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.
The pontiff also reached deeply into the Third World when filling key posts in the Roman Curia and in enlarging the number of cardinal electors--those eligible to vote in a papal election--from 120 to more than 130. "He transformed the College of Cardinals so that now it is truly international," says Chester Gillis, chairman of theology at Georgetown University. "That was of tremendous benefit to the church."
He also relaxed the rules for making saints, requiring--among other things--that candidates for sainthood be credited for two postmortem miracles rather than four. Partly as a result, John Paul II canonized more new saints during his pontificate than did all of his 20th-century predecessors combined. The pope's intent, says the Rev. Peter Gumpel, a member of the Vatican's Congregation for the Causes of Saints, was to give Catholics throughout the world "models of the Christian faith . . . drawn from their own lands and cultures" and to encourage more Catholics to engage in prayers and other devotional practices associated with veneration of saints. John Paul also gave a face and a voice to a new spirit of ecumenism.
Passion for ministry. Among the changes, none were more apparent than those he brought to the papacy itself. As a pastor and bishop in Krakow for many years, he came to Rome with a passion for ministry and little interest in the administrative chores required of a pope. Unlike two of his 20th-century predecessors, Paul VI and Pius XII--both of whom immersed themselves in the managerial details of running the Vatican state--John Paul II devoted his energy to travel and diplomacy and to teaching and praying for his flock. "He saw himself as a pastor to the world," says the Rev. Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, head of the Jesuit order and a member of the Roman Curia.
That mixture of ministry and diplomacy set a pattern John Paul II would follow, visiting more than 135 nations--some of them multiple times--and journeying the equivalent of three times the distance to the moon. Through his record-setting travels, the pilgrim pope inspired the faithful and instilled new vigor in the church's missionary efforts. Through his pilgrimages to Africa, notes George Weigel in his 1999 papal biography Witness to Hope, the pope "strengthened the faith of new Christians by the millions and made them free like brothers and sisters in the household of Catholicism."
Whenever he traveled, he kept a grueling pace that even in the early days often would bring him to the brink of exhaustion. In later years, to conserve his ebbing strength, the pope's schedulers were careful to plan fewer events with more rest time between stops.
From the very beginning, John Paul II made it clear he would not be content to follow the pattern of so many of his predecessors to merely occupy the throne of St. Peter, busy himself with the pageantry and polity of office while venturing seldom beyond the Vatican walls. Since his earliest years as a parish priest in Poland, Karol Wojtyla saw himself first and foremost as a pastor whose rightful place was with his flock. "Some people think that the pope should not travel so much, [that] he should stay in Rome, as before," John Paul II said during a visit to Zaire in 1980. "I often hear such advice, or read it in newspapers. But the local people here say, 'Thank God you came here, for you can only learn about us by coming. How could you be our pastor without knowing us? Without knowing who we are, how we live.' This confirms me in the belief that it is time for the bishops of Rome . . . to become successors not only of Peter but also of St. Paul, who, as we know, could never sit still and was constantly on the move."
Nor could John Paul II sit still for long. Even in the pain-filled waning days of his reign, until his last bed-ridden days, the aging pontiff seemed energized and at his best when meeting with his flock. Filling baseball stadiums like a rock star, he possessed a remarkable flair for imagery and dramatic gesture. On a grassy hillside in Galilee, at a crowded city park in Manila, in a rain-soaked football stadium in Denver, he delighted youthful audiences, laughing, joking, and singing with them but also imploring them to "look to Christ, who gives you the meaning of life." And they responded, with squealing adulation usually lavished on rock stars: "John Paul Two! We love you!"
While pastoral ministry was the focus of his foreign trips, John Paul II also used his travels to advance ecumenical and interfaith relations. He was the first pope to visit a mosque and a synagogue. During a 2000 trip to Israel, he lit an eternal flame in remembrance of Holocaust victims, and a year later, during a trip to Greece, apologized for Catholic offenses against Orthodox Christians, bringing a slight but significant thaw to centuries-old enmities dividing Christianity's western and eastern branches.
Breaking the mold. Yet some Vatican insiders say he neglected the papacy's managerial functions, allowing more leeway to Vatican bureaucrats in day-to-day operations. "It is yet to be determined if that was a positive or a negative," says one member of the Roman Curia. Nor is it clear whether the pope's final years, shaken by debilitating illness, gave Vatican bureaucrats enhanced power. But broadly speaking, says papal biographer George Weigel, "John Paul II broke the mold of the bureaucratic-managerial papacy."
Throughout his reign, both his critics and his admirers laid claim to the "true spirit" of reform under the Second Vatican Council as they evaluated his leadership. Liberals were disappointed that he didn't take what, in their minds, were the logical next steps in embracing modernity: lifting a church ban on use of contraceptives, which many Catholics disregard anyway, and opening the priesthood to women and married men.
In the United States, Catholic dissent was particularly intense. In 1986, the Vatican stripped Seattle's archbishop of many responsibilities after the prelate ran afoul of papal views on issues like homosexuality, contraception, and divorce. That same year, Catholic University Prof. Charles Curran was banned from teaching Catholic theology after questioning church teachings on women and sexuality. And the Rev. Terrance Sweeney, a Jesuit, was forced to resign from his order after refusing to destroy the results of a survey of American bishops about celibacy and the ordination of women--in which a quarter of those surveyed reportedly approved of optional celibacy. "It was a monochrome approach to Catholicism," says the Rev. Richard McBrien, a theologian at the University of Notre Dame.
Today, the majority of America's Roman Catholic bishops were appointed by the pope, ensuring a clergy much less willing to question authority and an end to the reinterpretations of traditional liturgy that had marked the post-Vatican II years. "That autonomy has been reined in," says the Rev. Donald Senior, president of the Catholic Theological Union. "He remade the hierarchy."
In the last dozen years of his papacy, a frail John Paul II saw the American Catholic Church battered by the biggest crisis in its history when in the early 1990s, it surfaced that many bishops had covered up cases of sexual abuse by priests. In Boston, the scandal climaxed with the 2002 resignation of the pope's close ally, Cardinal Bernard Law. Millions of Catholics lost their trust in the church.
To liberals, the scandals were the natural result of the pope's policies of keeping the priesthood male and celibate. Conservatives believed the abuses grew out of a clerical homosexual clique.
But even critics of the pope were drawn to what may well become his central legacy: his commitment to spiritual renewal and the strengthening of the church's prophetic voice against moral relativism in modern culture. "Vast sectors of society are confused by what is right and what is wrong and are at the mercy of those with the power to 'create' opinion and impose it on others," he said during a trip to the United States in 1993. Whether John Paul will be remembered as a reformer who revitalized the church or an obstructionist who thwarted the goals of Vatican II will be left for historians to decide. The arguments have already begun, as the faithful and the skeptical sift through the considerable legacy of a fruitful and remarkable life.
LAYING A POPE TO REST
The ritual begins as soon as the pope's death is medically certified by a physician. Following the belief that no man could remain asleep when his name is called, the chamberlain of the Holy See calls out Pope John Paul II's given name, Karol, three times. Hearing no response, he officially declares: "The pope is dead," thus setting in motion long-established traditions of the church. From the many mass services to the burial rites, there is a highly ordered, series of events related to a papal funeral.
The chamberlain (also known as camerlengo), becomes the Vatican's administrator, overseeing the transition period (called a "vacant see") between the pope's death and the election of a new pope. Gathering in Rome from around the world, the College of Cardinals, convenes within a day or two of the pope's death. Among other things, they will:
- Make papal funeral and burial decisions.
- Schedule nine funeral masses for the pope.
- Ensure that the pope is buried between the fourth and sixth day after his death.
- Read any documents left by the pope.
- Schedule the beginning of the conclave, the meeting that elects John Paul II's successor.
St. Peter's Basilica
Modern popes have traditionally been buried in the crypt below St. Peter's Basilica. In the final months of his illness, there was widespread speculation that John Paul II would be buried in his native Poland.
St. Peter's Basilica
Tomb of St. Peter (directly under the dome)
Door of Death (so named because it used to be the exit for funeral processions).
There are 147 popes buried in St. Peter's.
The pope traditionally lies in state dressed in white with red and gold liturgical vestments. Sometimes a white miter (head covering) is worn.
TRADITIONAL TRIPLE COFFIN
1 Cypress, the innermost coffin, signifies the pope's humanity.
2 800-pound lead coffin bears a skull and crossbones insignia.
3 The outer elm coffin symbolizes the dignity of the pope and allows him to be buried in a wooden coffin like any other person.
If the pope is to be buried in the Vatican, traditionally all three coffins are placed inside a marble vault located under St. Peter's Basilica.
A gold signet ring engraved with the name of the pope and an image of St. Peter fishing from a boat will be destroyed with a silver hammer, symbolizing the extinguishment of John Paul II's power.
Several items are sealed in the coffins with the pope:
- Destroyed fisherman's ring
- Death certificate, important papers
- Coins, medals struck during his reign
Sources: U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops; stpetersbasilica.org; Conclave
Text by Stephen Rountree and Nicole Schofer
Graphic by Rob Cady and Stephen Rountree
With Michael Schaffer, Joshua Kurlantzick, Linda Kulman and Alexander Stille
This story appears in the April 11, 2005 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.