second pastoral visit to Poland, John Paul met with Jaruzelski and Walesa. In 1986, he concurred in a plan to establish a government-church commission. In 1987, the Polish general called on the pope in the Vatican and told him that communism was doomed in Poland and that the problem had become one of handing over power peacefully to a successor system.

Jaruzelski also acted as an intermediary in putting the pope in touch with Gorbachev, the reforming Soviet president and Communist Party leader.

In 1987, Gorbachev moved away from the Brezhnev Doctrine, under which Moscow reserved the right to intervene militarily in its satellites. The next year, his government said the traditional communist policy of suppressing religion had been abandoned and it sponsored a ceremony in Moscow to mark the 1,000th anniversary of the introduction of Christianity to Russia.

John Paul responded by sending two delegations -- one to the religious observance and the other, headed by Cardinal Agostino Casaroli, the Vatican secretary of state, to the Soviet government. Casaroli carried a letter to Gorbachev in which the pope expressed his hopes for religious freedom in Russia and increased diplomatic contacts.

In January 1989, a ban on Solidarity was lifted, and in August that year, after free elections, more than 40 years of communist rule in Poland came to an end. That December, Gorbachev became the first Soviet Communist Party chief to call on the pontiff. In 1990, the Vatican and Moscow established formal diplomatic relations.

Although John Paul paid special attention to Eastern Europe, his interests were global. In Latin America, he helped defuse a dispute between Argentina and Peru. In Chile, he pressured Gen. Augusto Pinochet, head of the military government, to hold free elections.

In the Philippines, he directed church officials to support Corazon Aquino, a factor in ending the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos. In Africa, he sought to end religious and ethnic violence in Sudan and Rwanda. He refused to visit South Africa until it had ended its racist policies of apartheid.

After Iraq's defeat in the 1991 Persian Gulf War, he sought a more active role for the church in the changed conditions of the Middle East. In addition to establishing diplomatic relations with Israel, he met with Yasser Arafat, head of the Palestine Liberation Organization.

Training and Trials

Karol Josef Wojtyla was born May 18, 1920, in Wadowice, an industrial town near Krakow in the shadow of the Tatra Mountains in southern Poland. His father, after whom he was named, was a noncommissioned officer in the army of the Austro-Hungarian Empire -- which included his region of Poland until the end of World War I -- and then in the Polish army. His mother, Emilia Kaczorowska, died when he was a child. His older brother, Edmund, a medical student, died of scarlet fever he contracted from a patient.

In 1938, the Wojtylas, father and son, moved to Krakow. The future pope enrolled in Jagiellonian University, where he studied philosophy and joined the Rhapsodic Theater. He also wrote poetry and a number of plays on religious themes. Because he was a student, Wojtyla was exempted from military service when Nazi Germany invaded Poland on Sept. 1, 1939, starting World War II in Europe.

One of the first acts of the Nazi occupation authorities in Krakow was to close the university. They also began deporting able-bodied men for work in Germany. To avoid this, Wojtyla got a job as a laborer in a quarry supplying a chemical plant. Because it was war work, he got a special identity card that exempted him from the occupiers' dragnets.

His studies continued underground, as did his work with the theater. He also kept up his numerous church activities. In 1940, while attending a prayer group, he met a tailor named Jan Tyranowski, who was to have a profound influence on his decision to join the priesthood. Tyranowski was a student of Saint John of the Cross and Saint Teresa of Avila, the Spanish mystics who founded the Discalced Carmelites, and he encouraged a sense of mysticism he found in Wojtyla.

In 1942, Wojtyla began studying for the priesthood. Because of strictures imposed by the occupation, this activity was carried on in secret in the residence of Prince Adam Stefan Sapieha, the archbishop of Krakow and Wojtyla's sponsor in the church.

On Aug. 1, 1944, the Warsaw uprising against Nazi rule began. Fearing a similar outbreak in Krakow, the Nazis there began a roundup that netted an estimated 8,000 men and boys. Wojtyla escaped -- the Germans who searched the house where he was staying failed to look in the basement room where he was praying. He soon moved to the relative safety of the archbishop's residence, where he lived in secret.

Wojtyla was ordained Nov. 1, 1946. He was sent to Angelicum University in Rome, where he wrote his thesis on Saint John of the Cross and received a doctorate in philosophy.

He also earned a doctorate in theology at Jagiellonian University. When he returned to Poland in 1948, he became a deacon in the village of Niegowic and, the following year, assistant pastor of St. Florian's Church in Krakow.

In 1953, he defended his thesis on the phenomenology of Max Scheler, a German philosopher, and was appointed a philosophy professor at a seminary in Krakow. The next year, he joined the faculty of Catholic University in Lublin.

In 1958, he was named auxiliary bishop of Krakow, and in 1964, when the communist government lifted a ban on such appointments, he was promoted to archbishop. In 1967, Pope Paul VI made him a member of the College of Cardinals. On Sept. 28, 1978, Pope John Paul I, the former Cardinal Albino Luciani, died of a heart attack after serving only 34 days. Six days later, Wojtyla left Poland to join his fellow cardinals in Rome to choose a successor.

On Oct. 16, after three days of deliberation in the Vatican's Sistine Chapel and eight ballots, Wojtyla was elected the supreme pontiff. "It is God's will," he declared when the vote was announced. "I accept."

Washington Post (Estados Unidos)


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