15-Year Papacy Sets Direction for Church Years to Come

Article excerpt

VATICAN CITY -- At the beginning of the 16th year of his pontificate, Pope John Paul II is adjusting his social message to a new world order and refining his call for obedience among the faithful.

These two tasks are at the top of the 73-year-old pontiff's agenda as he looks to the end of the second millennium and beyond, with a vision of a more doctrinally united church and a world more receptive to its teachings.

For the pope, passing the 15-year mark brings a time to set new goals for what has been one of the most dynamic papacies in history.

The global scene has changed dramatically since the evening of Oct. 16, 1978, when the stunning election of Polish Cardinal Karol Wojtyla was announced -- the first non-Italian pope in 455 years and he first ever from a communist country.

The pope's crucial role in communism's demise, many believe, will be the lasting legacy of his pontificate. But today, with the Cold War over and the church in a reuilding phase throughout Eastern Europe, the pope is shifting his moral spotlight to the shortcomings of Western society and the imbalance of the global economy.

The pope calls the economic disparity the "North-South" problem, and he has seen it up close during frequent trips to the Third World. Warning that the poor are getting poorer, the pope is saying the West cannot keep living on "an island of abundance surrounded by an ocean of suffering."

During a September trip to the Baltic countries, his first visit to a part of the former Soviet Union, the pope was an unusually stern critic of unbridled capitalism. In a speech that hinted of more to come, the pope said capitalistic ideology was responsible for "grave social injustices" -- and that Marxism's "kernel of truth" lay in seeing capitalism's faults.

As the pope fine-tunes his teaching on economic justice, he is also stressing the mnoral duty to respect the environment. This "greening" of Pope John Paul's message is likely to continue through the 1990s.

War looms large in the pope's mind and prayers as he begins his 16th year in office. But unlike the 1980s, this is not the nightmare scenario of nuclear conflagration. instead, it is the deadly reality of smaller ethnic of tribal wars that have flared up in places like the Balkans, Africa and the southern Soviet republics.

The pope's challenge in the '90s in to help ensure that religion does not fuel these miniconflicts, but acts as a reconciler. Further significant contributions could arrive when the Vatican completes documents in progress on the arms industry and nonviolence.

When it comes to the church's moral teaching, the pope will rely in futures years on two new, important documents: The Catechism of the Catholic Church and his latest encyclical, Veritatis Splendor ("The Splendor of Truth"). …