No recent event has surpassed the funeral of John Paul II. Peter Westmore looks at the Pope’s role as a religious leader without equal, and as the moral conscience of the world.
The extraordinary outpouring of respect for Pope John Paul II, following his death on April 2, has been unprecedented in recent history.
Over a million people filed past his body in the four days in which he lay in state inside the great basilica located above the grave of the first apostle, St Peter. An estimated four million people gathered in Rome to witness the Church’s ancient funeral rites. In Australia, three TV networks provided live coverage of the papal funeral, and probably a billion saw it "live" throughout the world.
Presidents, kings and prime ministers vied with cardinals, rabbis and mullahs to honour a religious leader who profoundly influenced the world for the better, during his 26-year pontificate.
Even before being elected Pope, at the comparatively youthful age of 58, John Paul II had led an extraordinary life. Born in 1920 in Poland, a nation re-established after World War I, Karol Wojtyla’s boyhood was marked by family tragedies. A 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 he 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 régime 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.
In 1958, at the age of 37, Karol Wojtyla 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 régime 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.
A symbolic example was in the construction of the Church at Nowa Huta, a steel city built after World War II, outside Krakow.
Nowa Huta, which fell within Krakow’s jurisdiction, was a sterile city of multi-story apartments, a "workers’ paradise" built on communist principles.
The régime insisted that the new city would be built without a Church. But the people soon made it clear they wanted one. Bishop Wojtyla communicated their wishes, but the request was refused.
The conflict became an intense symbol of the struggle between the Catholic Church and the communist state.
Years went by as Bishop Wojtyla joined other priests, met with authorities, and patiently filed and refiled for building permits.
Bishop Wojtyla and other priests gave sermons in the open field where the church was to be built, winter and summer, under a burning sun, in freezing rain and snow.
Thousands peacefully lined up for communion, but tension was building. Violence did actually erupt when the communist authorities sent a bulldozer to demolish the cross.
By this time, the Communists, local leaders, residents and Catholic Church had dug in, their positions seemingly intractable. The Communists’ offer, to allow a Church to be built outside of the town was rejected, until Bishop Wojtyla persuaded everyone that the existence of the Church transcended all other considerations.
The Church, a magnificent structure, shaped like the barque of St Peter, was constructed by the voluntary labour of thousands of Polish workers.
In May 1977, a year before he became Pope, almost 20 years after the first request for a permit, Karol Wojtyla consecrated the Church at Nowa Huta. Among its features is the massive crucifix that hangs over the new altar. It was made out of shrapnel that had been taken from the wounds of Polish soldiers, collected and sent from all over the country to make the sculpture in the new Church.
In 1960, two of his major written works were published, Love and Responsibility, a defence of traditional Christian sexual ethics in light of modern medical and psychological research, and The Jeweller’s Shop, a play which dealt with marital discord.
In 1964, during the sessions of the Vatican Council, he was appointed Archbishop of Krakow, and helped draft one of the Council’s most important documents, Gaudium et Spes, which set out the Church’s role in the modern world.
This prophetic document described the cultural crisis of the 1960s, and called on Christians to transform the world in the light of the Gospels. In particular, it emphasised the moral obligation on Christians to be actively involved in social and political movements to bring about constructive change.
In 1967, at the age of 47, Archbishop Wojtyla was made a Cardinal by Pope Paul VI, and 11 years later, was elected Pope, taking the name John Paul II, and becoming the first non-Italian pope in over 450 years.
As the universally acknowledged head of the Catholic Church throughout the world, the Pope is primarily a spiritual leader. However, he is also a head of state, which is entirely independent of the nation of Italy which surrounds it.
It is this independent existence which has enabled the Vatican to participate in a large range of international forums, including the United Nations.
Pope John Paul II’s contribution to the Catholic Church will be discussed for many years. But he addressed the sense of paralysis which engulfed the Church towards the end of Paul VI’s pontificate as modernists, who wanted a wholesale revision of both the Church’s moral teaching and its structure, became increasingly vocal and influential.
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."
As Pope, 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.
Carl Bernstein commented that from the first months of his papacy, 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."
But 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.
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.
As a moral force, he exercised very considerable political influence throughout the world, played a crucial role in bringing about the collapse of communism in his homeland, which then triggered the peaceful disintegration of the Soviet empire in Eastern Europe and Russia.
But he also brought together people of all faiths and none, to fight for human dignity and to oppose what he described as the "culture of death". He condemned unbridled capitalism, materialism and exploitation in the Third World, calling for the forgiveness of the debts of the poorest nations.
He consistently opposed the use of force to resolve international disputes, including the Allied war to liberate Kuwait in 1991, NATO military operations in Serbia in the mid-1990s which culminated in the defeat of the communist Milosevic régime, as well as the liberation of Afghanistan in 2002 and Iraq in 2003.
Despite John Paul II’s differences with the US on these issues, the American President, George W. Bush said, "I join people across the Earth in mourning the passing of Pope John Paul II. The Catholic Church has lost its shepherd, the world has lost a champion of human freedom, and a good and faithful servant of God has been called home."