Thursday, February 9, 2012

Papal Profile: Pope John Paul II

The first Supreme Pontiff in the age of computers and mass media was Pope John Paul II, said to be the single most recognized person in the world during his globe-trotting reign. In addition to being the spiritual leader of approximately one-sixth of the world's population, he had an impact far greater than even that with his influence touching many countries and peoples that had little to nothing to do with the Catholic Church. Many controversies would arise during his historic reign but, regardless of the sides one might take, few could argue that John Paul II made the Church something that could not simply be ignored in an increasingly secular world. Born Karol Wojtyla on May 18, 1920 in Wadowice, Poland, John Paul II was the son of a retired Austro-Hungarian army officer. In fact, he was named after the last Emperor-King of Austria-Hungary, a man he would later beatify. Through Poland's suffering at the hands of the Nazis and then the Soviets, Karol was the sole surviving member of his family by the time he was only twenty one. Religion, particularly the Virgin Mary, was his only comfort. He joined the Church and eventually became Archbishop of Krakow prior to his appointment as Cardinal. On October 16, 1978, at the age of 58, he was elected Pope after the brief reign of John Paul I.

His reign was historic from the very moment of his election. John Paul II was the first Polish Pontiff in history and the first non-Italian Pope in 456 years. He had a wealth of personal experience to draw from, due to his suffering as a laborer in occupied Poland, service as a university lecturer, his time as a bishop, cardinal and participant in the Second Vatican Council. His Holiness also held two doctorates in mystical theology and philosophy and spoke eight different languages. He had also been an amateur actor during his youth and many credited this experience with his ability to master the art of public gestures, saying or doing the right thing to win over an often skeptical and unbelieving people. Non-Catholics and even non-religious people often commented on his charm and charisma. It often seemed that his goal was to bring ancient truths to public attention and present them in such a way that the modern world would accept them.

Throughout his years on the Throne of St Peter John Paul II won admirers and critics by his efforts to make the Church comprehensible to the post-Christian west while not compromising on traditional beliefs. He traveled more than any other Pope in history and spoke out against such evils as communism, abortion, human cloning and divorce. Even when his health began to deteriorate in his later years, the Pontiff did not slow his busy schedule and continued to keep a well-defined policy on spiritual and social matters. His visits were many and his writings voluminous. From immigration to sexuality, collectivism to capitalism it seemed that, under John Paul II, the Church had a position on every issue. Over time, this did have drawbacks since, when flaws and scandals appeared in the Church itself, it seemed so much more outrageous to people on the outside given how free the Vatican had been in issuing instructions concerning every imaginable topic others faced.

Since John Paul II was a working man of humble origins, he had long been a champion of the rights of the less fortunate, while at the same time opposing the atheistic principles of socialism and communism which does not liberate workers but makes them slaves of the state, degrading individual worth for the sake of a collective equality. World leaders credit a great deal of the victory over communism in Eastern Europe to the influence and efforts of Pope John Paul II. For this he was applauded by the capitalist countries of the west, yet he soon earned their criticism as well for he also spoke out against the failings of capitalism and the resulting excess of materialism present in many western countries. Still, while western secularists might have viewed him as an annoyance, those on the eastern side of the “Iron Curtain” viewed him as a dire threat. On May 13, 1981, disaster struck when the Pontiff was shot by an assassin in St Peter's Square during a weekly audience. Doctors described the Holy Father's recovery as "miraculous". In 1983 the Pope visited his attacker in an Italian prison where the two talked in private for 20 minutes. Many believe that the plot was communist in origin but we may never know for sure. All the Pope was certain of was that the Blessed Virgin had spared his life.

As time went on, John Paul II broke record after record for the length of his reign and his many travels. During his pontificate there was hardly a country in the world with any Catholic population that did not receive a Papal visit. The Supreme Pontiff also broke records for recognizing more saints than any other Pope. Those recognized came from a much more diverse background and variety of peoples from countries around the world than ever before, as John Paul II wished to emphasis the universal nature of Christianity and that anyone can become a saint. In matters of theology His Holiness was a tower of strength, refusing to change the truth of the Church in response to the often changing views of society. Because of this he was often criticized for intransigence from the left just as a minority from the opposite direction criticized him for being insufficiently reactionary. Sadly, many on the traditional end of the religious spectrum broke away from the Church completely, reducing their own influence and leaving the modernists to set the tone only to howl the loudest when the Pope did not change to suit passing trends. When changes many assumed would come did not they were all the more outraged. Efforts to allow women into the priesthood and lessen the firm stance taken on birth control were met with Papal disapproval. John Paul II was adamant that such changes were not only unwise but impossible. The Pope also worked very hard with leaders from the other religions of the world to promote peace and cooperation. Occasionally, he seemed to go too far in his gestures of friendship, but few people of goodwill doubted his intentions. In response to the attacks on September 11th the Holy Father called on all religions to reject violence as a method of spiritual change and condemned those who murder the innocent in the name of God.

In his own life he embodied devotion to duty and a sincere love of Christ even if his good nature often made him blind to the wickedness of others. He continued in his work even after becoming extremely infirm. John Paul II became one of the longest reigning pontiffs in Christian history with many in the world never knowing a time when he did not sit on the Petrine throne. However, with the increasing effects of age, surgery and Parkinson’s disease, Pope John Paul II, though he continued to work until the very end, was taken up to his reward on April 2, 2005. At his funeral, crowds shouted for him to be declared a saint immediately and never had their been such a widespread outpouring of grief at the death of a Pontiff, from Catholics and non-Catholics alike. Almost as soon as he was laid to rest many began speaking of him as Pope John Paul the Great. Given the length of his reign alone that is not surprising.

To be sure, there were many problems during the reign of John Paul II. His critics, both liberal and conservative, can each point to mistakes. However, because of when he reigned and for how long he reigned it cannot be denied that he was a colossal historical figure who touched more lives than probably any other Bishop of Rome of before him. He also reigned during a very difficult period, particularly after the advent of the internet and other such technologies which allowed for an outpouring of views being made public with millions, even billions, around the world seeing fit to sit in judgment of the Pope and making their verdicts known to the world. That the leftist, secular, atheistic types of the world criticized him should come as no surprise. Any Christian who earns their condemnation should wear it as a badge of honor. More painful though is the criticism of those from the opposite end of the spectrum, those who are (or who say they are) Catholics who deign to pass judgment on the Supreme Pontiff and condemn him as being insufficiently Catholic or even worse. In many instances it is this criticism that cuts deepest because many of those leveling it (not all certainly but many) are often quite upstanding individuals and exemplary Catholics in every way, save perhaps submission and obedience to the Pope. Because so much of this controversy surrounds John Paul II, it is worth addressing.

The Catholic Church has long boasted of its universal nature and ability to appeal to a wide array of peoples. Everyone has their own tastes but most realize (or did) that their own are not for everyone and from the barbarian north to the farthest reaches of China the Catholic Church has claimed to have as its goal presenting the gospel of Christ to various peoples in various ways which they would be most likely to accept. Sometimes this led to internal Catholic conflicts, such as the Jesuit-Dominican spat over the Chinese rites, to a perhaps even more bitter dispute over the post-Vatican II efforts of the Church to appeal to an increasingly irreligious world. These efforts, most would agree, were not always met with success and not always done in the most graceful way. Pope John Paul II, certainly, was trying to do this and few will hesitate to judge his success or failure in this regard in one area or another. Some praise him for his efforts, while others criticize him even after his death.

Let me be clear that I think the modernist crisis is real and those behind it are willingly doing evil, however, I also think that there are some good-intentioned people who have taken courses I would disagree with but who are trying to keep the Catholic Church and Christianity in play and not be shrugged off as a relic of a bygone age unworthy of the slightest consideration. I also think that, in the case of Pope John Paul II, some clerics simply did not and do not think as much about liturgy, pomp and ceremony as some of us do. I have noticed this before in clerics of the World War II generation. These men lived through World War II and experienced horrific suffering and witnessed even worse. Surely, such events cannot but influence people and shape their views on what is and is not most important in life. For priests like Pope John Paul II who lived through so much oppression, fear, persecution and horrific slaughter, it is not hard to imagine that arguments over vestments, candles and language did not rank very high on their list of priorities, though all are important, certainly to those who revere “traditional” Christianity.

As can be seen in a few pictures, Pope John Paul II could take on a more traditional style at times though, obviously, such occasions were the exception rather than the rule. I think most devout Catholics would admit that during the reign of John Paul II the liturgy suffered and the overall reverence in and of the Church declined. However, for whatever it may be worth, I would advise caution toward those who would use that as an excuse to attack the Pope himself, who I have no doubt was as sincere and heartfelt a Christian as one could ever hope to find. A true picture can be found by looking to those areas which he himself directed rather than those which were handled by courtiers and Vatican bureaucrats. Pope John Paul II championed Marian devotion, Eucharistic adoration, pilgrimages, holy hours, devotion to the Divine Child Jesus, absolute opposition to abortion, birth control, the ordination of women, homosexuality and his adamant support of things like the rosary. Surely, none of these things would have been done by someone who was a modernist. He canonized St Faustina and championed her chaplet of Divine Mercy, he beatified the Emperor Charles of Austria and Pope Pius IX, the original crusader against modernism to some extent. His many canonizations are sometimes criticized, yet we should remember that among that vast number was the Cristeros of Mexico who fought for Christ the King and were killed for it, sometimes in opposition to the wishes of their own bishops or the many Christian martyrs who lost their life to communist regimes in Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa as well as his outspoken condemnation of Marxist "liberation theology". He should also be given all due credit for his support of the culture of life, which he poured a great deal of time and energy into defining, explaining and upholding in opposition to the culture of death.

It is also true that in almost every case of the externals that avowed “papal monarchists” (God bless them) so adore he either supported or at the least did not oppose or condemn. Just because he did not think such things terribly important or critical, that does not mean that he thought them wrong (and of course I don‘t know what was in the Pope‘s heart and neither do you). A case in point is the papal tiara, which I myself certainly miss terribly and wish would be restored to use. At his enthronement Pope John Paul II addressed the subject of the tiara and the coronation which his predecessor John Paul I had forgone. He was very clear that the tiara should have no stigma attached to it, mourned the fact that it did and for that reason said it was not time to restore the tradition. Yet, in his instructions he left the possibility for a coronation open for the future and did in fact have his own papal tiara which was given to him by the people of Hungary in 1981.

There are also a number of things that even very traditional Catholics can and do disagree on such as the papal staff for example, which John Paul II used almost exclusively. I know there are some who think it outrageous that the Pope use anything but the traditional shepherd's crook used by all bishops. It seems a rather trivial matter to me and not outrageous that a Pope have a staff that is unique to the Petrine office. I have also heard some criticize the papal staff for being too graphic (for lack of a better word) in how Christ is shown hanging so limp and drooping on a rather rustic looking cross. This, I can certainly attribute to simple cultural differences. I never saw anything wrong with it but that may be a product of my own environment where Hispanic culture predominates and there are many, many visual representations of Christ in the most extreme agony and in other ways very graphically portrayed. My point is simply that these are matters of taste which people of good will can disagree on and should not be attacked or ridiculed over because their taste does not coincide with that of another.

Pope John Paul II was not the most traditional pope in history but he was certainly no modernist and reigned during a very, very difficult time in which the Church was under attack by a revolutionary culture while the Church no longer had the strength to engage in a sort of hostile stand-off as in days gone by. I don't think any of us can fathom the immense weight of the responsibility on the shoulders of a pope and I wish that all Catholics (and Christians of any variety) would be a little more humble and not so quick to be critical of those with the responsibility to be shepherds. All of us, after all, can only do our best and while I would not agree with everything done or said by Pope John Paul II, I have no doubt that he was doing his best as well.

4 comments:

  1. I am going to have to disagree with you on a couple of points. While John Paul II was tough on communism an did uphold some of the moral teachings of the Church in an age increasingly hostile to them, the focus of his papacy was almost entirely human: let me explain.
    He consistently spoke of human dignity and defended any situation where humans suffered as humans, but he almost completely ignored most of the spiritual problems in the Catholic church during his reign.
    He hosted prayer meetings at Assisi twice inviting leaders of other religions to pray for peace [he in fact did not offer prayers during that meeting]. This gave clear consent to the idea that these religions are true and good, something Catholicism has always argued to the contrary.
    He never in his speeches insisted that conversion to Catholicism was necessary for world peace, human dignity, or national accord. This is possibly the single most important message of Catholicism, that the world including every living human must convert to Jesus Christ via the church he founded for there to be peace in the world.
    He did nothing to punish those who broke their vow of clerical celibacy and committed crimes against minors. The Church had to pay millions in reparations and John Paul did not thing to bring justice to the victims, nor safeguard the dignity of Catholicism by punishing the perpetrators.
    Finally, he did nothing to heal the schism caused by the meeting in Assisi when the Society of St. Pius X was founded and a whole section of the Church abandoned Roman churches in order to preserve its traditions and traditional teaching. Instead he "globetrotted" around the world soaking in the praise of non-Catholics.
    I would frankly consider him to be one of the worst popes in the history of the Church, for while the late Medieval and Renaissance [and other] popes were corrupt and immoral, never did they deny the Faith nor really even ever justify their actions. John Paul weakened the spiritual fabric of Catholicism by simply ignoring some of the most important tenants of the Faith.

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    1. I don't see any point of mine you're disagreeing with, I just see you focusing on certain things you didn't like and using those to define the man. He was an advocate of personalism, no doubt about it. Ignored spiritual problems? I wouldn't go that far, he clearly had other priorities though.

      As for Assisi, I'm sick of the subject. Everyone will read into it what they will and no one will ever change their mind on it. Having always lived around people of diverse religious beliefs, it never seemed that terrible to me but my second mother is a Buddhist and at college the only other person who would back me up in defending traditional values was a Muslim -so what do I know?

      When it comes to advocating conversion to Catholicism, I simply don't see how anyone can say he never did that. Almost every time I saw him he was calling for conversion and for people to embrace Catholicism. For the bad priests -no argument here and he was far from alone in dropping the ball on that one. I'm still disgusted by the handling of that fiasco and I don't see how anyone can tolerate what inaction still prevails.

      As for the SSPX -I didn't know they were a reaction to Assisi, I thought they were a reaction to VII. In any event, I don't see how he could heal that schism when the SSPX was openly defying the authority of the papacy (and surrendering to the liberals by withdrawing from the Church on top of that). However, I've probably wasted too much time on this already, if you would consider JP2 worse than the likes of John XII there's really nothing I can say. I think he was a good man who did his best, no more, no less, if anyone thinks he was the worst ever I really can't see room for discussion.

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  2. And Ali Agca, the guy who tried to assasinate him, later turned Catholic, right?

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    1. I heard that, but then I also heard he was a bit crackers so -who knows? He said his orders to kill the Pope came from the Vatican at one point, I think he claimed to be Jesus once, all in all I wouldn't think anyone is taking anything he says or does seriously at this point.

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