He was the Pope neither the Church nor the world expected. The
surprises that characterized his twenty-six year pontificate began on the very
night of John Paul II's election.
On October 16, 1978, the Catholic Church was in a state of
spiritual shock. The fifteen-year papacy of Paul VI, whom many veteran
churchmen considered the perfectly prepared pope, had concluded in division
and exhaustion. The bright promise of the Second Vatican Council was a fading
memory. Paul's successor, John Paul I, seemed on the verge of revitalizing
the papacy when he died after a mere thirty-three days in office. To whom
would the college of cardinals turn now?
Few expected that they would turn to Karol Wojtyla, the 58-year-old
archbishop of Kraków. But after the first day's balloting had revealed a
deadlock between the two leading Italian candidates, the cardinals made the
historic decision to look beyond Italy for a pope, and Wojtyla was quickly
chosen. His appearance on the loggia of St. Peter's Basilica that night was
the first surprise; many in the vast crowd had never heard of "Wojtyla,"
thinking the name Asian or African. But the surprises continued as John Paul
II broke centuries of precedent and began his pontificate with an impromptu
address in Italian, reassuring the worried Romans that, from this moment on,
he, too, was a Roman. When he asked them to correct any mistakes he might make
in "our Italian language," they cheered wildly.
Six days later, at his papal inauguration, the surprises continued. In
his homily, John Paul II challenged the Church to regain its evangelical
fervor and its nerve, particularly in defending the fundamental human right
of religious freedom throughout the world. After the three-hour ceremony
ended, he refused to retreat into the Vatican basilica but walked toward the
vast throng in the Square, waving his papal crozier as if it were a great
sword of the spirit. When a small boy burst through the security cordon to
present him with flowers, fussy local clergy tried to shoo him away; John
Paul II swept him up in an embrace. The crowds refused to leave until John
Paul told them, "It's time for everyone to eat lunch, even the Pope!"
The stylistic surprises continued throughout his pontificate. John Paul acted as he thought a pastor should act, rather than according to the venerable script written by the traditional managers of
popes. He invited guests to his private Mass and his meals, every day. He
visited more of Italy and Rome than any of his Italian predecessors. He held
seminars in his summer residence with agnostic and atheist philosophers. His
world travels--wearing a tribal headdress in Kenya in 1980, holding a koala
bear in Australia in 1986, gathering the largest crowd in human history in
Manila in January 1995, improvising a Polish Christmas carol in New York's
Central Park nine months later, solemnly commemorating the Holocaust in
Jerusalem in 2000--made him the most visible pope in history.
It would be a serious mistake, though, to think of this as the
showmanship of an accomplished actor. John Paul II's conduct of the papacy,
however surprising it was to some, was based on a firmly held set
of convictions. Bishops, he believed, were primarily evangelists and
teachers, not managers. That was the way he had been the archbishop of
Kraków, and that was how he thought he should be the Bishop of Rome. In doing
so, John Paul II, 263rd successor to St. Peter, brought the papacy into the
21st century by retrieving the first-century model of the Office of Peter in
the Church. In the New Testament, Peter is not the chief executive officer of
a small niche company, "Christianity, Inc." Peter is a witness, an
evangelist, a pastor, the center of the Church's unity. John Paul II
revitalized that ancient concept of the Office of Peter for
the third millennium, using all the instruments of the communications and
transportation revolutions to bring Peter to the world.
In the course of this dramatic renovation of the world's oldest
institutional office, he continued to surprise. Throughout his pontificate,
he was a magnet for the world's young people, who flocked to him by the millions. In the early years of his papacy, some of this almost certainly
reflected the contemporary cult of celebrity. But that was not all it was,
and his status in the 1980s as a global superstar did not explain why John
Paul II continued to attract the young when he was visibly
weakened by disease and age.
Why did the Pope remain a compelling figure for the
young? One reason was his transparent integrity. Young
people have acutely sensitive hypocrisy detectors; in John Paul II, they saw
a man who believed what he said and acted out his beliefs. There was no
"spin" here--only integrity all the way through, the integrity of a man
who committed every facet of his life to Jesus Christ. This was immensely compelling.
The Pope was also attractive to the young because he defied the cultural
conventions of our age and didn't pander to them. Rather, he challenged them to moral grandeur. While virtually every other authority figure in the world
was lowering the bar of moral expectation, John Paul II held it high. You are
capable of moral heroism, he told young people. Of course you will fail from
time to time; that is human. But don't demean yourself by holding your lives
to a lower standard. Get up from your failures, seek
forgiveness and reconciliation, try again. That, he
insisted, is the path to the fulfillment all young people seek.
And they listened. Not all of them agreed. But they came, in their
millions, and listened. There is little doubt that many were changed by
John Paul II, the Pope from intensely Catholic Poland, also surprised
many by his ecumenical initiatives and the passion of his commitment to a new
relationship between Catholicism and living Judaism.
No Pope since the split between Rome and the Christian East in 1054 did as much to close that first massive breach in the unity of the Church. No
Pope since the Reformation spent more time in dialogue with Protestant
Christians. No Pope ever asked Orthodox and Protestants leaders and
theologians to help him think through an exercise of the papacy that would
serve their needs.
None of this bore immediate fruit. After an immensely difficult twentieth
century, Orthodox Christianity was in no condition to respond to John Paul's suggestion
that he sought no jurisdictional role in the East and that it ought to be
possible to return to the way things were before 1054. And while significant
theological advances were made in the ecumenical dialogue with Protestants--
notably the 1999 Joint Declaration on Justification by Faith by the Catholic
Church and the Lutheran World Federation--it became clear throughout the
pontificate that new, Church-dividing issues had emerged since the sixteenth
century. Yet despite these frustrations, John Paul II secured the quest for
Christian unity in the heart of the Catholic Church. Seeds he has planted will
germinate in the third millennium.
The dialogue with Judaism has seen more concrete accomplishments. After John
Paul's 1986 visit to the Synagogue of Rome, his repeated condemnations of
anti-Semitism, his multiple apologies for centuries of Christian prejudice
and persecution of the Jews, and his Jubilee year pilgrimage to Israel, Jews
and Catholics stand on the edge of a new conversation, of a depth and range
unseen for more than nineteen hundred years. Jewish leaders throughout the
world have testified to the fact that John Paul II has been the best Pope for Jews
ever. And if this is surprising to some, it seems to the Pope himself an
expression of the veneration for the living Judaism he learned in his
boyhood, playing goalie on the local Jewish soccer team and occasionally
visiting the synagogue in his hometown, which was 20% Jewish.
John Paul II has canonized more saints than any Pope in history and beatified
hundreds of other servants of God--another surprise to some, and a practice
that has come under criticism. But the Pope, who thinks there is sanctity all
around us, believes that the "universal call to holiness" of which Vatican II
had spoken is being answered on every continent and among people in every
walk of life. God, he thinks, is quite profligate in making saints.
That same conviction about the abundance of grace has inspired John Paul's
enthusiastic endorsement of a host of lay renewal movements in the Church.
These movements--Focolare, Regnum Christi, the Neo-Catechumenal Way,
Communion and Liberation, among many others--make some bishops and Church
officials nervous; where did these movements of radical discipleship "fit" in
the organization chart? John Paul II is content to leave that question to
the future and has encouraged every new movement that has committed itself to
"thinking with the Church."
He is a Pope of many surprises. French journalist André Frossard
understood that when, shortly after John Paul's election, he wired his French
newspaper, "This is not a Pope from Poland. This is a Pope from Galilee." And
that, in retrospect, is the greatest surprise of all.