Today, we celebrate the feast day of Pope St. John Paul II, whose pontificate was the third-longest ever and who was canonized just nine years after his death, making his the shortest canonization cause in modern Church history. John Paul II was a pope who broke many other records. If we try to imagine what the world and the Church would be like today if on October 16, 1978, the College of Cardinals had elected someone else to lead the Barque of Peter, we would have a dramatically different reality. Here are just a few of the most important ways in which St. John Paul II changed the Church and the world forever.
He played a pivotal role in ending communism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. John Paul II did not single-handedly defeat the Soviet empire. The Soviets’ internal economic decay, the bold leadership of Ronald Reagan, and the fact that the Soviets did not invade Poland in 1980 as they did Hungary in 1956 all were crucial factors that led to the reunification of Europe and the end of the Cold War. However, why did the end of European communism begin in Poland with the rise of Solidarity? It is a widely accepted historical fact that Pope John Paul II’s 1979 nine-day visit to his native Poland gave hope to his nation and inspired his countrymen to assertively fight for their rights. The documentary Nine Days That Changed the World does a beautiful job of showing the political impact of this visit. British historian Timothy Garton Ash, who covered the rise of Solidarity for the English-language press (and who himself regards himself as an “agnostic liberal”) has written: “I would argue the historical case in three steps: without the Polish Pope, no Solidarity revolution in Poland in 1980; without Solidarity, no dramatic change in Soviet policy towards Eastern Europe under Gorbachev; without that change, no velvet revolutions in 1989.”
John Paul II dealt lethal blows to many dictatorships. With the exception of communist Cuba, most countries in Latin America today enjoy democracy. Today, Chile is a member of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, the “rich countries club,” while Brazil’s middle class has soared by 40 percent in the past decade. In 1978, however, that was not so. Most countries in the region were ruled by ruthless military dictatorships. In 1987, John Paul II visited Chile, where he made many gestures supporting the pro-democratic opposition, and asked the country’s dictator General Augusto Pinochet to step down. A few months later, Pinochet held a referendum asking the Chilean people if they want a return to civilian rule (which they did). Meanwhile, in 1983, the pontiff visited Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, then ruled by the extravagant dictator “Baby Doc” Duvalier. John Paul condemned the poverty and political violence, and shortly thereafter the Haitians rose up and drove Duvalier out of the country. In addition to Latin America, John Paul II’s visit to the Philippines, ruled by dictator Ferdinand Marcos, influenced the local Church to lead a successful nonviolent revolution against the dictatorship. The late archbishop of Manila Cardinal Jaime Sin, the informal leader of the Philippine People Power Revolution, said he was inspired above all by John Paul II and Solidarity.
The Church’s relationship to other religions has changed forever. Before the Second Vatican Council, relations between Catholics and Jews were quite difficult. Until the pontificate of St. John XXIII, Catholics prayed for the conversion of the “perfidious Jews” during the Good Friday liturgy. Today, relations between the Church and the Jews are arguably the best they have been in 2,000 years. St. John Paul II became the first pope to make an official visit to a synagogue, to establish diplomatic relations between the Holy See and Israel, and to condemn anti-Semitism as a sin. Repeatedly during his pontificate, John Paul proved to be a friend of the Jews. When the pontiff died, the Jewish world was in mourning, feeling it had lost a brother and protector. Similarly, he became the first pope to visit a Protestant church. The dignitary who had the most audiences with St. John Paul II was the Dalai Lama; the Polish pope and the Tibetan Buddhist monk both came from ancient nations that experienced communist oppression imposed by their powerful neighbors, and so they seemed to share a special “ecumenism of blood.”
Christian unity, while still a long way off, is closer than ever before. I make an effort to regularly pray for the unity of all Christians, and if you do not, I encourage you to do so as well. God wants unity, and not divisions. While the prospects of this actually happening anytime soon seem unlikely, St. John Paul II certainly moved things forward. Earlier this year, Pope Francis travelled to Armenia, the world’s oldest Christian nation, where most people belong to the Armenian Apostolic Church. There, he signed an agreement with Catholicos Karekin II in which the two men agreed to work towards “full communion” between their respective Churches. This would not have been possible without a declaration signed between John Paul II and the previous catholicos, in which they agreed on a shared definition of Christ’s nature, the biggest theological obstacle to full communion between Rome and Etchmiadzin (where the headquarters of the Armenian Apostolic Church are located).
Similarly, in the 1990s John Paul II vigorously worked for full reconciliation between Rome and the Church of England. While the likelihood of such a reconciliation has become increasingly remote in recent years, as the C of E has abandoned traditional teachings on morality and on the nature of the priesthood, John Paul’s efforts paved the way for Pope Benedict XVI in 2009 to establish ordinariates for Anglicans who wish to swim the Tiber.
John Paul II also became the first pope to visit Orthodox-majority countries such as Romania and Greece.
John Paul II brought the Gospel to more people than anyone since St. Peter. In all likelihood, St. John Paul II was seen by more people in person than any other figure in world history. He not only travelled widely across Italy and visited almost all of Rome’s parishes (in addition to leading the global Church, the pope is also the bishop of Rome and primate of Italy); John Paul visited two-thirds of the world’s countries. As we saw before, his visits to communist Poland and nations governed by military dictators had enormous political consequences. Difficult political situations were no deterrent to papal travel: for example, John Paul II was the only major head of state to visit East Timor during its brutal occupation by Indonesia (consequently, many East Timorese men born after the visit are named John Paul). However, John Paul II made a point of not only visiting countries on the “peripheries,” but of bringing the Gospel to rich nations threatened by the cult of Mammon as well: after his native Poland, the nations John Paul II paid the most visits to were France (which over the past two centuries had rejected its ancient Christian roots) and the United States. Even nations with tiny Catholic populations, like Jamaica and Finland, were honored with papal visits.
He invented World Youth Day, which is bringing about real rejuvenation where the Church needs it most. When Pope John Paul II decided to hold World Youth Day in Denver in 1993, the American bishops begged him to reconsider. Young Americans don’t care about their faith, they argued, and the event will be a big public relations flop. How wrong they were! While vocations to the priesthood and religious life in the United States are at a lower level than they were 50 years ago, they have picked up significantly in recent years after reaching a nadir in the mid-1990s, right before World Youth Day was held stateside. Since a third of current American seminarians have cited WYD as an influence on their vocation, this correlation cannot be coincidental. World Youth Day in Sydney in 2008 proved to be a similar booster shot to the Church in Australia, where vocations and youth engagement in Catholicism are on the rise, while post-Catholic Spain has also seen a growth in vocations since WYD 2011 in Madrid. Both Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis have continued to celebrate World Youth Day, and it looks like the event is here to stay. Meanwhile, the Church will continue reaping the good fruits.
The papacy became a voice that matters in the world. Encompassing an area of 109 acres, the Holy See is the world’s smallest state. Central Park in New York City is almost eight times bigger. Thanks to St. John Paul II, however, the tiny Vatican microstate has arguably gained the most global influence since the Renaissance. “How many divisions has the pope?” Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin once famously said, scoffing at the notion that the Roman priest-monarch could have any real impact on the world. John Paul II proved Stalin wrong. From Poland to El Salvador, his travels often had explosive consequences. When John Paul II spoke at the United Nations or at the European Parliament, people listened. In 2003, even the New York Times thought that John Paul II would be an appropriate candidate to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. It is telling that after John Paul II’s death both George W. Bush and Hugo Chavez praised the late pope.
He gave a bold example of uncompromising leadership, something rare in our world. The late British journalist and intellectual (and Catholic convert) Malcolm Muggeridge once said that only dead fish swim with the stream. Most political leaders today are dead fish, changing their minds based on what the polling data says. John Paul II, however, was always true to his convictions. He did not care if the op-ed page of the Guardian, La Repubblica, or the New York Times criticized his defense of the unborn or if Condoleezza Rice was disappointed that the pope did not back the invasion of Iraq. To the late pope, the Gospels, and not current trends, were what mattered the most. The final chapter of John Paul II’s pontificate, however, was perhaps the most countercultural. Today, we live in an age that glorifies physical beauty and youth and that is afraid of suffering. Most people want to be like Dorian Gray in Oscar Wilde’s famous novel and remain young and beautiful forever. In most Western countries, the vast majority of children with Down syndrome are killed in the womb. There is growing support to legalize euthanasia not only for the terminally ill, but also for those who simply have become weary of living. On the contrary, John Paul II embraced his suffering and illness from Parkinson’s disease and other ailments. His disease and death were very public. This resonated in hearts around the world, judging by the millions who flocked to Rome in the spring of 2005 to attend the biggest funeral in human history.
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