Saint John Paul?

A selection of Atlantic writings on Pope John Paul II offer insight into the man, his leadership style, and his far-reaching influence

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Exactly two years following the death of Pope John Paul II, the Catholic Church put forward its case for his beatification and canonization as a saint. Though John Paul was a controversial figure throughout his tenure—taking strong stands on divisive issues (inspiring some to hail him as a bulwark against degeneracy and others to repudiate him as a reactionary)—he was indisputably a force to be reckoned with. Three Atlantic articles about John Paul, one written early in his career, one in the mid-1990s, and the third several months before he died, offer insight into the man, his leadership style, and his far-reaching influence.

In "The Paradoxical Pope" (May 1980), Kati Marton assessed the then-new Church leader, and noted a worrisome contradiction in his character. She described his first triumphant appearance before throngs of people at the Vatican:

It was just before seven in the evening, October 16, 1978. Floodlights bathed the center balcony in front of St. Peter's Basilica…. A large, athletic-looking man with a strong Slavic face appeared on the balcony. The impact of his presence was immediate and electric. He spoke to the people in their own tongue….
Pope John Paul II, history's first Polish pope and the first non-Italian to sit on the throne of St. Peter since 1522, conquered Rome that evening. It was a flawless beginning. It would not be long before newspaper headlines around the world pronounced John Paul the Pontiff with the whole world in his hands.

It soon became clear, however, that despite his personal warmth and charisma, when it came to Church dogma he was stern and intractably conservative—reviving the doctrine of papal infallibility, and censuring Church officials he perceived to be excessively liberal. Marton wondered whether perhaps his rigidity could be partly attributed to his years in Poland, where the Church had had to cling fiercely to traditionalism in order to hold its own against communism.

Questions of birth control, abortion, divorce, the ordination of women, wayward theologians, empty churches, deserted seminaries, or priests straining to get married are all strange concepts for the Polish clergy. Polish bishops tend to hammer out any differences in private, then unite under the primate. This is not ecclesiastical democracy but a kind of top-down discipline that remains their formula for survival.

Despite her reservations about such doctrinaire tendencies, Marton remained hopeful that "things may yet change in the Vatican." Time, she speculated, might open John Paul's mind: "It is early in his pontificate to make broad judgments about John Paul II. There is still room for optimism about a man so richly endowed."

Fourteen years later, in "What Would the World Be Like Without Him?" (July 1994), the journalist Robin Wright accompanied Pope John Paul on a visit to the former Soviet Union, and reported both on the trip itself and on the larger question of John Paul's role in the post-Cold War world. Physically, Wright noted, John Paul had become far less robust than he had once been.

Now seventy-four, the Pope has visibly aged since I first traveled with him, early in his papacy. The firm skin around his chiseled Slavic face has softened, and the gray hair has turned white. His stoop is more pronounced, and the talk around the Vatican is that life would probably be easier for him—and his staff—if he tried glasses and a hearing aid. Members of his inner circle used to boast that the Pope got up at 5:00 A.M., said first mass at seven, hosted guests at all three meals, read the last briefing paper from his Secretary of State late into the night and on weekends walked, skied, hiked, or swam. Now the same hours and habits worry them.

But he showed little inclination to succumb to his physical limitations, and Wright saw in his indomitable nature much to admire. Regardless of his contentious stances on such issues as abortion, contraception, homosexuality, and divorce, she argued, the fact that he had succeeded in fashioning himself, against formidable odds, into a powerful opponent of communism and a defender of the downtrodden everywhere was to be commended.

What fascinated me was … the way that this obscure Pole, elected on the eighth ballot to head the world's smallest state, has gone on, with a mixture of cunning and daring, to become a global leader—and not just among the Catholic faithful. Although John Paul II vehemently eschews political involvement, his reign—already almost twice as long as the papal average of eight years—is likely to be remembered most for the way he has helped reshape the world.

Wright recounted an exchange she had had with a Lithuanian man whose Catholic faith had buoyed him in his resistance against communism during the Cold War. Is there really any place for religion in the modern world? she asked.

"Spiritual values are basic to the restoration of democracy," [he] protested. "The more important side of spiritual values or morality, of behavior, and of the attitudes of one human person to another, to society, to work, to responsibility—all of this must be restored now in post-communist countries."
"So this Pope could still have an impact?"
"What," he responded, "would the world be like without him?"

In 2004, in an article published seven months before John Paul II died, Paul Elie took stock of the succession process, arguing that the Pope had made such an indelible impact on the papacy that it was almost impossible to picture someone else taking his place. John Paul II, Elie wrote, was a man "whose outsize character has dwarfed the men who surround him." He continued,

The pontificate of John Paul II is recognized as a distinct chapter in the Church's history; and it is clear that the papacy, and the Church, bear the strong impression of his character: a blend of deep faith and shrewd calculation, of nationalism and cosmopolitanism, of charm and blunt rhetorical force, of doctrinal fixity and personal daring.

Though many may not agree with the direction in which John Paul has taken the Church, Elie wrote, it would be difficult to question the strength of the Pope's religious conviction or to remain untouched by the strength of his example. And it is in the Pope's "authentic" religious belief—more even than in the changes he has wrought on the Church—that his true legacy lies.

All but his fiercest critics would concede that John Paul is not the Antichrist, not an agent of political reaction, but a true believer who sees it as his mission to ensure that when the Son of Man comes, he will find faith on earth. To those who think that a Pope's claim to a special role among Christians is ridiculous, John Paul has put forward his life and self as a rejoinder. It is possible to believe that he has drawn some wrong conclusions from Catholicism's premises—to wish that his pontificate had brought a different set of surprises—and yet at the same time be prompted to a more authentic faith by his example, the witness of a person who is obviously worthy of the office he occupies.