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Remembering John Paul II

By Rod Benson - posted Friday, 8 April 2005

Pope John Paul II died at 9.37pm on April 2, ending the reign of the 265th pope. He was born Karol Wojytla in 1920 in the Polish village of Wadowice, 50 kilometres from Krakow. His father was a retired non-commissioned Polish army officer; his Lithuanian mother, a schoolteacher, died when he was eight. At 19, when the Nazis invaded Poland, he was condemned to forced labour in a chemical factory and a quarry. By 1942 he had lost all his immediate family.

Wojytla was ordained a priest in 1947, installed as Archbishop of Krakow in 1964, and created a cardinal (by Pope Paul VI) in 1967. He was inaugurated Pope on October 16, 1978 at the age of 58, young by papal standards. Two previous popes inspired his chosen name: John XXIII, the reforming genius behind the Second Vatican Council of 1962-65, and Paul VI, who ruled from 1963-1978. Pope John Paul I, the late pontiff’s immediate predecessor who ruled for only 33 days in 1978, chose this moniker and John Paul II reflected his choice in honour of him. John Paul was the first non-Italian to take up the symbolic crook of St Peter in 455 years, and the first ever Slav. Significantly, he was the third-longest reigning pope in the 2,000-year tradition of his church.

Perhaps one of the keys to John Paul’s vision lies in words he uttered at his inauguration. “Fear not,” he said, “Open wide the doors to Christ and his authority of salvation. Open the frontiers of states, [of] economic and political systems, of broad domains of culture [and] civilisation [and] development.”


John Paul the people’s priest

John Paul possessed an immense personal magnetism that endeared him to crowds. Within days of his inauguration, his papal staff realised that times had changed. In place of stuffiness and isolation, he brought joy and engagement. He took to swimming and mountain skiing. He kissed children on the forehead and touched visitors on the arm in greeting. He talked freely with journalists. He was a dynamic evangelist and skilled apologist. He loved mass rallies where his oratory and theatrical skills could be displayed.

His motto was Totus tuus  - “entirely yours”. He travelled the globe as no predecessor had done. It was his custom, on arriving in a new country, to kneel and kiss the ground, apparently in honour of those he was visiting. After surviving an attempted assassination by Turkish gunman Mehmet Ali Agka in St Peter’s Square in 1981, he sat humbly with his would-be killer in a prison cell in an act of forgiveness and attempted reconciliation.

Cardinal George Pell has called him “one of the greatest Christian pastors in history”. It is true that during his reign the number of Catholics around the world rose by over 40 per cent to about 1.1 billion. But the statistics are not all good, for it is also true that, during the same period, more than 100,000 priests left the Catholic priesthood, most apparently because they were unable to accept the pope’s insistence on priestly celibacy. As always, John Paul remained resolute. Faced with revelations of widespread and entrenched sexual abuse of parishioners by Catholic priests, in 2001 he formally apologised to victims, and confessed, “As priests we are personally and profoundly afflicted by the sins of our brothers who have betrayed the grace of ordination”.

Even with advancing age, John Paul maintained the adulation of the faithful. We recall television images of his last years and months, voice slurred, face expressionless, hands trembling, unable to walk, eventually unable to breathe without assistance. His willingness to allow people to observe his humanity, to witness his physical suffering, only strengthened his appeal. He was a faithful priest and pastor, in word and deed, to the day of his death.

And yet he was also an authoritarian and disciplinarian at heart, arguably one of the most illiberal and reactionary popes of the 20th century.

John Paul the moral theologian

No one doubts John Paul’s capacity for intellectual labour or the breadth of his interests. He preached more than 4,000 sermons, and produced something like 30 pages of prose for every day of his 26-year pontificate. In his 1994 best-selling book, Crossing the Threshold of Hope, he identified a common thread running through this large body of work. His concern was to affirm “the value of existence, the value of creation and of hope in the future life”. For him, the 20th century witnessed a fundamental rejection of human dignity, and it was the church’s responsibility to call people to a Christian understanding of human persons as created in the image of God and constituted as moral beings with the freedom to realise their full spiritual and moral potential.


In his formal teaching, John Paul reinforced the traditional teaching of the church and addressed a broad range of contemporary moral and social issues. Most notable among his 14 encyclicals are Redemptor Hominis (Redeemer of Humankind, 1979), Laborem Exercens (On Human Work, 1981), Sollicitudo Rei Socialis (On Human Concerns, 1988), Centesimus Annus (The Hundredth Year, 1991), Veritatis Splendor (The Splendour of Truth, 1993) and Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life, 1995). Each of these is worthy of careful reading and reflection, offering rich resources for dialogue.

John Paul advanced the cause of ecumenism. The official conversations between the Vatican and the Baptist World Alliance are, in part, a result of this (see here). He also encouraged interreligious dialogue, especially with Muslims and with Jews. In 1986, he arranged a gathering of 150 world religious leaders at Assisi, the birthplace of St Francis, including Buddhist, Japanese Shintoists and Native American representatives.

He championed human rights, speaking for the oppressed, the unborn and others who cannot speak for themselves. His worldview and mission led him to consistently oppose contraception (even in the face of a global AIDS epidemic), sex outside heterosexual marriage, divorce, abortion and euthanasia; he coined the term “the culture of death”. He defended marriage and the family, and developed a significant “theology of the body”, dealing with sexual ethics. He has been generally anti-war, in particular opposing both Iraq wars and warning George W. Bush, “God is not on your side if you invade Iraq”. He also upheld patriarchy and hierarchy within the church, insisted on mandatory celibacy for male priests, and refused to allow moves toward the ordination of female priests.

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About the Author

Rev Rod Benson serves as ethicist and public theologian with the Tinsley Institute, and Public Affairs Director for the NSW Council of Churches.

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