World mourns Pope of greatness and contradiction - news from ekklesia

By staff writers
April 3, 2005

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World mourns Pope of greatness and contradiction


People around the globe are today joining the worldís one billion Catholic Christians in mourning the loss of Pope John Paul II, who died yesterday following a long illness and after 26 years at the helm of the Church.

The Polish pope, born Karol Wojtyla, lived through most of the huge traumas of the twentieth century and is destined to be seen as one of its greatest and most controversial leaders.

John Paul II, as he became known at his ascendancy to the Chair of St Peter, sensed his vocation at an early age, when he also showed great promise as an actor and writer. He became a priest in secret during the Nazi terror that overcame his homeland. He went on to defy command communism following the Soviet occupation of Poland and to support the independent trade union movement, Solidarity, which played a large part in its downfall.

A conservative and traditionalist Catholic, Pope John Paul II was a charismatic figure with authoritarian instincts. Loved by young people, he struggled to understand the changing world they had to confront. His many tours and his historic visit to Britain in the early 1980s proved a watershed for Christian ecumenism and won wide admiration from Protestants and Anglicans. Yet he asserted the supremacy of his own Papal office and of the Catholic Church with a forthrightness which often embarrassed those who wished to see him as more reconciling figure.

John Paul IIís defining achievements will perhaps be seen in the areas of inter-faith understanding, opposition to war and the rapprochement between faith and science. The Pope built bridges to Muslim leaders, showing that strongly differing religious convictions do not have to lead to enmity. Even more importantly, he sought to reverse the morally corrosive strands of anti-Jewish sentiment which stained the Churchís history with blood, shame and genocide.

Pope John Paul II not only reaffirmed the teaching of the Second Vatican Council (1963-1965) that anti-Semitism is a sin, that the Jewish people are loved by God, and that the Jews were wrongly accused of killing Jesus Christ, he also stopped proselytising activities against Judaism and openly recognised it as a valid path to God.

This has already been described as ëthe high moral watermarkí of his Papacy. It was signalled most strongly by the prayer he pinned to the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, in an act of solemn commitment and penitence: ìGod of our fathers, you chose Abraham and his descendants to bring your name to the nations. We are deeply saddened by the behaviour of those who in the course of history have caused these children of yours to suffer, and asking your forgiveness we wish to commit ourselves to genuine brotherhood with the people of the covenant.î

Pope John Paul II also forthrightly condemned war as a means of resolving human conflict, opposing US-instigated military adventurism in Iraq. He sponsored scientific innovation, declared evolutionary theory compatible with the belief in God, and reversed earlier Catholic judgements that scientists like Galileo were heretics.

Many say that the Popeís reign was also marked by a darker side, however. His absolute opposition to contraception has been accused of condemning HIV and AIDS sufferers to death. His ascription of homosexuality as ìevilî has been seen as fuelling anti-gay hatred.

John Paul II also came to forbid even discussion of the ordination of women in the church. He sanctioned the Vaticanís religious police in hounding theologians who questioned what he upheld, he denied compassionate grounds for abortion, he supported ultra-conservative hierarchies and he opposed liberation theology ñ thereby giving solace to military dictatorships in Latin America.

Yet Pope John Paul has also been seen as a highly significant advocate of freedom and human rights ñ in the world, if not the Church, to which he applied different standards. He denounced neo-liberal economics of the kind favoured in todayís White House as ìsavage capitalismî, and criticised the West for exporting ìmaterialism, consumerism and super-developmentî.

Above all, the Polish Pontiff rooted his judgements about the modern world ñ contradictory as many of them may seem to outsiders ñ in a deep life of faith and prayer. He sponsored both the charismatic and Marian movements in his Church, and continued to take a lively interest in theology and philosophy in ways which did not always seem to match the unequivocal nature of many of his Papal pronouncements.

Karol Wojtyla's love of his native Krakow and of football remained unwavering. They have continued to produce smiles on the faces of those who deeply mourn his passing.

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