POPE JOHN PAUL II: In the End, the World Was a Stage

Elisa Marincola

ROME, Apr 2 2005 (IPS) - Karol Josef Wojtyla was a theatre lover and budding actor in his youth in Poland. He never quite made it as an actor, but since 1978 when he became Pope, the world became his stage.

Karol Josef Wojtyla was a theatre lover and budding actor in his youth in Poland. He never quite made it as an actor, but since 1978 when he became Pope, the world became his stage.

It was befitting for an actor of his standing on this stage that he made his exit as he did. The Pope had refused to go back to hospital. He made peace with passing away, accepted the Sacrament and carried on with his duties calmly as far as he could to the end.

His last broken words on Saturday were to thank those who had cared for him, the youths who had come to wish him well.

His triumph up to the end over the difficulties that came to assail him remained remarkable. In his last hours he battled high fever, a heart problem, breathing difficulties, a kidney condition and a urinary tract infection. All that through arthritis and Parkinson’s disease. Yet, he remained “extraordinarily serene” up to the end.

His strength and calm in the face of such extraordinary challenges spoke more than words that finally failed him.

More than a billion Catholics mourn the passing away of the Pope. But given that large following scattered around the world, the shock and consequences of his death will be felt everywhere.

The end had been imminent, even though the Pope was a far stronger man than most. Down to the last hours when he seemed to be slipping away, he kept coming back. Those last hours epitomised his strength through his life.

He had survived an assassination attempt, a tumour, a broken shoulder and thigh bone, ten years of Parkinson’s disease and then continuing breathing difficulties. His many medical triumphs made him an icon of fortitude in suffering through his life and through his last phase of illness.

Towards the end, as at the beginning of his papacy, he broke new ground.

Pope John Paul II was the first Pole to be made Pope, and the first non-Italian Pope in more than 400 years. At 58 he was also the youngest Pope when he succeeded John Paul I, who died after just 33 days in office.

He was little known until then outside the small circle of the Roman Catholic hierarchy. He had studied much of his theology in hiding during World War II while he worked in a factory. He was ordained priest in 1946 and was quickly promoted. He became archbishop in 1964, and cardinal in 1967.

Poland was then in the communist bloc. It was a period of persecution for Roman Catholics, who were about 80 percent of a population then of 35 million. As Bishop of Krakow, Karol Wojtyla took an uncompromising stand against the communist regime. This further strengthened his commitment to traditional ways.

On taking over as Pope in 1978, he found the Catholic church in a state of ferment. Reforms being proposed by the earlier Vatican Council II had begun to question time- honoured traditions, shaking the church to its foundations. Wojtyla set about restoring the Catholic church to those conservative traditions.

His first aim was to defeat communism and what he called the “atheisation of society”. He supported dissidents, among them the Polish union Solidarity led by Lech Walesa. This anti-communist stand characterised the papacy until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

At the same time he began to restore doctrinal orthodoxy through the appointment of conservative bishops, and by disciplining dissident church officials.

The Pope particularly came down on supporters of the theology of liberation within the church in the 1980s. That movement had arisen in Latin America and spread to Africa and Asia, particularly India. It wanted the church to address issues such as poverty and human rights. Critics saw it as an attempt to fuse Christianity with Marxism.

The Pope responded firmly. Within a few years of taking over, he filled the Roman Curia (the Vatican administration) and dioceses around the world with traditionalist officials who supported a powerful and clerical church against more liberal groups.

Through this period the Pope supported the staunchly conservative Catholic group Opus Dei and other conservative groups like God’s Legionaries set up by Marcia Maciel from Mexico, the Neocathecumenalists and the Focolarins.

John Paul II proclaimed more than 1,300 blesseds and almost 500 saints, including Opus Dei founder Jose Maria Escriva de Balaguer.

The Pope’s conservatism stood out most prominently through his rejection of contraception and abortion in the name of the right to life. He also took a conservative stand against divorce, homosexuality, rights for unmarried couples, married priests and women priests.

Critics said the Pope was out of touch with the world outside, and was alienating many Catholics. The church gained followers in Africa and Asia, largely through a high birth rate, but lost following in the industrialised world. That included his home country Poland, and Latin America which is home to half of the world’s 1.1 billion Catholics.

The Pope carried his own message far and wide. His first visit abroad was to address the Latin American Bishops Assembly in Puebla in Mexico in January 1979. In all he made 104 pastoral trips outside Italy, and 146 within. His ‘hands-on’ approach, his humour and his informality endeared him to millions.

Wojtyla remained sensitive to social issues, and while opposing communism often condemned the excesses of capitalism. The Pope remained popular with the young. About two million youths gathered in Rome in August 2000 at a Youths Jubilee he addressed.

John Paul II made historic moves to build bridges with other faiths. He often received the Dalai Lama, the Buddhist leader from Tibet. He sought a closer relationship with Islam, and sought to bring the Vatican closer to other Christian churches. But he continued to disapprove of marriages between Catholics and Muslims. He also asserted the primacy of the Roman Catholic church over other churches.

The most dramatic of the reconciliatory moves was towards the Jewish faith. He was the first pope to visit a Jewish synagogue, and the memorial at Auschwitz to honour victims of the Holocaust. He made a dramatic apology for Christian anti-Semitism. At the same time he spoke often of the suffering of the Palestinian people, and expressed his differences with the Jewish state over the status of Jerusalem.

He led prayer meetings to stop the Gulf war of 1991, the Balkans conflict, the attack on Afghanistan, and then the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

In 2002 he visited native Poland for the last time. It was a changed country. It had passed a law in 1996 legalising abortion despite the Pope’s censure. Questions remain how far the conservatism he planted around the world will outlast him.

Republish | | Print |

Related Tags

Europe, Global, Global Geopolitics, Headlines

POPE JOHN PAUL II: In the End, the World Was a Stage

Elisa Marincola

ROME, Apr 2 2005 (IPS) - Karol Josef Wojtyla was a theatre lover and budding actor in his youth in Poland. He never quite made it as an actor, but since 1978 when he became Pope, the world became his stage.

Republish | | Print |

aapc ebooks