Pope John Paul II, one of the most revered popes in history, died Saturday. He was 84.
The pope’s passing came after years of suffering and numerous illnesses. His brave, stoic body had been ravaged by Parkinson’s disease, respiratory problems and ultimately, heart and kidney failure. Even in his suffering the Holy Father remained an inspiration to millions of Catholics, as he embodied Christ’s suffering on behalf of his flock.
As John Paul wrote in his 1984 encyclical, On the Christian Meaning of Human Suffering, he viewed suffering as “a source of joy” because “faith in sharing the suffering of Christ brings with it the interior certainty that the suffering person…is serving, like Christ, the salvation of his brothers and sisters. Therefore he is carrying out an irreplaceable service.”
The Holy See’s death marks a watershed moment both in Vatican history and that of the West. The world has lost not only a great religious and moral leader, but one of its pre-eminent theologians and philosophers, as well.
John Paul, a native of Poland, took the Catholic world by storm when he was elected the 264th pope on Oct. 16, 1978. From the beginning, at the tender age of 58, he made history by being the youngest pope ever and the first non-Italian pope in 455 years to be entrusted with St. Peter’s keys.
John Paul, best known for his principled opposition to abortion, contraception, gay marriage and euthanasia, refused to cower to contemporary liberal trends. His unyielding Catholic orthodoxy throughout his 26-year tenure angered left-wing radicals both from within and outside the Catholic Church. His determination to promote a culture of life, although unpopular in liberal media circles, won him the adoration of millions throughout the world, specially among younger generations.
Christened Karol Joseph Wojtyla, he was born on May 18, 1920, in Wadowice, Poland. From a very young age, Wojtyla experienced suffering and hardship. His mother died in labor when he was 9. Three years later, his brother, Edmund, died of a scarlet fever. Growing up under the threat of Nazi Germany, Wojtyla and his father moved to Krakow, where he studied philosophy and was involved in a theater group at Jagiellonian University.
From the outset, Wojtyla demonstrated a fierce commitment to democracy and human rights that would characterize his papacy. He was an unyielding opponent of totalitarianism, devoting his life to defeating both Nazism and Soviet Communism.
When Adolf Hitler’s troops invaded Poland on Sept.1,1939, Wojtyla’s university theater went underground. At 19, he worked as a stonecutter and in a quarry while secretly continuing his studies and writing poetry. He then worked at a chemical plant before becoming active in UNIA, a Christian underground group.
In 1941, Wojtyla entered the priesthood through Krakow’s underground seminary, where he became blacklisted by the Nazis in 1944 when he disappeared from the chemical plant. He was then ordained in 1946 and sent to study at the Angelicum University in Rome. In 1962, he became archbishop of Krakow. And in 1967, Pope Paul VI elevated Wojtyla to cardinal after his impressive contribution to the Second Vatican Council of 1962-1967 in which he assisted in writing four of the major documents, notably, Gaudium et Spes (The Pastoral Constitution of the Church in the Modern World) and Lumen Gentium (The Light of the People).
On Wojtyla’s ascension to the papacy, he dedicated himself to promoting a culture of life, crying out for the end of abortion. His papacy was marked with an unyielding conviction for the respect and dignity of every life, from the moment of conception until natural death. He even went so far as to defy the Clinton administration’s attempts to spread abortion and contraception programs throughout the Third World. And most recently denounced the removal of Terri Schiavo’s feeding tube.
Throughout his 26-year reign, John Paul traveled extensively throughout the world, making a total of more than 100 trips outside Italy — a record that exceeds more travel than all of his 262 predecessors combined. In 1979, he made his first trip overseas to Mexico, where he confronted and warned against the evils of Marxism-influenced liberation theology of Latin America. He also visited the United States seven times. Moreover, he was the first pope to visit the Holy Land and the first to apologize for Catholic wrongs toward other religions — notably apologizing for the wrongs inflicted on Jews during the Holocaust.
Pope John Paul II was also one of the most prolific pontificates, writing 14 encyclicals and numerous apostolic letters. One of his most famous encyclicals is Vertitatis Splendor (The Splendor of Light), which condemns moral relativism and anchors truth in Jesus Christ. Other groundbreaking encyclicals include Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life) which condemns abortion, contraception, euthanasia and all that he coins, “the culture of death.” Also prominent is Fides et Ratio (Faith and Reason), in which he argues that science and absolute truth can coexist harmoniously. And in his last encyclical, Ecclesia de Eucharistia (On the Eucharist in its Relationship to the Church) published in April 2003, the pontiff outlined the significance of the Eucharist and its relationship to the Church. His last apostolic letter, Rosarium Virginis Mariae (Rosary of the Virgin Mary), was a tribute to the Virgin Mary and the rosary. The apostolic letter introduces a new mystery called “The Luminous Mysteries,” which, unlike the other mysteries which focus on Christ’s birth, death and resurrection, highlights Christ’s ministry on earth. The pope’s last work, Memory and Identity: Conversations at the Dawn of a New Millennium, which has been released in the United States this month, assessed the legacies of Nazism and Stalinism within the broader context of today’s evils–such as abortion and Islamic fascism.
Among John Paul II’s most remarkable contributions to the twentieth century was his help in bringing down communism. He supported the Catholic-based solidarity labor uprising in Poland, and his friendship with Polish communist leaders led them to secretly introduce him to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. John Paul also befriended President Ronald Reagan during his trips to the United States, where the two repeatedly spoke out against the evils of communism. These two remarkable men, along with British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, were pivotal in bringing down the Soviet Empire.
John Paul also had other diplomatic triumphs. He denounced Serb strongman Slobodan Milosevic’s genocidal campaign in the Balkans, drawing the world’s attention to Belgrade’s aggression against Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo. He was a strong friend of Israel, and his papacy marked an historic turning point in improved relations between the Vatican and the Jewish state. Under his leadership, the Church gained millions of converts across Africa.
Despite being diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease nearly 15 years ago, he continued to preach the Gospel of life even if it meant taking unpopular positions. He criticized the rampant materialism and consumerism in the West, warning against the excesses of technology and capitalism. It was not the free market that John Paul opposed. Rather, it was the growing tendency across Europe and the United States to place the cash nexus and personal gratification above humanity’s transcendental moral destiny.
Moreover, he opposed most forms of war on the grounds that it violated the sanctity of life, except in cases of national self-defense. He was a leading critic of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, preferring to use diplomacy and moral suasion instead of force in dealing with Arab dictators.
Before his death, John Paul appointed 31 cardinals in October 2003, leaving only five who were not named during his pontificate. As a result, it is likely that the next conclave will elect a pope who is sympathetic to John Paul’s legacy. Of those considered papabili — Italian slang for “popeable” — the two most frequently mentioned are Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, the archbishop of Milan, and Cardinal Francis Arinze, a Vatican official from Nigeria.
Pope John Paul II’s life has transformed Christendom and inspired millions around the globe. Revered by Christian and secular leaders alike, his legacy will continue to call people to a life of radical conversion to Christ. This religious icon, who chose as the motto for his pontificate: “Do not be afraid,” heroically lived up to many of the challenges of his time. Although he will be greatly missed, his legacy will far outlive his extraordinary pontificate.