'Santo Subito': the impact of John Paul II

'Santo Subito': the impact of John Paul II

Peter Westmore

It is a measure of the extraordinary impact of Pope John Paul II that over a million people filed past his open coffin in St Peter's Basilica before the massive queue was closed off to allow his funeral Mass to take place. And as many as four million people - many from as far afield as Poland - crowded into Rome, to attend his funeral or watch it on 24 giant video screens strategically placed around the city.

The Pope's requiem in St Peter's Square was a combination of splendid ceremony surrounding the utter simplicity of a plain cedar coffin, before a congregation of hundreds of thousands of people - presidents, prime ministers, patriarchs, prelates and pilgrims.

It was telecast around the world, and witnessed by hundreds of millions, even billions of people.

Perhaps the most extraordinary moment came with the cry of "Santo subito" (Sainthood immediately!), which spread throughout the congregation, echoing huge hand-painted banners held aloft by pilgrims during the Mass.

Simultaneously, some 800,000 people gathered in an open field in Krakow, the Polish city where Karol Wojtyla was archbishop before leaving to become Bishop of Rome and Pope of the universal Church.


In his eulogy, the principal celebrant, Cardinal Ratzinger, said: "The Holy Father was a priest to the last, for he offered his life to God for his flock and for the entire human family, in a daily self-oblation for the service of the Church, especially amid the sufferings of his final months. And in this way he became one with Christ, the Good Shepherd who loves his sheep."

Cardinal Ratzinger concluded: "None of us can ever forget how in that last Easter Sunday of his life, the Holy Father, marked by suffering, came once more to the window of the Apostolic Palace and one last time gave his blessing urbi et orbi.

"We can be sure that our beloved Pope is standing today at the window of the Father's house, that he sees us and blesses us. Yes, bless us, Holy Father. We entrust your dear soul to the Mother of God, your Mother, who guided you each day and who will guide you now to the eternal glory of her Son, our Lord Jesus Christ."

John Paul II emphasised the centrality of Jesus as Messiah, Redeemer and Son of God. Having lost his own mother as a boy of eight, he had particular devotion to the Virgin Mary.

Many people have said they want the next pope to be like John Paul II.

Before entering a self-imposed media blackout, many cardinals expressed the same view. French Cardinal Philippe Barbarin said the next pope "has to be able to communicate with rich, young people in countries like the United States and France. Then he needs to be able to relate to the poor when he goes to places like Brazil and Morocco, or Burkina Faso. He has to understand their sufferings, their difficulties, their challenges.

"John Paul II was that kind of Pope."

Another Cardinal, Wilfred Napier from South Africa, said: "We need another John Paul, a people's Pope, one who's especially got an appeal and a challenge for the youth."

Indonesia's Cardinal Julius Darmaatmadja said: "I feel that Pope John Paul was accepted by everyone, inside and outside the church community, and I think he was the Pope figure that could fulfil the hopes of everyone."

Cardinal George Pell told ABC radio: "I'm quite sure that the [Pope's] general line - fidelity to basic Catholic teachings - is absolutely unassailable."

And Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana said: "The Church needs a leader who'll be as true to its teachings as possible, even if it's the minority view. The Church doesn't survive by itself. It's God, it's Jesus who saves us. So it's His will which we recognise. And that can be a minority view and be rejected and be opposed."

Early life

John Paul II, born Karol Wojtyla in Poland in 1920. His boyhood was marked by family tragedies: his sister died at birth, his mother died when he was eight, his elder brother died shortly after graduating from medical school in a scarlet fever epidemic, and his father died when Karol was aged about 21.

The independent Poland into which he had been born suffered the barbarity of Nazi invasion in 1939, and an almost equally brutal Soviet Russian invasion in 1944. The Church alone remained as the protector of Polish culture and national identity.

Karol Wojtyla had a passionate interest in poetry and theatre, and at this time was very active in an underground theatre, as actor and producer of Polish plays which had been banned by the Nazi authorities.

He enrolled in an underground seminary during the Nazi occupation, while working as a factory labourer, and was ordained a priest just four years later. His archbishop then sent him to study in Rome from 1946 to 1948, and after a time working in a country parish, he was sent to lecture at the University of Lublin, the only non-government university at the time in Poland.

Despite constant efforts by the communist regime to control the Church, the Archbishop of Warsaw, Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski, insisted on being treated on the basis of equality, and was supported by both priests and people, preserving a degree of autonomy which the Church enjoyed in no other communist state.

Role as bishop

In 1958, at the age of 37, he was appointed an auxiliary bishop in Krakow, and as such was a participant in the Second Vatican Council, where he learned the fundamental distinction between the opinions of theologians, and the teachings of the Church.

During his period as Bishop and later as Archbishop of Krakow, Karol Wojtyla developed the skills in dealing with the communist regime which ultimately helped him bring it down. He subtly resisted the Government's constant efforts to control, undermine and subvert the Church, while all the time, offering to co-operate with it.

When the Polish Cardinal Karol Wojtyla was elected Pope in 1978, taking the name John Paul II, he was the first non-Italian to hold the office since 1523, when the Dutchman Adrian VI died just a year after being elected.

He led the Catholic Church for over 26 years, and by universal acknowledgement was one of the great leaders of the 20th and 21st centuries. On the international stage, the Polish pope was recognised as the person who brought about the disintegration of communism in Poland, and then throughout the Soviet empire. Lech Walesa, who founded Solidarity, the trade union-based movement which led the fight for freedom within Poland, said that the Pope's support gave Poles "the will for action" as they struggled to overthrow communism.

As Pope, John Paul II effected a peace treaty between Argentina and Chile, which ended the threat of war between these two Christian nations in South America. His was a voice of peace, and a powerful symbol of goodwill, evident in his outreach to Muslims, Jews, the Eastern Orthodox Churches, the Anglicans, and the Protestant Churches.

Within the Catholic Church, he addressed the sense of paralysis which engulfed the Church towards the end of Paul VI's pontificate, as the Church increasingly polarised between modernists and traditionalists. The Pope built up the middle ground through the force of his leadership and personality, as in the World Youth Days.

He reaffirmed the Church's traditional teachings on the indissolubility of marriage and on sex within marriage; he opposed abortion, euthanasia and human embryo experimentation, reconciled Catholicism with democracy, repudiated Marxist-influenced "liberation theology", and met the intellectual challenge of the Enlightenment by arguing that faith and reason were fully compatible.

In his biography, His Holiness, Carl Bernstein quoted one of the more liberal American churchmen, Archbishop Rembert Weakland, as saying, "The Church that he took over was a Church that he felt might just disintegrate, fall apart, because of the lack of stability."

Bernstein said John Paul II "realised that his stringent moral message had many critics inside and outside the Church, but he remained steadfast, and seemingly unconcerned. He could never compromise what he saw as the eternal truths of the church's precepts."

He added, "John Paul II felt obliged to teach the faithful and the clergy, not to let himself be influenced by their opinions."

Missionary pope

It was his role as a missionary pope, who energetically visited about 120 countries throughout the world as a head of state and as the spiritual leader of over a billion Catholics, that differentiated him most decisively from all his predecessors, and from other leaders of his time.

Pope Paul VI had commenced the process of international missionary activity, making about one international visit yearly, from 1964 to 1970. (He visited Australia, during a visit to the Middle East and Asia, in 1970.)

John Paul II understood that as the missionary Pope, he was able to speak directly to the people, bypassing the filters of the secular media and the church bureaucracy.

William Kristol, editor of the influential Washington-based magazine The Weekly Standard, summarised John Paul II's life in these words:

"What a man! What a life! As a man, John Paul II demonstrated a remarkable combination of deep piety and intellectual curiosity, of moral courage and human kindness.

"But what made John Paul II an extraordinary historical figure - one of the giants of the last half of the 20th century - was his central role in three distinct realms: in politics, religion, and ideas; in the life of the world, the life of his Church, and the life of the mind.

"To be a major figure in any of these is rare. To be central in all three areas is unique. No political leader did more than John Paul II to bring an end to the Cold War.

"No religious figure had more impact in the 20th century than John Paul II had on the Roman Catholic Church. And few thinkers confronted the philosophical crisis of modern humanism more directly than [Karol] Wojtyla."

He said John Paul II was the first modern pope "who tried to anchor modernity in truth, liberty, and respect for human dignity".

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