As the third-longest reigning pope in history, behind only St. Peter (ca. 30-64 or 67) and Bl. Pius IX (1846-1878), the former Karol Józef Wojtyla was the only pope ever known by today’s younger generation, and surely, the dominant pope of most living Catholics. Blessed with great talent, and a survivor of family tragedies, including the loss of his mother at age eight, his older brother at age 12, and his father at 20, he also lived through both Nazi and Soviet Communist occupation of his homeland.
His college studies interrupted by the German invasion, Wojtyla labored for four years at Solvay, a chemical manufacturer, considered essential by the Nazis to the war effort. During this time, he got involved in a nationalistic theater group, but was also drawn to the Church, through the efforts of Jan Tyranowski, a local tailor who conducted a religious ministry for youth. The young Karol was introduced to the teachings of St. John of the Cross, who proclaimed that redemption could be achieved via suffering and the “spirituality of abandonment.”
By 1942, Wojtyla was enrolled in the underground seminary, conducted by Kraków’s heroic Cardinal Prince Adam Sapieha. It was Sapieha who hid Karol from the Nazi conscriptors, and who convinced the managers at Solvay to erase Karol’s name from their list of missing personnel. It was also Sapieha who ordained Wojtyla into the priesthood in 1946.
Impressing the Vatican with his ability to create a thriving parish, despite the restrictions imposed by the Communists, he was appointed as an auxiliary bishop of Kraków in 1958. By 1963, he would become Archbishop of Kraków, and was named a cardinal in 1967. Prevented from using media outlets to engage his flock, he developed impressive abilities to communicate with crowds, a skill that would serve him well for the rest of his life.
Upon the death of Pope Paul VI in August, 1978, and that of his successor John Paul I a scant 34 days after his election, the conclave elected Wojtyla the 264th Bishop of Rome. The public was not aware that Wojtyla had received votes at the preceding conclave, and even he was not aware of the growing movement to elect him. Wojtyla was perceived as a perfect compromise candidate—one who was conservative in Church discipline, but accepting of the Vatican II reforms. His relative youth and vigor were considered assets, as well.
There is no doubt that his travels and appeals to the oppressed people of eastern Europe helped bring down the odious Soviet regime. Indeed, many believe that the failed attempt on his life in 1981 was organized by the Soviets. This failure, of course, was to reverberate mightily, as the Evil Empire came tumbling down in 1991.
But if John Paul II could confront the evil without, as his early life prepared him, he seemed to have a much harder time confronting dissension and the less obvious evil within. Sad to say, the Church in Europe, once called Christendom, is frankly falling apart. Even in hardcore Catholic, but now liberated Poland, his 1995 audience in Victory Square was distracted, and some reporters swore they heard boos. There was no mistaking his anger as he shook his fist at the crowd to regain its attention. In Latin America, he took the correct stand against so-called Liberation Theology, but seemed to lose crowds there, also.
Certainly, his failing health did not help. He was no longer the rock star of his early pontificate, but maybe even some of that was short-term celebrity worship. Perhaps, for too long, he spent too much precious capital in building bridges: with Protestants, Muslims, and Jews. But bridges are meant to be crossed. As Vicar of Christ on this earth, he was called to evangelize all into the Church. One wonders how this could be accomplished with a overarching posture of conciliation. To use the apt analogy of sales, it is fine to become friendly with the prospect, but, at some point, you have to ask for the order—or the conversion.
He did very little to confront the many sex scandals, and should have simply removed the offending bishops, instead of leaving their fate in their own hands. Thus came the lengthy and painful saga of Bernard Law, who did eventually resign, and the miserable continuing career of Roger Mahony, who did not. While he was clearly shocked and saddened by the great sins of those in the College of Cardinals, let alone many in the lower echelons of the Church, this was no reason to cower.
Ironically, one of the few bishops he did go after was Marcel Lefebvre, who considered the Pope’s outreaches, especially his 1986 “universal prayer service” in Assisi, a scandal and a betrayal of of the one true faith. Lefevbre went on to consecrate bishops without papal approval, and was excommunicated in 1988. With all due respect, there were thousands who should have been higher up on the excommunication list.
So, how will history judge this pope?
His greatest accomplishment was his role in the fall of Euro Communism, but every contemporary pope had condemned Communism. He was the first who had the advantage of improved mass media, and he played it for all it was worth.
He will be remembered for speaking out on the “Culture of Death,” but opposition to abortion and euthanasia is as old as the Church, itself. His own inspiration of “Be not afraid” should have convinced him to excommunicate pro-abortion politicians. Instead, there are far too many “pro-choice” Catholics, even though none should exist.
He spoke out against many wars, including both Iraq conflicts, possibly reflecting his personal life experience that they do no good. After all, to Poles, World War II simply made the world safe for Communism until 1989. It was the Church, then, that saved his country, even if its youth were soon to forget. It was negotiation, not violence, that seemed to be the answer, but the terrorist attacks of Al Qaeda mocked this position.
He inspired large crowds, but, I’m afraid, the effect wore off. He added five new mysteries to the Rosary, that we will have forever.
His life experience caused him to be constantly active, and probably out in the field too much. By not resigning, his physical suffering was visible to all, as was his gallantry, but this was at the expense of a weakened presence, when a strong one was needed. Jesus Himself was weak and suffering on this earth only a very short time, during His public ministry.
In the end, Karol Józef Wojtyla was possibly too much a product of his times—the fearless parish priest in Communist Poland, and the outspoken pope of the 1980’s morphing into a mediagenic “unifying” figure. Perhaps his successor will be a bit less charismatic, a bit less conciliatory, and simply more a strong leader of his flock. We shall see.