John Paul II

Assessing His Legacy

From the outset, John Paul II had a two-fold mission as pope: to bring the insights and values of the suffering church of the East (especially Poland) to the comfortable churches of the West, and to bring an end to what conservative cardinals and bishops at the time of his election regarded as the postconciliar drift of the church—an implied, if not a pointed, criticism of Pope Paul VI.

John Paul II believed that his election in 1978 was fraught with immense historical and providential significance. He recalled what his fellow Pole, Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski, had told him: “If the Lord has called you, you must lead the church into the third millennium.” And so it happened.

A key part of John Paul II’s grand pastoral design was to unite the spiritual forces of the world’s three monotheistic faiths—Christianity, Judaism, and Islam—against the common enemies of materialism and secularism. With regard to Islam, he (unsuccessfully) sought cooperation rather than confrontation. He even inserted criticism of the ongoing Persian Gulf War into his 1991 encyclical Centesimus annus (n. 52).

John Paul II boldly reached out to Jews. He was the first pope to visit the chief synagogue in Rome and was also the first to open formal diplomatic relations with the State of Israel. In a dramatic ceremony in St. Peter’s Basilica in March 2000, he publicly asked forgiveness...

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About the Author

Rev. Richard P. McBrien, the Crowley-O’Brien Professor of Theology at the University of Notre Dame, is the author of Catholicism and The Church: The Evolution of Catholicism, both published by HarperOne.