Born 84 years ago in Krakow, Poland, Karol Wojtyla became in 1978 the first Slavic pope. He took the name John Paul II.
The data of his papacy stagger the mind:
- The 20th century's longest-tenured pope (26 years) - indeed he served longer than just two of his 263 predecessors, one of whom was St. Peter.
- The first pope even to enter a synagogue or mosque.
- The most traveled pope: He journeyed the equivalent of 30 times around the world, or three times to the moon.
- The most prolific pope: He gave 19,000 addresses, a heavy percentage of which he wrote; he authored dicta, bestsellers, and poetry.
- The pope who beatified and canonized more individuals than the total for all the popes during the preceding half-millennium.
Yet beyond the data, what manner of man was this Karol Wojtyla?
The first words out of his mouth to milling throngs awaiting the name of the new pope outside St. Peter's were: "Be not afraid." By several accounts he ended his papacy, and his life, with "Amen!" - the thus-it-is word, the so-be-it word, the all-encompassing "Yes!"
Prior to his papacy he had endured three evils - Nazism, communism, and a Marxist "liberation theology." With Nazism (fascism) destroyed by arms decades before, John Paul lit the spark that imploded the Soviet bloc. The collapse of communism meant necessarily the unmasking of liberation theology as the empty, secular, God-is-dead humanism that it is - and thereby a homeless beggar (one hand extended in supplication, the other clutching a badly concealed bottle) in a godly realm.
In blowing taps for communism, John Paul played in a formidable geopolitical quartet comprising Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. Without their harmony, their music would have been far less compelling and The Wall - the walls - likely would not have come tumbling down.
The pope may have played lead chair. A disparaging Stalin asked: "The pope? How many divisions has he got?" A perhaps prophetic Brezhnev worried: "(If not neutralized, a church led by the Polish pope) sooner or later would gag in our throats (and) suffocate us." In 1992, a dethroned Gorbachev said: "What has happened in Eastern Europe in recent years would not have been possible without the presence of this pope."
Culturally and within the 1.l-billion Roman Catholic Church, John Paul amassed a record more mixed. But throughout he held fast to - was guided by - truths relating to both man and God. Truths are of course true. They are not relative but absolute. His definitive "Splendor of Truth" defended absolute truth against the situational convenience of ethical, moral, and theological relativism. He believed deeply in the power of truth to transform.
He did not tolerate the intolerable. He deplored slavery, the Holocaust, the Church's Inquisition. He opposed equally the hydra of totalitarianism and an amoral capitalism. As he symbolized both dissent and resistance to tyranny, so he championed liberty of the individual within the discipline of God's truth-imposed parameters. Having survived a KGB murder plot in 1981, he championed a "culture of life."
During John Paul's tenure, the European church practically dissolved. Today, churches within blocks of the Vatican stand nearly empty. Weekly church attendance in Europe is about one-third that of the United States (15 percent vs. 44 percent); ditto the number of Europeans (21 percent) declaring religion "very important" to them, vs. Americans (59 percent). Priestly sexual predation against the young (mostly boys), has devastated Catholicism here and in Europe; priesthood recruitment and retention are plunging. Key reformist American Catholics complained bitterly about the pope's perceived doctrinal conservatism.
The truth is, testified this mastodon from Krakow, that God is very much alive. He lives.