John Paul II

Assessing His Legacy

Pope John Paul II will be remembered for his service as a public witness who, by the strength of his personality and intellect—and the scope of his office—was able to command the world’s attention. Simply by traveling, as pope, he reinforced the concept that Catholicism is a church of the world, both in breadth and, increasingly, in orientation.

He worked tirelessly to proclaim the truth about human freedom, the common good, and the nature of the human person, and his genuine pastoral stature often carried the day, even when the specifics of this “truth” were questioned. While Vatican watchers will observe that his papacy was a “referendum” on Vatican II (and it was), for rank-and-file Catholics, the spotlight was less on the church in the modern world as a source of “joy and hope” than on John Paul II himself as a media celebrity. In the end, this actor-turned-pope didn’t need to render a verdict on Vatican II—he simply upstaged it.

And his will be a hard act to follow: the footlights are bright with public attention, the script well known, and the chorus voices primed for their cue. What will endure, the extraordinary Catholic humanism that gave such integrity to his vision, or the dogmatic certainty, which too often gave a narrow and even sectarian cast to an otherwise generous catholicity?

The gift of this papacy has been its public face: the stadium Masses...

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About the Author

Nancy A. Dallavalle is associate professor of Religious Studies and vice president for Mission and Identity at Fairfield University.