Peter's Successor

Pope John Paul II was a force of nature, a man of iron will and passionate spirituality, who was also blessed with a quick wit, a magnetic personality, and a fearless moral temperament.

There can be no gainsaying his extraordinary achievements, both on the world stage and as one of the most compelling Christian witnesses of our time. The millions who poured into Rome to view his body and attend his funeral were the most obvious testimony to the regard in which he was held by Catholics and non-Catholics alike. Countless words have now been written honoring this pope, and trying to explain the powerful effect Karol Wojtyla exerted over the sophisticated and the unsophisticated, over believers and nonbelievers, and perhaps especially over those seeking faith in a world where religious answers and religious authority can no longer be taken for granted. In his dying as in his life, John Paul made his love of and devotion to Christ real for others in the most intimate and undeniable ways.

Commonweal has asked commentators of different faiths and philosophical inclinations to reflect on the broad sweep of John Paul’s legacy. Over his long papacy this magazine has, of course, written extensively about John Paul, and a selection of that material is available online. Like any significant historical figure, this pope will only be truly understood in the course of time. He was, for many of his contemporaries, a figure of paradox, even contradiction. His unwavering defense of human freedom and his eagerness to engage thinkers of all persuasions too often stopped at the church’s doors. He traveled the world confronting tyrannical governments, but refused to listen to those calling for change, or at the very least dialogue, within his own house. He broke down barriers between Catholicism and other faiths, especially Judaism, but seemed determined, in his appointment of bishops and cardinals, not to permit pluralism a place at his own table. He gave the church the most accessible and compelling public face imaginable, yet turned a stony face toward many fellow Catholics.

Perhaps these contradictions are best understood in light of John Paul’s formative experience as a bishop in a Polish church that had to walk a delicate line between accommodation and confrontation in its struggles with a totalitarian regime. It was there that John Paul learned the virtues of church unity, discipline, and loyalty. Without those qualities, the Polish church would have been divided, undermined, and destroyed. Unfortunately, he seemed to take this model of an embattled church—one that could not brook public discord on internal church matters—and to employ it even when dealing with liberal democracy and modern secular culture. Some credit John Paul’s hard line on church discipline and theological dissent with revitalizing a moribund institution and forging a more cogent sense of Catholic identity. His critics note, more often in sorrow than anger, that there is little evidence that the church’s teachings are more broadly followed or deeply held after John Paul’s reign. More worrisome, there is even less evidence that, under his firm grip and long shadow, local churches are producing the kind of leaders needed in his absence.

One of the most acute comments on the pope’s passing was made by the Irish novelist Colm Toibin in the New York Times Magazine (“A Gesture Life,” April 10). Toibin described John Paul’s presence before a crowd of 1 million at the church of the Black Madonna in Poland in 1991. The pope’s hesitant yet sure movements, his practiced but effortless gait, were the work of a great actor, Toibin observed. The novelist was struck especially by how the pope’s facial expressions somehow conveyed humility and pride, loneliness and exhilaration. John Paul was “natural and improvised and also highly theatrical and professional. More than anything, [he] was unpredictable.” At one point during the Mass, the pope held the crowd’s attention for twenty minutes by merely holding his head in his hands. To Toibin’s mind, John Paul’s artful gestures provided “some mysterious example of what a spiritual life might look like.”

Toibin used his novelist’s gifts to render unmistakably what has been one of the most expressive faces of the last century. “His eyes understood and forgave everything,” Toibin writes, but “his mouth and the set of his chin forbade deviation and did not want there to be any change.”

Toibin’s description reminds us that Christ entrusted his church to Peter and his successors, to fallible human beings, not to oracles or gods. John Paul’s was an all too human face, one Catholics looked up to for more than a quarter century, and to whom we have now bid a wrenching goodbye. It is a face the church, and the world, will not soon forget.

April 12, 2005

Published in the 2005-04-22 issue: 
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