Beloved and Brave

Here and there, faint prayers were heard, but most of the faithful moved their lips soundlessly. In the vast silence of St. Peter's Square, parents whispered in their children's ears. Couples hugged each other for reassurance. Many men and women stood transfixed, looking at the lighted windows where the pope lay dying. When the word finally came, on Saturday night, it was a quiet, almost modest announcement. A handful of black-clad prelates assembled on the steps of St. Peter's, off to the side as if they didn't want to attract too much attention. "I have something very sad to tell you," said Archbishop Leonardo Sandri, the Vatican's under secretary of State. "The Holy Father has returned to the house of the Father." There was no audible cry, but a wave of grief rolled through the crowd of thousands. Then the prelates began reciting the rosary. And a single bell began to toll.

Last Thursday, with a raging fever, the 84-year-old pontiff had gone into septic shock and his blood pressure had dropped dramatically, triggering a worldwide vigil that lasted almost 48 hours. Before dawn on Friday, he summoned his immense and legendary personal strength, and joined as best he could in the recitation of mass. An aide read the Stations of the Cross, recounting the sufferings of Christ from condemnation to crucifixion to burial.

"When the moment of our definitive 'passage' comes," John Paul II wrote a few years ago, "grant that we may face it with serenity, without regret for what we shall leave behind. For in meeting You, after having sought You for so long, we shall find once more every authentic good which we have known here on earth, in the company of all who have gone before us marked with the sign of faith and hope." When the pope died, at 9:37 p.m. on Saturday, he was surrounded by about a dozen people: physicians, nuns, staff, friends. All were praying.

John Paul II held the chair of Saint Peter for more than 26 years--leading his flock longer than almost any other pope. For nearly a decade, he persevered in office despite a slow and painfully public deterioration from Parkinson's disease. This avid outdoor athlete who spent many a papal vacation skiing and hiking in the mountains, this former actor who made all the world his stage, this relentless global traveler who bent and kissed the tarmac in tiny countries never before visited --by a pope, aged, suffered and physically declined before our eyes. And so we watched as he lost the ability to walk, as he slurred when he tried to talk, as his head dropped and saliva fell from his lips during church ceremonies. Those who follow Christ must welcome suffering, he firmly believed, and he would not hide his own from public view.

Future historians seem certain to record that John Paul personalized the papacy in ways that none of the cardinals who elected him (with 103 of 109 votes after 10 ballots) could have foreseen. He transformed the See of Peter into a fulcrum of world politics--his politics. The papal voice--his voice--was heard and often heeded in major capitals like Moscow and Washington. Above all, he took the papacy--which only a century earlier was locked inside the ecclesiastical confines of Vatican City--on the road. He visited Africa four times, Latin America five, managing altogether an astounding 104 pilgrimages to 129 countries around the globe. In doing so, he transformed the figure of the pope from distant icon to familiar face. His face.

John Paul was the most photographed public figure of his era, a man seen in person by more people than even evangelist Billy Graham. Of all the images he leaves behind, four stand out as markers of a remarkable papacy: the defiant new pope, summoning the allegiance of millions of fellow Poles during his triumphant first pilgrimage to his communist-run homeland in 1979; the magnanimous pope, forgiving the deranged Turk who shot him, Mehmet Ali Agca; the stern pope, admonishing the kneeling Father Ernesto Cardenal, the Sandinista Culture minister, in Nicaragua, and the contrite pope, placing a handwritten acknowledgment of Christian sins against the Jewish people in a crevice of the Western Wall in Jerusalem.

In person, as in public, John Paul was a figure of striking contrasts. As a young man he was a quarry worker, but also a published poet and playwright. As a priest he was a pastor to Polish youth, but also a philosopher of world-class rank. As bishop he outfoxed communist officials, but wanted nothing more than to become a monk. As pope he championed clerical celibacy, yet preached a series of rapturous sermons extolling the beauty of conjugal love. The most authoritarian pope since Pius XII, he was nonetheless the first pope to drop the papal "we" and to write books under his own given name, Karol Wojtyla. A consummate politician, he nonetheless forbade priests in Latin America from joining political movements and those in the United States from holding elective office. Though he repeatedly mentioned the Shoah, he reminded the world again and again of the Christians who were also martyred under the Nazis. And despite enormous efforts to unify and purify the church, Roman Catholics were still divided at the close of his reign--and more scandal-ridden than at any time in centuries.

History helps unravel these seeming paradoxes. Growing up under Nazism and then communism, Wojtyla saw firsthand what totalitarian ideologies can do to enslave a subject population. He saw, too, that a unified Catholic Church, with its deep roots in Polish history and culture, was the only institution that stood up to a totalitarian state. Yuri Andropov, head of the Soviet secret police--the KGB--was right when he warned Polish leaders in 1979 that they had made a big mistake in allowing the Polish pope to return to his homeland.

Wojtyla's concept of "solidarity" became the banner under which the Polish workers rallied and eventually wrested power from communist overlords. By awakening the latent "Pan-Slavism" of Eastern Europe, "this Slav pope," as he called himself, boldly challenged the legitimacy of communist governments. Ten years later the Soviet Empire disappeared without war. Like his American contemporary (and fellow actor) Ronald Reagan, Wojtyla successfully confronted his adversaries face to face. Little wonder, then, that the only major countries that barred their doors to a papal visit were China, North Korea, Vietnam and post-communist Russia.

One of the effects of the fall of communism in Europe was to project John Paul II as geopolitician of the first rank. As head of a transnational organization second only to the United Nations in scope (but much more coherent in policy), the pope transformed the Vatican into a major port of call for presidents and prime ministers. Every American president from Jimmy Carter to George W. Bush appeared at his doorstep. So did former Soviet prime minister Mikhail Gorbachev, who hastened to establish warm personal ties with the Polish pope. Under John Paul, the Holy See gained more political clout and diplomatic recognition than it had enjoyed since the Renaissance. In 1980, Queen Elizabeth II became the first British monarch to visit a pope at the Vatican; two years later Britain appointed its first ambassador to the Holy See since King Henry VIII had broken with Rome 450 years earlier. A month later the Protestant countries of Denmark, Norway and Sweden followed suit. In 1984, the United States established full diplomatic relations with the Vatican. By 1990, Russia, Mexico, Israel and Jordan, plus most of the former communist countries in Eastern Europe, had joined the list. Compared with 1939, the eve of World War II, the number of nations with formal representatives to the Vatican tripled during the reign of John Paul II.

Wojtyla's image as a world leader obscured for a time the role he chose for himself. Although a pope is by definition the chief teacher, pastor and administrator of the Roman Catholic Church, John Paul II saw himself primarily as an evangelist. From his first appearance on the balcony of St. Peter's Basilica, he proclaimed to a worldwide audience that "Christ, Christ is the answer." Among the first to notice this new evangelical emphasis in papal preaching was another evangelist, Billy Graham, who called John Paul "the moral conscience of the West."

Unlike Graham, however, John Paul vigorously pursued what he called "the evangelization of culture"--and urged his fellow bishops to do the same. For Wojtyla, Christ was not only the revelation of God to man but also the revelation of what it means to be truly human. Translating this Christian humanism into the language of political philosophy, he challenged governments to recognize the freedom and dignity of every individual as the object of God's love. His major social encyclicals were sharply critical of both socialist and capitalist systems--the first for inhibiting individual freedom and development, the second for neglecting social responsibilities. His first, "On the Dignity of Labor" (1983), offered a new gospel of work based on "the priority of labor over capital," and gave qualified support to the nationalization of industries in Eastern Europe. Inspired, Catholic bishops in the United States and Western Europe issued pastoral letters sharply questioning the economic priorities of their own governments.

But after communism collapsed in Europe and socialism no longer seemed a viable option anywhere, John Paul modified his views. In his 1991 encyclical, "One Hundred Years," he offered one-and-a-half cheers for free-market capitalism. "On the level of individual nations and international relations," he acknowledged, "the free market is the most efficient instrument for utilizing resources and effectively responding to needs." He even went so far as to recognize "the legitimate role of profit as an indication that a business is functioning well"--thus using the dreaded P word that his predecessors had usually avoided. Still, the pope was no convert to pure capitalism, and chafed at media stories claiming that he was. He found ample room for the state in ensuring social justice, and pointedly warned the emerging Central European democracies of the soullessness of consumerism.

Like his immediate predecessors, John Paul used his bully pulpit to give powerful voice to the cause of world peace. He publicly opposed both the 1991 gulf war and the 2003 American invasion of Iraq, and, appearing in person at the United Nations, he twice appealed for an end to war in international affairs. Though not a pacifist, he extended his opposition to violence of all kinds by personally and emphatically changing Catholic teaching, declaring that capital punishment is both unnecessary and, in all but extreme cases, immoral.

History will show, of course, that his appeals went unheeded. But it will also show that he was more effective in reducing tensions among religious faiths. Astonishingly enough, he did this by personally asking forgiveness as head of the Catholic Church. To that end, he issued a series of unprecedented papal apologies--to Jews for centuries of Christian anti-Semitism, to Protestants for the Catholic Church's role in the post-Reformation wars of religion and to the world at large for ecclesiastical arrogance like the church's disciplining of Galileo. Indeed, the pope's mea culpas were a source of embarrassment to some of his own cardinals, who believed that the church was owed a few apologies as well. But few were forthcoming.

Healing relations with Jews was one of John Paul's keenest concerns. In 1986 he became the first pope to visit Rome's ancient synagogue, and in 1993 he established diplomatic relations between the Vatican and Israel. On a personal level, he maintained close relationships with Jewish friends with whom he had played soccer in his youth. He made a point of meeting with representatives of Jewish communities wherever they existed. His moving pilgrimage to Israel in 2000 was one of his greatest personal triumphs. Four years later, Israel's chief rabbis repaid him by calling on John Paul at the Vatican.

The pope's efforts at Christian unity met with less success--but included some innovative gestures. Recognizing that the papacy itself is a major obstacle to the reunion of Christians, John Paul issued a public letter inviting other Christian bodies to consider how the See of Peter might function in a reunited church. Others were slow to take up his offer. Again, as part of the church's millennium celebration, he instructed his bishops to help him create a list of all the Christians--Protestant and Orthodox included--who had died as martyrs under the Nazis, the communists and other anti-Christian tyrannies during the 20th century. "Perhaps the most convincing form of ecumenism, he declared, "is the ecumenism of the saints and martyrs."

Even so, he failed to move Christian churches closer to reunion. The Orthodox churches, recovering from decades of communist repression, were too weak to consider rapprochement with Rome. The Russian Orthodox Church, in particular, repeatedly refused the pope's efforts to make a post-Soviet visit to their country, despite former president Boris Yeltsin's desire to host Wojtyla in Moscow. Although Protestant and Catholic representatives reached agreement on a number of important theological issues, the role of women in the church, especially as bishops, further separated Rome from the Anglican and other traditions. The pope was marginally more successful in reaching out to Muslims: in Africa and the Middle East he repeatedly appealed for reduced tensions between the church and Islam, but there was no one single Muslim group or authority with whom he could establish sustained relations. At Assisi, where he hosted an unprecedented international worship service involving religious leaders, Hindu holy men and assorted tribal shamans in 1986, he sat side by side with the only other "His Holiness" in this spiritual firmament--the Dalai Lama.

As chief teacher and leader of the world's 1 billion Roman Catholics, Wojtyla left his fingerprints on every aspect of the church. His predecessor, the affable Albino Luciani, had taken the name John Paul I, signaling his readiness to continue the spirit of Pope John XXIII, who convened Vatican Council II, and Paul VI, who presided over its completion. After just 33 days in office, however, Luciani died of a coronary embolism. Wojtyla had played an important but initially unrecognized role in the council's deliberations, and when he chose John Paul II as his name he seemed to indicate that he would continue the council's reformist bent. But as Catholics soon discovered, this new pope who traveled the world, kissing lifted babies, who sang along at festivals where millions of Catholic youth chanted "John Paul Two, we love you," who put non-Catholic leaders at ease and hosted intellectuals and scientists each year at his summer residence, was a stern disciplinarian bent on curbing what he saw as a dangerous leftward drift in Catholic theology and practice.

One of his first projects was the revision of the church's code of canon law, an enormous task left unfinished by Pope Paul VI. Wojtyla astonished his aides in the Roman Curia by reviewing the entire code line by line, making his corrections in the margins. The general effect was to limit the council's democratic impulse to give greater authority to local conferences of bishops and to strengthen the role of the Curia, the church's central administration. Thereafter, papal nuncios played a much greater role than local hierarchies in the selection of bishops. As a result, most of today's bishops are conservative men of his choosing, as are most of the cardinals who will elect his successor.

John Paul's most decisive early act was to reaffirm the discipline of priestly celibacy. Under Paul VI, the Vatican had allowed an average of 2,000 priests a year to resign from the ministry--most of them to marry. Wojtyla reduced this flood to a trickle. Although polls in the United States and Europe showed that most Catholics supported making celibacy optional for priests, the pope extolled it as a precious gift to the church, and opposed a married clergy. Polls also showed wide support for opening the priesthood to women, but in 1995 he issued an apostolic letter, "Ordinatio Sacerdotalis," declaring that the church has no power to ordain women, since Jesus had chosen only male Apostles. Moreover, he declared, "this judgment is to be held by all the Catholic faithful"--an effort to bind his papal successors to his position. The effect of these decisions was the creation of a new test of "orthodoxy" in the church. Priests who supported such liberal causes had no chance of becoming bishops, and bishops who showed sympathy to these reformist ideas were reprimanded, marginalized and left to languish in minor posts.

The new orthodoxy was felt by Catholic theologians as well. Under the direction of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith tightened the limits of tolerable dissent. Those suspected of undermining the faith were called to Rome for questioning, and a dozen or so, such as the Swiss-born Hans Kueng, a liberal intellectual hero of Vatican II, were declared no longer fit to teach Catholic students. Others were ordered to revise their books. Liberation theology, a politically charged mix of the Gospel and Marxist social analysis, was suppressed in Latin America where, the pope believed, it had been used to foment class warfare. A further intellectual chill was felt in Catholic higher education when the Vatican declared that all Catholic theologians must sign a "mandatum" declaring their readiness to uphold the magisterium, or "teaching authority," of the pope. In the United States, which has more Catholic colleges and universities than the rest of the world combined, this would require bishops to approve academic appointments--something most bishops have neither the background nor the desire to do--and would raise serious questions of academic freedom.

All these disciplinary measures, it should be said, were rather mild compared with the silencings and outright excommunications meted out by previous popes. But in 1981 John Paul took a step that few of his predecessors would have dared try. He suspended the constitution of the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits), and placed a man of his own choosing as temporary head of the church's largest religious order of men. The Jesuits, he charged, had caused "concern to the church" by some of their teachings, especially involving liberation theology. Within two years the Jesuits' self-governance was restored, but John Paul had shown his hand. Conservative lay and clerical movements like the Communione e Liberazione, the Legionnaires of Christ and especially the secretive Opus Dei would find in him a powerful patron.

A major mark of the new orthodoxy was the pope's emphasis on sexual morality. Although the church had long opposed abortion, contraception and euthanasia, John Paul was alarmed at the rapid acceptance of these practices in the West, even among many Catholics. Post-communist Poland, for example, was reporting more abortions than live births. Against this rising "culture of death," John Paul the evangelist called on Catholics and others to foster a "culture of life." To that end he formed coalitions with Muslim countries to counter American-led efforts to make contraception and abortion primary tools in U.N. programs to reduce population growth in Third World counties. These bold moves stiffened Catholic opposition to abortion in most countries, but did not decrease Catholic acceptance of contraception.

Inevitably, the pope's declining years were the least active or successful of his papacy. At the start of Christianity's third millennium, he called for a "new evangelization" that he hoped would energize the entire church in its witness to what he called "the splendor of truth." Instead, he was confronted with one of the church's greatest scandals: revelations of widespread child sex abuse by Catholic priests in the United States, Ireland and other parts of Europe. Although the abuses were committed by a small percentage of priests, the number of victims was in the thousands. Moreover, the cover-ups by some bishops--notably Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston--enraged lay Catholics and sparked demands for greater transparency in church governance. Amid rumors that he could no longer put in a full day's work, the pope did not seem to grasp the disgrace that had engulfed the church. Like other popes whose lives outlasted their effectiveness, he had long since ceded the daily administration of the church to subordinates who divided the Vatican into fiefdoms.

It will be decades before scholars can begin to assess the full impact of Wojtyla on the church. His output of speeches and writings runs to more than 150 thick volumes. In an institution that looks constantly to tradition for guidance, this prodigious lode of papal teachings is certain to influence more than one successor. Despite critics, John Paul managed to bring a new clarity to basic church doctrine--in part by producing a new catechism for the church and in part by listening only to those who agreed with him. He also remade the church's calendar of saints, beatifying and canonizing more than all of his predecessors combined.

Was Wojtyla himself a saint? Fellow Catholics were his sharpest critics. But even those who think his decisions on balance hindered progress in the church readily separate the singer from the song. Certainly Wojtyla was a man of deep prayer as well as a man of deep thought and bold action. Meditation came to him naturally: he could slip into contemplative repose in the middle of a public gathering. Despite his grueling schedule, he spent hours every day in prayer--usually on his knees, sometimes flat on the floor. Those who knew him in the full vigor of middle age were shocked to see him bent and seemingly broken in the last years of his life. But his ailments only accentuated his evident inner strength. His decisions, political and ecclesiastical, may have at times been faulty--papal infallibility is no protection against errors in judgment. He most certainly failed to return once Christian Europe to its spiritual roots. But Karol Wojtyla was a tireless evangelist, challenging a recalcitrant world to join him in "crossing the threshold of hope." Last Saturday, after he slipped away from this world, the bereaved faithful outside his windows in Rome found solace in the words that had shaped his life from his boyhood in Poland to his remarkable reign as the Vicar of Christ on Earth. Repeating the Hail Mary, the mourning crowd murmured: "Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death." Then they sang the Magnificat, the words Mary said after Gabriel told her she was to bear the Christ child: "My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Savior"--a fitting benediction for a pope whose spirit so long rejoiced in prayer and in expectation.

In "Beloved and Brave" (April 11) we reported that Queen Elizabeth II was the first British monarch to visit a pope at the Vatican. In fact, her great-grandfather Edward VII did so in 1903. We also wrote that Pope John Paul II's first major social encyclical was in 1983. It took place in 1981. NEWSWEEK regrets the error.

In the graphic "A Global Ministry" (April 11) we indicated that John Paul II visited St. Louis between 1979 and 1980. He visited in 1999. NEWSWEEK regrets the error.