Pope John Paul II
Pastor to the world, he led a revolution of conscience
We will surely remember him as one of the most influential figures of the 20th century. As the longest-reigning pontiff of modern times, Pope John Paul II transformed the papacy into a truly global office and used it to minister to a worldwide flock of more than 1 billion. He was the most traveled, the most visible, and the most vocal of pontiffs--a trained actor and philosopher who understood the power of word and symbol and wielded both with precision, whether in meetings with heads of state or before teeming crowds of the faithful. In his native Poland, he inspired a revolution of conscience that hastened the collapse of Soviet communism, and then, with the end of the Cold War, he labored to prepare the church for its next great challenge: offering a religious alternative to the materialistic culture of modern capitalism.
Yet despite his considerable influence on the world scene, it was his impact on the church and on the Catholic faith itself for which he will perhaps be most remembered. A stern but gentle shepherd, he demanded fidelity to the moral and spiritual disciplines of the faith and then set the example as a man devoted to prayer and contemplation. But his efforts to impose greater religious orthodoxy produced friction as well. While he championed human rights and challenged dictators, he was criticized for stifling debate within the church on issues like contraception, divorce, and the role of women.
Even so, both those who agreed with him and many who did not lauded him for his efforts to bring clarity and stability to a church buffeted by the secularism and moral relativism of the modern world. "He sounded a clear and certain trumpet," says Archbishop John Foley, "and the people responded."
The pope's units. As the first non-Italian pope in five centuries and the first ever from Poland, John Paul II shifted the church's center of gravity away from its traditional European base. He reached deeply into Africa, Asia, and Latin America--regions embracing a more traditional and conservative Catholicism. The number of lay missionaries worldwide vastly increased, to more than 125,000, and this greatly enlarged army of God went places where it had never been and performed rituals it had never tried, such as using Hindu incense in a traditional Catholic service. His many visits to the Third World made the pontiff acutely aware of the problem of overpopulation, and under his guidance the Vatican for the first time openly acknowledged that the people of the Earth must control their growth.
Focusing on the developing world has paid off. More Catholics now live outside Europe and America than in the West. Over the past three decades, the Catholic population in Africa has tripled in size to more than 120 million Catholics, and the continent accounts for more than 10 percent of Catholics worldwide. In Asia, the church has over 100 million adherents and has made inroads into India and Vietnam, and it retained its large and often highly enthusiastic base of support in the Philippines. In China, the government does not allow Catholics to recognize the authority of Rome, yet experts estimate that there are tens of millions of "underground Catholics" in the People's Republic. "We have truly become a global church," says the Rev. Virgilio Elizondo, codirector of the Hispanic Churches in American Public Life research project.