After 25 years: the impact of John Paul II's pontificate

After 25 years: the impact of John Paul II's pontificate

Michael Gilchrist

As the 25th anniversary of Pope John Paul II's accession to the See of Peter - on 16 October 1978 - approaches, it is timely to consider, albeit very briefly, his impact to date on the Church and world.

Already numerous biographies have been published, notable among them those of George Weigel and Carl Bernstein/Marco Politi. But it will be many years before anything remotely definitive can be written. For the Pope's eventual legacy will be vast and complex and a major challenge to any would-be biographer.

The contrast today between the vigorous, youthful-looking Pontiff of 1978, whom many of us vividly recall, and John Paul II's visible physical frailty is obvious, and his overseas travelling schedule may have been cut back, but there is no question that his intellect remains as formidable as ever. One need only refer to his recent encyclical on the Eucharist.


Certainly, in terms of the extent of his travels over the past 25 years, John Paul II has revolutionised the papacy as the most-travelled pope in history.

"He has changed the style of being pope," according to Father Thomas Reese, editor of America magazine and author of the book Inside the Vatican. "It used to be that the pope stayed home in Europe. But in his travels and use of the media, this pope has brought a lot of attention to his role in helping and encouraging the Church around the world."

In this regard, it could be argued that following the unrest and confusion that overtook the Church during the reign of Paul VI, as that Pope struggled to manage the centrifugal forces unleashed by Vatican II, the present Pope has seen an urgent need to stabilise and unite the Church.

One way to achieve this was to reach as many Catholics as possible in person - over the heads, so to speak, of local bureaucrats and the secular, often anti-religious media. Since 1978, the Holy Father has communicated directly with many millions of the world's one billion faithful.

Complementing this has been the plethora of publications, notably the Catechism of the Catholic Church and a succession of encyclicals and apostolic letters, covering every aspect of Catholic teaching and practice, many of these under challenge from well-placed dissenters within local churches - not to mention the often hostile mass media in Western countries.

Even so, there are limits to John Paul II's outreach if local churches fail to put their weight effectively behind Papal teachings, or leave or appoint unreliable experts in seminaries, education offices, liturgy commissions or universities.

In the West, especially, most Catholics have long since adopted a form of cultural or "cafeteria" Catholicism, maintaining tenuous links with the Church while adapting the Faith to their own particular desires or prejudices. Their antennae are more attuned to the siren calls of materialism and secularism than to any Papal appeals or directives.

It is no coincidence that bishops - including hand-picked "John Paul II bishops" such as Archbishop Chaput of Denver - who have closely aligned themselves with the Pope's leadership and teachings have witnessed signs of spiritual re- growth in their dioceses, including increases in seminary numbers and religious vocations. In fact, overall, seminary numbers around the world have increased significantly during the present pontificate - especially in Third World countries.

Beyond the local churches, over the past 25 years, as few popes in history have ever managed, John Paul II has seized the high moral ground in world affairs.

"This has been one of the most extraordinary pontificates in 2,000 years of Church history," says Father Richard John Neuhaus, editor of the Catholic journal First Things. "For one thing, there was the collapse of communism.

"But beyond that is his intellectual leadership on human rights, his position on the foundation of a free society and biotechnology and the culture of life. There's no question he's a great man, and I think one of the greatest in history."

Middle way

Robert Moynihan, editor of the magazine Inside the Vatican, breaks the pontificate up into two parts. In the first, he says, "you have a Polish Pope who is the hinge between two great superpowers. His main thrust is human rights, that people have the right not to be fearful, to be able to work and to have their religion."

With the collapse of the Soviet empire and the subsequent visit of former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to Rome, says Moynihan, "the papacy reached a height of moral and political influence in the world."

Since then, Moynihan adds, in seeking to carve out what he calls "a Christian middle way" between the materialistic - and often atheistic - "isms" of the 20th century, the Pope has criticised the West with as much vigour as he did communism.

For its acquiescence to contraception, abortion and even euthanasia, John Paul II continues to accuse the West of fostering "a culture of death." In 1994, he used his influence to defeat a US-backed initiative on population control at the UN's International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo.

He explained himself in his best-selling 1994 book Crossing the Threshold of Hope: "We cannot afford forms of permissiveness that would lead directly to the trampling of human rights, and also to the complete destruction of values which are fundamental not only for the lives of individuals and families, but for society itself."

Clearly, the final chapter is yet to be written on the present eventful pontificate.

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