Pope John Paul II died at 9.37pm on 2nd April, ending the reign of the 265th pope. 

He was born Karol Wojytla in 1920 in the Polish village of Wadowice, 50 kilometres from Krakow. His father was a retired non-commissioned Polish army officer; his Lithuanian mother, a schoolteacher, died when he was eight. At 19, when the Nazis invaded Poland, he was condemned to forced labour in a chemical factory and a quarry. By 1942 he had lost all his immediate family.

Ordained a priest in 1947, Wojyta was installed as Archbishop of Krakow in 1964, and created a cardinal (by Pope Paul VI) in 1967. He was inaugurated Pope on 16 October 1978 at the age of 58, young by papal standards. Two previous popes inspired his chosen name: John XXIII, the reforming genius behind the Second Vatican Council of 1962-65, and Paul I, his immediate predecessor who ruled for only 33 days. John Paul was the first non-Italian to take up the symbolic crook of St Peter in 455 years, and the first ever Slav. Significantly, he was the third-longest reigning pope in the 2,000-year tradition of his church.


SYDNEY 1986: Australia was just one of 129 countries visited by Pope John Paul II during his pontificate. He was the most widely traveled pope in history. PICTURE: Ramon Williams

Perhaps one of the keys to John Paul’s vision lies in words he uttered at his inauguration. "Fear not," he said, "Open wide the doors to Christ and his authority of salvation. Open the frontiers of states, [of] economic and political systems, of broad domains of culture [and] civilisation [and] development."

John Paul the people’s priest
John Paul possessed an immense personal magnetism that endeared him to crowds. Within days of his inauguration, his papal staff realised that times had changed. In place of stuffiness and isolation, he brought joy and engagement. He took to swimming and mountain skiing. He kissed children on the forehead and touched visitors on the arm in greeting. He talked freely with journalists. He was a dynamic evangelist and skilled apologist. He loved mass rallies where his oratory and theatrical skills could be displayed.

His motto was Totus tuus - "entirely yours." He travelled the globe as no predecessor had done. It was his custom, on arriving in a new country, to kneel and kiss the ground, apparently in honour of those he was visiting. After surviving an attempted assassination by Turkish gunman Mehmet Ali Agka in St Peter’s Square in 1981, he sat humbly with his would-be killer in a prison cell in an act of forgiveness and attempted reconciliation.

Cardinal George Pell has called him "one of the greatest Christian pastors in history." It is true that during his reign the number of Catholics around the world rose by over 40 per cent to about 1.1 billion. But the statistics are not all good, for it is also true that, during the same period, more than 100,000 priests left the Catholic priesthood, most apparently because they were unable to accept the pope’s insistence on priestly celibacy. As always, John Paul remained resolute. Faced with revelations of widespread and entrenched sexual abuse of parishioners by Catholic priests, in 2001 he formally apologised to victims, and confessed that "As priests we are personally and profoundly afflicted by the sins of our brothers who have betrayed the grace of ordination."

Even with advancing age, John Paul maintained the adulation of the faithful. We recall television images of his last years and months, voice slurred, face expressionless, hands trembling, unable to walk, eventually unable to breathe without assistance. His willingness to allow people to observe his humanity, to witness his physical suffering, only strengthened his appeal. He was a faithful priest and pastor, in word and deed, to the day of his death.

And yet he was also an authoritarian and disciplinarian at heart, arguably one of the most illiberal and reactionary popes of the twentieth century.

John Paul the moral theologian
No one doubts John Paul’s capacity for intellectual labour or the breadth of his interests. He preached more than 4,000 sermons, and produced something like thirty pages of prose for every day of his 26-year pontificate. In his 1994 best-selling book, Crossing the Threshold of Hope, he identified a common thread running through this large body of work. His concern was to affirm "the value of existence, the value of creation and of hope in the future life." For him, the twentieth century witnessed a fundamental rejection of human dignity, and it was the church’s responsibility to call people to a Christian understanding of human persons as created in the image of God and constituted as moral beings with the freedom to realise their full spiritual and moral potential.

In his formal teaching, John Paul reinforced the traditional teaching of the church and addressed a broad range of contemporary moral and social issues. Most notable among his 14 encyclicals are Redemptor Hominis (Redeemer of Humankind, 1979), Laborem Exercens (On Human Work, 1981), Sollicitudo Rei Socialis (On Human Concerns, 1988), Centesimus Annus (The Hundredth Year, 1991), Veritatis Splendor (The Splendour of Truth, 1993) and Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life, 1995). Each of these is worthy of careful reading and reflection, offering rich resources for dialogue.

"He championed human rights, speaking for the oppressed, the unborn and others who cannot speak for themselves."

John Paul advanced the cause of ecumenism. The official conversations between the Vatican and the Baptist World Alliance are, in part, a result of this. He also encouraged interreligious dialogue, especially with Muslims and with Jews. In 1986, he arranged a gathering of 150 world religious leaders at Assisi, the birthplace of St Francis, including Buddhist, Japanese Shintoists and Native American representatives.

He championed human rights, speaking for the oppressed, the unborn and others who cannot speak for themselves. His worldview and mission led him to consistently oppose contraception (even in the face of a global AIDS epidemic), sex outside of heterosexual marriage, divorce, abortion and euthanasia; he coined the term "the culture of death." He defended marriage and the family, and developed a significant "theology of the body," dealing with sexual ethics. He has been generally anti-war, in particular opposing both Iraq wars and warning George W. Bush, "God is not on your side if you invade Iraq." He also upheld patriarchy and hierarchy within the church, insisted on mandatory celibacy for male priests, and refused to allow moves toward the ordination of female priests.

After 359 years of condemnation by the church for insisting on the scandalous heresy that the earth revolved around the sun, Galileo was finally rehabilitated in 1992. Also in that year the pope issued a new universal catechism, the first revision in five centuries. In 2002 he marked his 24th jubilee by revising the prescribed way in which rosary prayers are recited, the first change of this kind in nine centuries.

Central to John Paul’s vision has been the question of the meaning of human life and, in particular, of suffering. In his final weeks and days, the world witnessed the pope’s physical and emotional suffering more intimately than ever before. The one who had defended the rights of the oppressed, the unborn and those who cannot speak for themselves now demonstrated by his silent example how to suffer and die with human dignity, "serenely abandoning himself to God’s will," as the Vatican media put it.

John Paul the global statesman
No previous pope travelled as widely or as frequently as John Paul II. The world was literally his parish. He visited 129 countries, although not Russia or China. Nor did any previous pope understand the nature and power of mass media, or exploit it to such advantage. Where earlier popes had merely dabbled in secular politics – or had standing armies – this pope walked the world stage as an eminent statesman as well as a spiritual leader.

As a young man John Paul watched his country overrun first by the German armies and then by Stalin’s Red Army. More than three decades later, in June 1979, as newly inaugurated pontiff, he preached to more than a million people in Victory Square, Warsaw, in the heart of communist Poland. "Come, Holy Spirit," he called, "fill the hearts of the faithful and renew the face of the earth."

Then he added in his distinctive, sonorous voice, "Of this earth," indicating with a gesture the people gathered to hear him, and Eastern Europe, and the wide world. If there was a defining moment in his pontificate, suggests Vatican expert John Cornwell, "it was that declaration of liberation made in the heart of his oppressed homeland."

John Paul will be remembered as the person who championed the banned Solidarity trade union movement in his native Poland in 1987, instigating and assisting a process that led to the eventual collapse of the Soviet empire. He was instrumental in encouraging Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev to implement his program of democratising reforms known as perestroika. Baroness Margaret Thatcher remarked that "he was the moral force behind victory in the cold war."

"No previous pope travelled as widely or as frequently as John Paul II. The world was literally his parish. He visited 129 countries, although not Russia or China. Nor did any previous pope understand the nature and power of mass media, or exploit it to such advantage. Where earlier popes had merely dabbled in secular politics - or had standing armies – this pope walked the world stage as an eminent statesman as well as a spiritual leader."

There were other diplomatic victories. In 1982 he visited Britain and Argentina, urging the two nations to negotiate a peaceful end to the Falklands War. In Chile, hours before meeting him, John Paul publicly blasted General Augusto Pinochet’s military government as dictatorial, and was widely credited as influencing his downfall. He advocated human rights in the Philippines in the presence of President Ferdinand Marcos. In 1984 he publicly denounced apartheid in South Africa. In 1986 he crossed the Tiber River to the Rome Synagogue, the first papal visit to a Jewish place of worship. In 1992, Israel and the Vatican forged full diplomatic ties after hostilities reaching back two millennia. In Syria in May 2001 he became the first pope to enter a mosque.

This pope also elevated more than 470 of the faithful to sainthood, and beatified 1300 others. It has been said that he declared more people saintly and holy than all of his predecessors combined. This has undoubtedly left an indelible mark on ecclesiastical history, and signals the triumph of the gospel over distinctions of race, class and gender.

While it is premature to call the late pontiff "John Paul the Great," there is an aura of greatness about his person and his legacy. Let us leave the hagiography to future historians, and be content in the knowledge that John Paul II was indeed an extraordinarily gifted Christian man, and an extraordinary gift to the church of Jesus Christ at a critical moment in its existence in the world.

Rev Rod Benson is the director of the Centre for Christian Ethics at Morling College in Sydney.