Pope John Paul II celebrated his final international World Youth Day in Toronto in 2002. The trip was one of 104 trips outside of Italy to 129 countries. CNS photo

John Paul brought moral force, intellect, flair to world stage

  • April 25, 2014

VATICAN CITY - Blessed John Paul II is remembered as was one of the most forceful moral leaders of the modern age.

He brought a philosopher’s intellect, a pilgrim’s spiritual intensity, a leader’s courage and an actor’s flair for the dramatic to his role as head of the universal Church for more than 26 years.

“The future starts today, not tomorrow,” he once said.

The Polish Pope was a tireless evangelizer and forceful communicator, speaking to millions in their own languages. But toward the end of his life, his powers of speech faltered as his Parkinson’s disease progressed, which left him often unable to even murmur a blessing.

“The Lord gradually stripped him of everything, yet he remained ever a ‘rock’, as Christ desired,” Pope Benedict said in 2011, when John Paul II was declared Blessed. “His profound humility, grounded in close union with Christ, enabled him to continue to lead the Church and to give to the world a message which became all the more eloquent as his physical strength declined.”

Benedict said that over the 23 years he worked at his side, “It became ever more clear to me that John Paul II was a saint.”

“His example of prayer continually impressed and edified me: he remained deeply united to God even amid the many demands of his ministry,” Benedict said.

The first non-Italian pope in 455 years, John Paul II became a spiritual protagonist in two global transitions: the fall of European communism, which began in his native Poland in 1989, and the passage to the third millennium of Christianity.

“Freedom consists not in doing what we like, but in having the right to do what we ought,” he said.

As pastor of the universal Church, he jetted around the world, taking his message to 129 countries in 104 trips outside Italy — including three to Canada, becoming the first and only pope to visit this country.

Within the Church, the pope was vigourous and not fearful of controversy. He disciplined dissenting theologians, excommunicated self-styled “traditionalists,” and upheld often unpopular Church positions like its opposition to artificial birth control. At the same time, he pushed Catholic social teaching into relatively new areas such as bioethics, international economics, racism and ecology.

In his later years, despite the onset of Parkinson’s, he pushed himself to the limits of his physical capabilities, convinced that such suffering was itself a form of spiritual leadership.

He led the Church through a heavy program of soul-searching events during the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000. His long-awaited pilgrimage to the Holy Land that year took him to the roots of the faith and dramatically illustrated the Church’s improved relations with Jews. He also presided over an unprecedented public apology for the sins of Christians during darker chapters of Church history, such as the Inquisition and the Crusades.

His social justice encyclicals, including his landmark document, the apostolic letter Novo Millennio Ineunte (“At the Beginning of the New Millennium”), made a huge impact, addressing the moral dimensions of human labour, the widening gap between rich and poor and the shortcomings of the free-market system. He called for a “new sense of mission’’ to bring Gospel values into every area of social and economic life.

As a manager, he set directions but often left policy details to top aides. His reaction to the mushrooming clerical sex-abuse scandal underscored his governing style: He suffered deeply, prayed at length and made brief but forceful statements emphasizing the gravity of such sins by priests, but let his Vatican advisors and Church leaders work out the answers. In the end, he approved changes that made it easier to laicize abusive priests.

The pope also pushed Church positions further into the public forum. In the 1990s he urged bishops to step up their fight against abortion and euthanasia, saying the practices amounted to a modern-day “slaughter of the innocents.” He opposed “antifamily” policies, saying, “As the family goes, so goes the nation and so goes the whole world in which we live.” His outspokenness helped make him Time magazine’s Man of the Year in 1994.

The pope was a cautious ecumenist, yet he made several dramatic gestures, including: launching a Catholic-Orthodox theological dialogue in 1979; visiting a Rome synagogue in 1986; hosting world religious leaders at a “prayer summit” for peace in 1986; and travelling to Damascus, Syria, in 2001, where he became the first pontiff to visit a mosque.

John Paul II lived a deep spiritual life but in public he seemed made for modern media. His pontificate has been captured in some lasting images, like huddling in a prison-cell conversation with his would-be assassin, Mehmet Ali Agca, who shot the pope in St. Peter’s Square May 13, 1981.

Karol Jozef Wojtyla was born May 18, 1920, in Wadowice, a small town near Krakow, in southern Poland. He lost his mother at age nine, his only brother at age 12 and his father at age 20. His father imbued him with a deep faith and a love of literature, history and sports.

An accomplished actor in Krakow’s underground theatre during the war, he changed paths and joined the clandestine seminary after being turned away from a Carmelite monastery with the advice: “You are destined for greater things.”

Following theological and philosophical studies in Rome, he returned to Poland for parish work in 1948. When named auxiliary bishop of Krakow in 1958 he was Poland’s youngest bishop, and he became archbishop of Krakow in 1964. He also came to the attention of the universal Church through his work on important documents of the Second Vatican Council.

Though respected in Rome, Cardinal Wojtyla was a virtual unknown when elected pope Oct. 16, 1978. After more than 26 years as pope, Blessed John Paul died at the age of 84 at the Vatican April 2, 2005, the vigil of Divine Mercy Sunday.

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