Pope John Paul II: the impact of his twenty-year pontificate

Pope John Paul II: the impact of his twenty-year pontificate

Peter Westmore

Among the great Popes of the modern era, John Paul II has been outstanding, in his influence on both church and state over the twenty years of his pontificate.

In the ecclesiastical sphere, he inherited a church racked by division in the wake of the Second Vatican Council, restoring order to its teaching with the drafting of a number of important encyclicals, notably Veritatis Splendor (The Splendour of Truth). He also oversaw the first official catechism of the Church's teachings in centuries and the re-drafting of the Code of Canon Law, setting out to hold his flock with personal visitations to around 100 countries, while ending potential schisms in the United States and Holland.

In the political sphere, his leadership led to a partnership with US President Reagan to bring what the latter described as "the evil empire" of Soviet Communism to an end, reversing the World War II settlement which had consigned hundreds of millions of people to the prison camp which constituted the Soviet bloc.


Pope John Paul II - born Karol Wojtyla in May 1920 - is a man intimately acquainted with suffering. His mother died when he was nine; and his elder brother, Edmund, when he was just 12.

Karol had enrolled as a university student in the city of Krakow in 1938, studying languages and philosophy. He was also very active in plays and the theatre. Poland was invaded by Nazi Germany a year later, and the university closed down. He studied at an underground university by night, while working in a quarry by day.

On a number of occasions, he narrowly escaped death. The barbarous Nazi occupation deepened his faith and his devotion to Jesus, the suffering Saviour, and Mary, His blessed mother, to whom he had an extraordinarily deep devotion. He had a sense that he had been delivered from death for a higher purpose - the exact nature of which was still to be revealed.

In late 1942, he joined an underground seminary, and he was ordained a priest just four years later, after the Nazi invaders had been replaced by the Soviet occupation. In 1946, his archbishop sent him to study in Rome just as the Soviet Union, through its local Communist Party, was taking complete control of Poland. He studied in Rome for two years, before returning to his native land.

Fr Wojtyla made such an impression in Poland - as a teacher of youth, philosopher, writer and confessor - that he was appointed Bishop in 1958, and Archbishop of Krakow in 1962. At this time, he wrote one of his most important books, Love and Responsibility, which anticipated, by some years, the teaching of Pope Paul VI in his encyclical, Humanae Vitae.

As Bishop and Archbishop of Krakow, he had to deal diplomatically with the Communist government of Poland, which he did with considerable skill, building up the Catholic Church's moral influence, and bringing more young Poles into the church, without directly challenging the atheistic doctrines of the state or the Communists' grip on power.

He attended the Second Vatican Council, where he was prominent in the efforts to make the Church a bulwark of human rights. He was appointed a cardinal in 1967. In this capacity he travelled extensively throughout the world, visiting many countries including Australia, North America, Africa and Western Europe, where he was able to study at length the impact of secular culture on faith and the Church.

Elected Pope in 1978, after the sudden death of Pope John Paul I, he had a unique background from which to deal with the problems of the Church, and an unparalleled understanding of the working of both the Communist and Western worlds.

As Pope, John Paul II immediately began to take administrative control of the Church, restoring priestly discipline, extending an olive branch to Archbishop Lefebvre, and visiting Latin America to deal with the challenges posed by the two ideological extremes of radical Liberation Theology and unbridled capitalism. He also began the series of major encyclicals to complete the work of the Vatican Council, by addressing the contemporary problems of the Church and the world. His first encyclical, Redemptor Hominis (The Redeemer of Mankind), was a powerful critique of the dehumanising effect of modem capitalism and Communism.

A short time later, he undertook his first historic visit to Poland, where he was welcomed by millions of Poles - believers and unbelievers alike - as the person who could rescue their country from Soviet occupation. Many other visits to all corners of the world followed, during which the Pope spoke and preached directly to hundreds of millions of people.

Political landscape

From this time onwards, the Pope threw the weight of the Church behind Poland's free trade union movement, Solidarity, which ultimately culminated in the disintegration of Communism in Eastern Europe, and then brought down the Soviet Union in 1990 - ending the illegal regime which had controlled Russia since 1917, and the division of Europe and the Cold War, which had dominated the political landscape of the world since 1945.

He narrowly survived assassination in St. Peter's Square in 1981, attributing his survival to the intervention of Our Lady, to whom he had prayed for deliverance.

In 1992, John Paul released the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the modern compendium of the teachings of the church, and a year later, his important encyclical, Veritatis Splendor (The Splendour of Truth), which placed man's relationship to God as the centre-point of the quest for human dignity and human rights. He looks forward to the Jubilee Year, 2000, as the occasion for a new evangelisation, to win the world for Christ.

Time magazine recognised him as 1995 "Man of the Year," American author, Jonathan Kwitny, in his recent biography, described him as "Man of the Century" and Carl Bernstein, in His Holiness, described John Paul II as "the greatest moral leader of our time."

Peter Westmore is the Publisher of 'AD2000' and National President of the National Civic Council.

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