A Strong Pope, a Broad Impact ; in His 26-Year Reign, John Paul II Proved a Charismatic, Sometimes Divisive, Church Leader

By Jane Lampman writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, April 4, 2005 | Go to article overview

A Strong Pope, a Broad Impact ; in His 26-Year Reign, John Paul II Proved a Charismatic, Sometimes Divisive, Church Leader


Jane Lampman writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


A charismatic, yet controversial, leader who captured the attention and admiration of the world for more than a quarter century, Pope John Paul II died on Saturday, ending one of the longest papal reigns in history.

During his 26 years, he redefined the papacy as that of pastor and evangelist, extending the reach of the church with his savvy use of the media and indefatigable travels to more than 130 nations.

"No human being in history ... had ever spoken to so many people, in so many different cultural contexts," according to papal biographer George Weigel, who was close to the pope.

While deeply disappointed by the decline of Catholicism in Europe, John Paul II presided over rapid growth of the church in Africa and Asia, which fueled a 40 percent increase worldwide, according to church statistics.

Yet while widely respected for his courage and personal holiness, John Paul II was often a controversial figure globally for his conservative stance on issues such as contraception. He stirred dissent within the church as well, presid-ing over a growing polarization between conservative and liberal wings.

Tested in the crucibles of Nazism and communism, the Polish-born pope became an eloquent voice for freedom and justice, as well as the defender of traditional Catholicism.

He stirred millions - Catholic and non-Catholic alike - by demonstrating that a voice of strong faith and moral conviction could leave an imprint on the modern world.

For many, Pope John Paul II stands as one of the great leaders of the 20th century.

"He'll go down in history as the most important world leader in the second half of the century," predicts political scientist Thomas Reese, editor of America magazine, a Catholic weekly. "He started the avalanche that wiped out communism. His courage and political shrewdness in dealing with the regime in Poland was extraordinary." Former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, among many others, has acknowledged the pope's catalytic role.

The white-clad figure used his bully pulpit to speak out forcefully on moral issues, from abortion and euthanasia to the death penalty, war, and biotechnology. He also criticized the inequities of capitalism. This did not always win him favor.

Within his own flock, a growing number of liberal Catholics questioned his hard-line stances on social issues.

On the world stage, his opposition to the Iraq war created strains with the US administration. And the Vatican has been widely criticized for opposing contraceptive methods that could protect people from HIV/AIDS or reduce the demand for abortion.

Over the past year, the church initiated a campaign to protect marriage between a man and a woman, including opposition to civil unions for gays and lesbians.

While conservative on issues of personal morality, John Paul II was liberal on social and economic justice, advocating reliance on international law and calling on wealthy nations to address global poverty. His remonstrances had little impact on world leaders, but they did help inspire the grass-roots Jubilee 2000 campaign that won debt relief for the world's poorest countries.

To the pope, the secular, materialistic values of contemporary society - utilitarian world views that fail to put human dignity at the center of concern - represented "a struggle against God." As a philosopher, he used his prolific writings to lay out a Christian alternative to the humanistic philosophies of modern times.

"His profound insight into what it means to be truly human will be shaping Catholic thought for many generations," says Alan Schreck, a theologian at Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio. …

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