Pope John Paul II: A Towering Figure

By Allen, John L., Jr. | National Catholic Reporter, April 15, 2005 | Go to article overview

Pope John Paul II: A Towering Figure


Allen, John L., Jr., National Catholic Reporter


He was a magnificent pope who presided over a controversial pontificate, at turns daring and defensive, inspiring and insular. John Paul II, 263rd successor of St. Peter, leaves behind the irony of a world more united because of his life and legacy, and a church more divided.

This is perhaps the best one can offer in a first draft of history about a man who towered over his times in a way unique among other leaders of his era.

Pope John Paul II, 84, died April 2 at 9:37 p.m. in his private quarters at the end of a long and public illness. Though the effects of Parkinson's disease had been evident for a number of years, the pope's health declined precipitously over a period of a few days. On March 31 he suffered heart and circulatory collapse. The next day the Vatican said his kidneys were failing and that his breathing had become shallow. In the hours just before his death, the Vatican announced that he was fading out of consciousness.

John Paul II was a stunningly successful historical actor; biographer Jonathan Kwitny once called him "the man of the century." In an age in which institutional religion was supposed to be sliding toward extinction, he applied the force of his enormous personality to revitalizing it.

John Paul was among the key forces in the collapse of European communism. He did it not by fueling an arms race or by threatening Armageddon, but through moral leadership and the social idea of Solidarity.

Through his constant travels, John Paul carried a media spotlight to corners of the globe that would otherwise never have commanded public attention. He urged people to think of this as one planet, to recognize a common humanity beneath and beyond differences of language and race and class.

John Paul was the first pope in the age of CNN, and he seemed born for the part. He wrote books, put out compact discs, staged massive youth rallies that at times felt like Rolling Stones concerts, and utilized all the other tools of pop superstardom to promote the message of Christ. He did not shrink from modernity, but challenged secular culture on its own turf. Often enough, he prevailed.

He was a master of grand historical gestures. The image of the pope, this child of Poland who grew up just miles from Auschwitz, placing in Jerusalem's Western Wall a handwritten note of remorse for Christian hostility to Jews was among the 20th century's most splendid icons. In 1986 he became the first pope to visit a synagogue since the age of Peter, and in 2001 the first pope to enter a mosque. In his final years, when age and illness took hold, John Paul managed to keep crowds spellbound without so much as the capacity to speak or move.

Where he felt passionately, John Paul was not a man to be shackled by the poor lists of his predecessors' fashions. He made his own manners, whether it was assembling leaders of world religions to pray for peace in Assisi, Italy, against the advice of curialists worried about syncretism, or apologizing to the Orthodox in Athens, Greece, for centuries of Catholic maltreatment, over the objections of ecumenical hawks who felt being pope means never having to say you're sorry.

Toward the end of John Paul's long reign, his physical decay unfolded before the eyes of a world both dazzled by his will and sometimes aghast at the cruelty of a vocation that would impose such burdens. The pope struggled to walk, he slurred his speech and drooled badly, his hearing failed, and his facial expression became increasingly frozen. Yet he soldiered on, bearing his thorns in the flesh with grit and good humor. For a world that has made an idol out of youth and beauty, this disabled pope was a strong counterwitness. Jean Vanier, the founder of the L'Arche community that makes its life among disabled persons, said of the bowed but not beaten pope: "He was never more beautiful."

John Paul II was a man of great spiritual depth, of integrity, and of imagination. …

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