Pope John Paul II's death on Saturday has sparked an unprecedented focus on his teachings and those of the Catholic Church. In his life and in his death, the humble priest from Poland exemplified the precepts of a 2,000-year-old institution that has shaped much of the world for centuries. He stood for life against death. He championed the vulnerable over the powerful. And he resisted the siren call to abandon fidelity to tradition and Church doctrine -- which earned him numerous critics among the cultural elite, especially for his stance on human sexuality and the role of women in modern life.
Since 1978 when Pope John Paul II became pontiff, the Catholic Church has nearly doubled in membership from 757 million to some 1.1 billion, keeping rough pace with the growth in world population. Although Islam is generally referred to as the fastest-growing religion in the world, Moslems number less than a billion and are losing ground to Roman Catholics in some traditionally Muslim areas, including Africa. In 2003, the last year for which statistics are available, the Catholic population of Africa grew by 4.5 percent, for example. And even in the Americas (the Church measures North and South America as one entity), where Church membership grew by only 1.2 percent in 2003, the Church has been losing ground to conservative Evangelical Christian denominations, not to "progressive" mainline Protestantism. Indeed, the religious communities that are in deepest trouble in the United States are those that have most strayed from orthodox belief and practice, from Episcopalians, whose hierarchy have accepted the ordination of homosexuals and even their consecration as bishop, to Reform Judaism, the bulk of whose membership rarely shows up for services beyond the Jewish High Holy Days.
Pope John Paul II did not make it easier to be a Catholic in a modern, secular world. He asked that Catholics sacrifice, that they not be seduced by momentary pleasures, that they live for others rather than for themselves. He urged Catholics to put their faith at the center of their lives, not to relegate it to an hour a week, or worse, to an occasional holiday like Christmas or Easter. He expected Catholics to be an example to those who did not share their faith, and especially to those who lacked faith altogether. It was a tall order, but from the moment he assumed his office, Pope John Paul II promised that faithful Catholics would not be alone in their struggle.
Like the Teacher whose vicar on earth he was, John Paul II believed that we are all capable of leading better, more authentically Christian lives -- and his words and example remain with us even after he has departed this world.