BY HUGO TORRES
Pope John Paul II celebrates his 25th anniversary as head of the Roman Catholic Church this week. It is a papacy that will be recorded as one of the longest in the history of the Church, and also as one of the most visible in recent history. Having visited more countries in his twenty-five years as Pope than any other Pope, Pope John Paul II stands at the dawn of a new millennium as possibly one of the most influential popes to ever head the Catholic Church.
Born Karol Wojtyla in Poland, the Pope has lived through the rise of fascism, the arrival of communism, and the fall of the Soviet Union. A playwright at heart, Wojtyla fought the evils of fascism and communism through his skills in theater before entering the higher ranks of the Roman Catholic Church. The first non-Italian pope in over four centuries, he has overseen remarkable transformations in the Church and in the world, and was one of the most prominent figures in the fight against communism during the Cold War. Crippled now with Parkinson’s disease, speculation runs rampant as to who his successor might be. But on this, his 25th anniversary, Catholics and others have paused to reflect not on who might come after, but on what has come before.
Chris Ray, a 3L, admires the Pope for his many accomplishments. One of the most prominent messages of this papacy has been respect for life and opposition to communism, stances which Ray finds inspiring. “[I admire] his vocal stance that life must be protected from the womb to the tomb and fostered in a healthy manner every place in between. Second, his role in the destruction of the Soviet Empire. I think it was Stalin who scoffed, ‘How many battalions has the Pope?’ Well, John Paul II showed that victory requires more than just battalions; he showed that true victory requires faith and courage.”
The Pope’s emphasis on ecumenical outreach also appealed to Catholics and non-Catholics alike. Ray singles out the Pope’s efforts to reach out to Jews and non-Westerners as highlights. “[A high point was] his asking the Jewish community for forgiveness about the Church’s many sins over the centuries against Jewish groups…[also] his encouragement of the rise of an increasingly international (as opposed to Western European) face for the Church.”
Greg Hannibal, a 2L, has also been pleased with the Pope’s tenure, but has concerns about the future of the Church. “I appreciate the Pope’s efforts to directly connect with a large audience and admire his tenacity. But I worry that the long tenure of a conservative Pope has made the upper echelons of the church hierarchy more out-of-touch with the views of many Catholics, especially in developed countries.” Indeed, such a fear is common among many Catholics, particularly those in industrialized countries, where religion is becoming more and more detached from evolving social norms. In Europe, the number of churchgoers has plummeted over the last few decades, with even once-stalwart Catholic countries such as Spain, Ireland and Italy seeing fewer and fewer people coming to the churches for religious services. In the United States, social practices come into conflict with Church teachings, such as those on birth control, abortion and homosexuality. A shortage of priests makes it more and more difficult for the Church to effectively minister to people, and the recent sex abuse scandal has shaken the already tenuous grip the Church had on the morals of American Catholics.
Despite all this, few other popes since the days before the renaissance have had such an impact on global affairs. Pope John Paul II has visited dozens of heads of state, written fourteen encyclicals, taken part in annual youth days for young Catholics from around the world, appointed more saints than any other pope and remains active despite his old age and illness, having come out strongly against the war in Iraq.
When the Pope does end his tenure, through resignation or death, many will perhaps be left feeling as Chris Ray will: “It is going to be a sad day in my life when this Pope, who has been the Holy Father for my entire life, passes away.”