Once again Pope John Paul II has returned to hospital, gravely ill. Even for non-Catholics like myself, this is an occasion to ponder what the world will lose when the Pope’s body finally succumbs to his ailments.
The picture that emerges is one of a mixture of colors. For those of us who regard the collapse of communism in 1989 as a seminal event of twentieth-century history, Pope John Paul is a hero. In Poland, he was the focus of all the activities of civil society. While in other countries, most emphatically in Romania, but also in what was then Czechoslovakia and in Hungary, the alternative to communism was a vacuum or at best a few isolated organizations in civil society, Poland had an alternative source of legitimacy. Before and after his election, the then Cardinal Karol Wojtyla of Krakow was its most effective representative.
Cardinal Wojtyla’s election as Pope therefore had a significance far beyond the confines of the Church. Actually he himself did not like the identification of his church with civil society. In a conversation he protested: “No, the Church is not civil society, it is sacred society.”
This points to another aspect of John Paul II’s papacy, more relevant to insiders than to outsiders. In matters of doctrine and ethics, John Paul II represented the conservative view. He was the counterpoint to Pope John XXIII, who, through the Second Vatican Council of the 1960’s and in numerous other ways, tried to reconcile Catholics with the modern age.
Pope John Paul arrested this process and even tried to reverse it. For progressive theologians like Hans Küng, he was and is therefore a force of anti-modernism, even counter-enlightenment.
At the same time, the Pope became the first great traveling Pontiff of modern times, almost a symbol of a globalized world. This meant that his image if not his words reached out to millions who do not belong to his church. There can be few people who will be recognized as widely all over the globe as John Paul II.
By that fact alone, he added a spiritual dimension to an age which is dominated by worldly concerns, such as wealth and show business. Those of us who believe in a multidimensional culture will be grateful to him for his enormous efforts, thus for his “catholicism” in the original sense of the word, his all-embracing concerns.
On the other side of the balance sheet, and despite his global outreach, Pope John Paul II cannot be described as particularly ecumenical. The beginnings of Christian ecumenicism under his predecessors did not advance much in his 25 years.
Paradoxically, he found it easier to reach out to non-Christian religions. The Catholic-Jewish dialogue in particular was in good hands with him. When a distinguished Jewish scholar thanked him for what he had done to cultivate Catholic-Jewish relations, he replied: “That was not me, that was Providence,” and then added with his inimitable smile: “And me.”
Has he been a man of peace? Yes, of course. But his reign spans a time in which numerous regional conflicts turned violent. There was little he could do in Kosovo or the Congo.
The years of John Paul II’s papacy have not actually been a time in which “soft power” could achieve a great deal anywhere, so that Stalin’s famous question, “How many divisions has the Pope?,” remained topical. This was all the more relevant to the extent that Pope John Paul II is not enamored with the United States. There are indications that he shares the old central European prejudice of America as a materialist civilization that provides the wherewithal – but not the ideas – for what needs to be done.
The Pope’s legacy is, in other words, a story of great strengths and considerable weaknesses. It would be incomplete, however, were one not to mention the warm, curious, friendly, and humorous human being underneath it all. Pope John Paul II is in many ways an intellectual; he may have been underrated in that regard. However, he is also a simple man who connected without effort to others. He bore his suffering since the assassination attempt of 1981 with dignity. As a person, he never failed to impress his many visitors. Even in his current reduced state due to his illness, Pope John Paul II symbolizes human potential.