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Twilight of a Pontiff

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.