( May 22, 1981) This is not, fortunately, an obituary, but an interim report. We do not yet know how long Pope John Paul's convalescence will take, but we can expect a pause in the frantic activity that has marked the pontificate so far. And two and a half years is certainly long enough to draw up a provisional assessment.
The most important fact about John Paul, despite his European culture and grasp of languages, is that he is Polish. This means he has a populist concept of the church. The leaders of the church act as the tribune of the people. They put into words the soul of the nation.
Hence the need for simplifying slogans. Hence the mass rallies he has conducted around the world. Hence the mistrust of those who "break ranks" or ask too many disturbing questions. John Paul's aim has been, to quote his own phrase, "to bring the joy of faith to a troubled world." He does not seem to know the meaning of the word doubt. It is not in his Polish lexicon.
This populist approach to some extent commends him in Latin America despite differences about "liberation theology." For as the final message of the 1979 Latin American bishops' meeting in Puebla, Mexico, makes clear, the Latin American bishops also speak in the name of their oppressed peoples -- and there is no one else to speak for them.
It has been less successful in the United States and in Europe, where pluralism and democracy have accustomed people not to regard their opponents as misguided or insincere, and where "dissent" is not necessarily regarded as treason. Though he theorized about it in his philosophical work, John Paul seems to lack a concept of "loyal opposition."
Within the church his policies have all been based on the premise that things got badly out of hand during the post-conciliar period. Anarchy reigned. Discipline was lost. There was a crisis of priestly, religious and simple Catholic identity. He made it his aim to