In Pope John Paul II, the world has lost more than just the leader of the world’s estimated 3 billion Catholics. The pope’s death signals the end of one of the most remarkable reigns of any leader in the 20th century, and even into the 21st.
In 1978, when Polish cardinal Karol Wojtyla became Pope John Paul II, the world was in a large state of disarray. The United States had just finished its largely unsuccessful military battle against communism in Vietnam. Cambodia was invaded by Soviet influence, and then eventually the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. Soviet communism hegemony was spreading all across the Asian continent, and voices for freedom were at their lowest levels ever.
Precisely at this distressing moment, in steps the first non-Italian pope in over a hundred years, an accomplishment in itself. From the start of his 26-year papacy, ending communism in Asia and Eastern Europe became one of his chief objectives. His visit to his native Poland in 1979 inspired that country to turn to faith and spiritually gain power to defeat the influences of the Soviet empire. It is no coincidence that the tide began to turn after the pope exerted his spiritual influence.
John Paul II stands with Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher in a triumvirate of great liberators of the decade in which communism came to a crashing defeat. The latter two used the influence of their positions in government to exert power on a more human level. But the pope demonstrated the influence that faith can have on mobilizing people to achieve a national goal, from the ordinary working person right up to government leaders.
The power of faith as used by John Paul II in the 1980’s stands in sharp contrast with how today’s Islamic militants use the same power. They use faith in some “God” to justify terrorism, barbarism, and general world chaos. John Paul II, on the other hand, used faith to help spread freedom across an entire part of the world that was a heartbeat from falling off the cliff of repressive communism.
Beyond his shining moment as a liberating voice for freedom, the achievements of John Paul II continue. Most notably, throughout his papacy, the pope refused to be swayed by liberal Catholics who feel the church should “adapt” its teachings to keep up with modern society. Among calls for women priests, allowing priests to marry, and allowing same-sex marriage, the pope remained steadfast in defending traditional church values against all three, even in his declining health.
I admired the pope’s staunch defense of the sanctity of life, without getting caught up in the latest fad – the “quality of life” debate. In my view, it is reprehensible for anyone who calls themselves Catholic to support abortion rights, except in the case of rape or incest, or the practice of euthanasia. Both just totally go against the basic tenets of Catholicism. The pope courageously stuck to this position. Those who immediately bring up the death penalty are simply changing the subject, to something that involves a totally different set of circumstances.
John Paul II also finished out his papacy with remarkable strength and courage. In the face of mounting speculation that he may resign from the media and others, the pope soldiered on despite a debilitating case of Parkinson ‘s disease and arthritis. Even when he couldn’t walk or speak at services in the past few years, his very presence and effort served as a form of inspiration for Catholics around the world.
The pope did disagree with political leaders, including President Bush, on some issues. Most notable was John Paul’s opposition to the US-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003. The pope did everything in his power to stop the invasion, fearing for the loss of life that would result. However, at that time I wondered why he was silent on the humanitarian atrocities being committed on a daily basis by Saddam Hussein.
John Paul II also had the misfortunate of being in charge at the height of the clergy sex abuse scandal here in America. The procedure of transferring abusive priests from parish to parish was a shocking black eye for the church, though most of the blame lies with local Cardinals and archbishops who oversaw this regrettable practice. But the pope could have taken more of an active role than he did in fixing the problem.
Nothing, however, can overshadow the extraordinary accomplishments of Pope John Paul II. As a pope, standing up for the highest ideals of the Catholic Church would be enough in most cases. But this great man took his duties a step further, partly due to the hand he was dealt. He will be missed for instilling the ideals of faith, freedom, and hope over half a continent at a time when they needed it most. The remarkable papacy of John Paul II will be hard to match, ever.