Pope John Paul II

Philosopher, poet and playwright who led the Catholic Church for 26 years - the first ever Polish pope and the first non-Italian pope since 1523
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The Independent Online

Karol Jozef Wojtyla, poet, playwright, philosopher and priest: born Wadowice, Poland 18 May 1920; ordained priest 1946; Professor of Moral Theology, Catholic University of Lublin 1956-78; Titular Bishop of Ombi and Auxiliary Bishop of Kraków 1958-63, Vicar Capitular 1962-63; Archbishop and Metropolitan of Kraków 1964-78; named a cardinal 1967; elected Pope 1978, taking the name John Paul II; died Rome 2 April 2005.

Poet, playwright, actor, theologian, philosopher, sportsman, and the bishop of Rome. It may be safely said that no one, since the dawn of history, has spoken directly to so many people as did John Paul II.

No pope could be remotely compared to him in terms of the number and the frequency of his travels to all corners of the planet or in the way in which this great communicator employed modern media to convey to mankind his message of peace and love and moral discipline; and not many made their presence felt so powerfully as he did in the rapidly changing and turbulent world of the last two decades of the second millennium. One is even tempted to say that none understood his time more intimately; although many would deny this, to the extent that they identify the understanding of one's own time with the automatic surrender to the existing trends and fashions in order to placate potential critics.

John Paul II's predecessor, Albino Luciani, took up the name Giovanni Paolo - obviously to show his will to continue the joint spiritual legacy of the two previous popes: John XXIII and Paul VI. The former, the initiator of the Second Vatican Council, had the reputation of a bold reformer who wanted to confront the formidable challenge of modernity, of the new "planetary" civilisation, to open the windows of the Church and to stress its solidarity with the poor and disinherited; he was genuinely loved by the Italian people and the entire Catholic world. The latter, somewhat rigid and probably not free from discomfort amidst the insecurity and struggles of the noisy and brutal 20th century, tended rather to emphasise his faithfulness to the tradition.

After Pope John Paul I's pathetically short tenure - barely a month, one of the shortest in the history of papacy - the new pope, by choosing the same name, clearly displayed the same will: vetera novis augere. Neither his admirers nor his critics or detractors can deny that John Paul II's pontificate, apart from being the longest in the 20th century (and the third longest ever), carrying over into the 21st and into the third millennium, was one of the most significant periods in the history of the modern Catholic Church, not because it brought any radical changes to its structure or teaching but because it reasserted so powerfully the Church's presence in our civilisation.

Karol Jozef Wojtyla was born in 1920 in Wadowice, a small town in the Kraków region of Poland, into the modest family of a retired soldier. His surname has a plebeian sound in Polish. Losing his mother in early boyhood, he attended primary and high school in his native town and, after graduating, moved to Kraków. In 1938 he began to study Polish philology at the Jagiellonian University, the oldest Polish centre of learning, established in the 14th century. As well as being an enthusiastic sportsman, he proved to be a gifted actor in amateur theatre and a talented poet.

The allied armies of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union invaded Poland in September 1939, and the genocidal horror started for all denizens of that country. The Germans closed all the universities and high schools. Soon, however, a fairly large network of clandestine teaching at both levels was set up in the cities. The young student whose life was brutally disrupted by war and German occupation made his living in 1940-41 as a manual worker in a quarry and then in a chemical factory in the Kraków region; an experience he was not to forget and which he was proud of.

Not much is known about Karol Wojtyla's participation in the Polish conspiratorial resistance movement during the Second World War apart from the very fact that he was active in the struggle; the Jewish Anti-Defamation League confirmed his part in saving Jews condemned to slaughter by the invaders. He led as well, during the first years of war, a clandestine theatrical group and played a number of roles in various, mainly Polish, plays; and he continued his literary work.

In 1942, a crucial change occurred in Wojtyla's life: he recognised his calling to the priesthood. He registered with a seminary and with the Faculty of Theology at the Jagiellonian University - both of them underground - and continued his studies after the war when the university was brought back to full life in Communist Poland. In 1946 he completed his undergraduate studies of theology and, in November, was ordained priest. His mentor, Cardinal Adam Sapieha, sent him for further studies to the famous Angelicum, a pontifical university in Rome, where he spent two years (Réginald Garrigou-Lagrange, a prominent Thomist, was his main teacher there). In November 1948 Wojtyla received his degree with a Latin thesis on St John of the Cross, one of the greatest mystics of Christianity and a Doctor of the Church (Quaestio de fide apud S Johannem a Cruce). Afterwards he worked for some weeks in France and Belgium, studying the missionary work of priests among the poor and largely de-Christianised working-class population.

After returning to Poland, Wojtyla worked in 1949-51 as a parish priest in a village near Kraków and continued philosophical and theological studies at the university. From 1952 he lectured in moral theology in seminaries in southern Poland and, from 1954, at KUL, the Catholic University of Lublin, the only non-state institution of higher learning in any Communist country. He was appointed full professor there in 1968 and held this post until his election to the papal throne.

Wojtyla never ceased his pastoral work during these years of academic and scholarly activity. In July 1958 he was appointed Auxiliary Bishop of Kraków and later, in January 1964, the archbishop of the see. He was very active in the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) and contributed greatly to the assimilation by the Church of the modern idea of religious freedom and human rights and to the decisions of the council concerning the increased role of laity both in the liturgy and in the apostolic mission of the Church. In 1967, Pope Paul VI nominated him a cardinal.

During the post-war years the Church in Poland lived under the oppressive power of Communist authorities which tried to restrict and to stifle its activities in the vain hope that, eventually, by pressure and propaganda, they would destroy the "religious superstitions". (It is fair to add that, by comparison with other Communist states, the persecutions were less intense and less brutal.) As a result Poland emerged from Communism as one of the most Catholic countries in the world. Even though after 1956 the repression of the Church and the unsuccessful attempts to split it from within were significantly reduced, various forms of pressure and hostile propaganda and all sorts of chicanery were employed to limit and to weaken the Christian life in a country in which for centuries there has been a strong bond of religious identity with national sentiments.

Polish religious life in the late 1950s, 1960s and 1970s was dominated by the towering figure of the primate of Poland, Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski, released from three years' long internment in 1956. A man of the old school, a traditional Thomist, a calm fighter, ready to compromise when needed but knowing when the "non possumus" had to be said, he enjoyed in the country an authority that no efforts of the Communist Party could dent. At a certain moment the Party even played with a foolish idea that they would help promote Bishop Wojtyla in order to oppose him to the primate. In vain.

Wojtyla was a churchman of a somewhat different mentality, more sensitive to new phenomena in culture and better acquainted with 20th-century philosophy and literature, a man who understood perfectly the Communist doctrine and system but not a man who could ever be tamed by the Communists. He turned out to be a skilful and hard negotiator on all occasions when the cause of religion and of the Church was at stake and he did a lot, both as Archbishop of Kraków and as Pope, to assert the rights of the Church in Poland. Formal legal status was granted to the Church in Poland only in 1989, and in July of that year diplomatic relations between the Vatican and Polish government were re-established after a break of 43 years, and only a couple of months before the first non-Communist government since 1945 was formed.

By the time of the last conclave to elect a pope, Cardinal Wojtyla was an internationally known figure. He had been a member of various ecclesiastical congregations, had played a prominent role in the Second Vatican Council and travelled widely in pastoral missions or to attend Catholic congresses. As a writer and a philosopher he was known mainly in Poland, as most of his works were not yet available in other languages.

He was, among other things, a "professional" academic philosopher and had published a number of philosophical works, most of them on the theory of ethics, its metaphysical foundation, its epistemological status and its meaning in human life. While he was a Thomist, his philosophical language is modern, and not scholastic; it was shaped to a large extent by his immersion in phenomenological and existential tradition. The German philosopher Max Scheler, to whom he devoted three philosophical studies, was perhaps the most important - though mainly negative - reference point in Wojtyla's ethical work.

He was in agreement with Scheler's anti-Kantian approach and with his criticism of both utilitarianism and formalism in ethics; he shared, of course, his belief that each human person has a separate ontological status; but he criticised Scheler's idealism, his separation of values from the being and his stress on the emotional rather than the intellectual side of acts whereby we acquire an ethical knowledge. He himself naturally considered the revelation and the tradition as basic sources of normative ethics and he dismissed Scheler's claim that a nonrelativist ethics might be based on a direct intuition of values alone.

Wojtyla's works on those issues were of fundamental significance in assimilating into Christian doctrine the problems and the challenges of 20th-century secular ethics. The topics which his academic works address are always related to real worries and issues of daily life: love, respect for human dignity, responsibility, the forms of human communion - in family, in national community, in the Church; primacy of moral considerations over all other aspects of social affairs, primacy of man over things. The meaning of all those problems is, of course, intelligible within mankind's relationship with God. And all those issues are central in Wojtyla's sermons, later in the papal pastoral letters, as well as in his poems and plays. He published three collections of poems between 1950 and 1958 and a drama, In Front of a Jeweller's Shop (1960).

Cardinal Wojtyla was elected the vicar of Christ by the conclave on 16 October 1978, the first non-Italian pope since 1523, the first of Polish (or Slav) origin, the first with direct acquaintance with Communism and the first in the 20th century who had never worked in the Curia or in Vatican diplomacy. According to the leaks - not officially confirmed - from the Vatican, the proposal had been made in conclave to elect Cardinal Wyszynski; he declined, however, and suggested Cardinal Wojtyla instead.

For the Poles this was probably the day of greatest joy in their post-war life. In Italy and elsewhere, in the Catholic community, the election was greeted warmly but to most people, apart from those who had participated in the Vatican Council or followed closely its debates, specific characteristics of the new pontificate - in face of many disagreements within the Church - were not yet predictable. Inevitably, disagreements soon emerged and the Pope was heavily attacked for not being "progressive" enough in political matters or not traditional enough in the matters of "ecumenism" to the taste of the critics.

John Paul II made no new dogmatic statements, to be sure, and his pronouncements in matters of morals, faith, politics and ecclesiastical law did not depart from, or were perfectly compatible with, his predecessors' teaching, apart from the distribution of emphasis - which was significant in cultural, though not dogmatic, terms.

The Catholic Church has always believed that the graces of redemption were extended to the entire human race without distinction. But this point of dogma was not sufficient to define in any detail the formidable task the Church faced when operating in such a diversity of civilisations, amid such a variety of social and cultural conditions, so many conflicts and so much hatred. John Paul II adopted without restrictions the idea of human rights while stressing its genuinely Christian origin and meaning (the expression itself, having been historically so strongly connected with the French Revolution, had not previously been much employed in the Church). This is clear from his first encyclical, Redemptor Hominis (1979), and many sermons.

Following his predecessor Paul VI (in the encyclical Populorum Progressio, 1967), he stressed the preferential solidarity of the Church with the poor and oppressed. On some important occasions he directly encouraged the poor and exploited to fight for their rights. He stressed as well equitable distribution, considering that the earth had been created for the good of all its human denizens. He asserted the right of workers to organise themselves in unions and to defend their just interests, in the encyclical Laborem Exercens (1981). He attacked, on moral grounds, "Marxist collectivism", which aims at destroying human personality and converting people into inert tools of the state. But he attacked, on moral grounds as well, the Western "consumerist" societies with their moral ills, their spirit of indifference, lack of compassion and the domination of greed. In the encyclical Sollicitudo Rei Socialis (1987) he even seemed - as a number of critics objected - to blame equally both kinds of regimes for the present ailments of mankind, the misery of the Third World and the danger of war.

Not unlike his predecessors, he never believed that the free market was an exclusive and sufficient response to the material, let alone cultural and moral, needs of man. He was even ready to admit, during a visit to the Baltic countries and in an interview given to La Stampa in November 1993, that socialism, with its concern for community, had a kernel of truth, even though this truth in the practice of "real socialism" degenerated into oppressive totalitarianism.

The thrust of John Paul II's message may perhaps be summed up in a few very simple words: the oblivion of God is ultimately the source of the present cultural crisis and of the miseries which all parts of the globe, though in different ways, suffer. People killed God - in their heart, of course - in the hope of liberation from His tyranny; as a result they brought upon themselves all kinds of tyranny - either physically oppressive or morally debilitating - leaving them in a void. The most important, crucial problems of mankind and its worries simply cannot be solved by technical means; there is no technology to replace love, personal responsibility and compassion, or to heal hatred and the widespread feeling of the meaninglessness of life.

While promoting the idea of human rights and social justice, the Pope was not willing to accept those trends among priests and lay Christians, especially in Latin America, which tried to absorb within Christianity the Marxist doctrine of class struggle as the foundation of hope for social progress, let alone for a perfect world, as well as the use of revolutionary violence as a means. Extreme versions of the "theology of liberation" risked transforming the Church, or its parts, into a leftist political party, thus robbing it of its independence and its mission; some even equated "salvation" with "liberation" in the Communist sense. Those trends were severely criticised under John Paul II's pontificate, even though the ultimate measures, i.e. excommunication, were not taken. The revision of the Lateran treaty with the Italian state in 1984 seemed to provide the proof of the Pope's readiness to accept the principle of the separation of church and state.

The other contentious problem was sexual morality. On this point, too, the Pope did not teach anything other than had his predecessors, Paul VI (in Humanae Vitae, 1968) among others. What enraged the critics especially was his frequent insistence on the immorality of artificial - mechanical or chemical - birth control. The Pope knew, of course, that on this point one could not expect obedience even from pious and loyal Catholics; it is not likely that his sermons had a significant impact on demographic trends in the world. Apparently the reason for his rigorously traditional preaching was his belief that the meaning of sexuality cannot be defined in terms of pleasure alone, as this would practically amount to abolishing all restrictions in sexual behaviour: if the principle of pleasure reigns supreme, anything goes.

He refused as well - to the indignation of critics - to abolish the celibacy of priests; to be sure, celibacy was not considered a rule de jure divino (in fact Catholics of some non-Latin rites did not follow it), but the Pope stressed the traditional law because the priesthood, in his view, meant a total sacrifice to God, including the renouncement of family and sexual satisfaction. Nor was he ready to yield to the demand, frequently made, to open the priesthood to women, and thus to reverse the rule established in St Paul's Epistles ("Let your women keep silence in the churches").

The strong condemnation of abortion (liberal legislation in this matter he called "civilisation of death") was, meanwhile, in conformity with the Catholic tradition which had assumed that the embryo is a human being from the very moment of conception; this brought numerous attacks on the Pope by non-religious thinkers and journalists, but not within the Church.

The very important encyclical Veritatis Splendor (signed on 6 August 1993) castigates those theologians and priests who make concessions to the spirit of modern moral relativism; it stresses the immutable validity of all God-given commandments and the inseparable link between freedom and the loyalty to truth. As copious quotations from the New Testament testify, good and evil in human behaviour are defined as such regardless of circumstances and all the changes that have occurred recently in the world do not make the Gospels obsolete. Belief in God is incompatible with the idea that "values" and moral norms are at the mercy of decisions, made on every occasion by an individual who supposedly asserts thereby his freedom.

We abuse our divinely given freedom if we employ it as a pretext for denying moral duties which are there, not by virtue of our decisions or whims but by having been revealed to us by the eternal wisdom. We are not sovereign masters in matters concerning good and evil.

Another contentious question was the very constitution of the Church and the way in which papal authority was enforced. The Church has never pretended to be a democratic body in which dogmatic and constitutional matters are decided by the vote of its members or, as many professors of theology would like, by professors of theology. Its constitution has been monarchical and hierarchical. Many critics attacked the appointment by the Pope of conservative bishops (this meant above all those who followed the tradition in the matters of sexual morality) without consulting the local churches.

It is noteworthy that no pope was so vehemently attacked for his alleged lack of "progressiveness" as the one who did more than anybody else to open Christianity to people of all races and civilisations, to promote ecumenical spirit and to make friendly contacts with non-Catholic Christian bodies, to stress the continuity from Judaism to Christianity (many times he spoke of Jews as "elder brothers" and condemned anti-Semitism unambiguously), to adopt without restrictions the idea of human rights and of religious freedom for all, to pay so much attention to the calamities of the Third World and to the duties of rich countries to help it, and to denounce so strongly all forms of tyranny. He was the first pope ever to pray in a synagogue and in a Lutheran temple.

John Paul II made innumerable journeys to all continents - from Papua New Guinea to Britain, from Poland to Nigeria, from Mexico to Thailand. His last foreign visits were to Slovakia, in September 2003, and Switzerland, in June 2004; and last August he made a pilgrimage to Lourdes. It is widely assumed that his first visit to Poland in June 1979 contributed very strongly to the subsequent events which resulted in the emergence of the mass non-violent democratic movement, embodied in Solidarity, and in the gradual dismantling of Communist totalitarian institutions: not that the Pope made direct political appeals but because, thanks to his presence, millions of Poles could count themselves on the streets, so to say, gain the feeling of strength and reassert both their religious and their national identity with the blessing of the highest moral authority.

Wojtyla was a Polish patriot and frequently displayed his special attachment to his native land. He spoke fluently in many languages, all of them with a recognisable Polish accent; and he acknowledged that the texts he personally composed were written in Polish. Some critics blamed him even for the "Polonisation" of the Church (the reason was perhaps his emphasis, conforming to the Polish tradition, on the cult of the Virgin Mary).

The Pope's trip to Russia, tentatively planned for 1987, fizzled out; Soviet leaders apparently feared his presence - keeping in mind the results of his pilgrimage to Poland; on the other hand he could not conceivably visit Russia without making contacts with the Ukrainian Uniate Church which was then illegal. The collapse of the Soviet empire and the end of Communism in Russia did not make the prospects of such a journey better, though. The Russian Orthodox Church lives in dread of Catholic missionary activity and it would expect a significant reinforcement of the Roman Church as a result of such a visit.

Being not only the head of the Church but the head of the Vatican State as well, the Pope had, during his voyages, to speak to the leaders of dictatorial countries: Chile's Pinochet, Cuba's Castro, Poland's Jaruzelski, among others. This scandalised many people, who felt that the Pope was thereby legitimising despotic regimes. But he said nothing to endorse these regimes. He conveyed his message of love, and hope, and faith, to all dwellers of all countries and he believed, it seems, that personal contacts with some unsavoury figures are never totally in vain.

The visit to Communist Cuba in 1998 was certainly risky to its dictator Fidel Castro and perhaps to the Pope himself. It did not bring the end to the tyrannical regime but it apparently made the religious life in the country easier. And the Pope left Cuba convinced that the heart of the dictator had not been untouched by this encounter.

Although the terms of the clash between "progressivism" and "integrism" in the Catholic world changed considerably during his pontificate, the Pope was criticised from both sides. The conflict with the "progressivists" resulted in reprimands, warnings or the occasional withdrawal of the official title of a Catholic theologian (as in the case of Professor Hans Küng). The most famous case of conflict with the traditionalists was that of Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, to whom the entire Vatican Council and the subsequent changes in the Church were the work of Satan; after years of warning and of reconciliation attempts by the church authorities, the rebel was excommunicated in 1988 when he started illicitly to ordain his own bishops.

What other pope was likely to be met by one million young people on the Champs de Mars in Paris - a traditional capital of godlessness since the 17th century?

Under no previous pope were so many men and women beatified (over 1,300) and canonised (almost 500), some of them nominatim, Fr Maximilian Kolbe, Padre Pio, Edith Stein, Mother Teresa of Calcutta, some collectively, victims of murderous persecutions.

The very long Catechism of the Catholic Church (the first for four centuries), published at the end of 1992 after six years of preparation under pontifical supervision, is striking for its ecumenical spirit, absence of condemnation and a clear admission that the perspective of salvation is open to all, irrespective of their religion. It clearly departs from the Augustinian legacy in matters concerning predestination and grace. It codifies the traditional teaching of the Church and enriches it by many additions, explanations and new ideas elaborated during and after the Second Vatican Council.

In the important and interesting encyclical Fides et Ratio (signed 14 September 1998) the Pope returns to his philosophical worries. That faith and reason cannot contradict each other is to him obvious, conformably to the Thomist tradition. He deplores the "post-modernist" dismissal of the classic truth-concept as well as of traditional metaphysical problems. He repeatedly stresses his respect for science and its autonomy but the claims of philosophy to "self-sufficiency" which implicitly rejects the help of revelation is to him, not surprisingly, an aberration of the modern age.

On 13 May 1981 in St Peter's Square an attempt was made on the Pope's life by Mehmet Ali Agca, a Turk who had escaped from prison in his country. The Pope, gravely wounded by gunshots, was twice at the edge of death but he recovered after several months in hospital. The background of the assassination attempt has never been satisfactorily explained. There was strong circumstantial evidence of the involvement of the Bulgarian secret service (and thus, inevitably, of the KGB) but the Italian court did not admit this as sufficient proof (the rumours about a cover-up could not be verified). The would-be killer was sentenced to life; later, the Pope visited him in an Italian prison.

Those who tried to follow the Pope's activities were flabbergasted by the almost superhuman energy of this man, who for two decades had been fighting against the frailty of his body. Apart from more than a hundred apostolic voyages, most of them to more than one country (and not to mention his many other travels), and apart from the everyday duties of a priest and a bishop, he was active in very many ways - writing books, encyclicals and pastoral letters, addressing international assemblies and ecclesiastical bodies, reacting to all major world conflicts, wars and terrorism. Every physician could see, even though there was no official confirmation, that the pontiff suffered from Parkinson's disease, apart from other ailments. One had the impression that his energy rose during his visits to his native land, especially to the Tatra region: mountaineers were, of course, particularly proud of him ("Look, here is our boy, and how far did he go!").

His unshaken faith was, no doubt, the main source of his endurance; he believed that God does not impose on us duties beyond our strength. Karol Wojtyla's trust in God was infinite; while his work might have seemed superhuman to many, he could certainly have said, like Jesus, "For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light."

John Paul II was an enormously learned intellectual, a great teacher, a man of intrepid faith and of immense compassion; if his anger flared up, it was when he denounced the indifference of the privileged when faced with human poverty and misfortunes. He spoke to everybody, freely and without any discomfort (one more reason for his critics' irritation). While he adapted the language of his preaching to the audience, his message was always "urbi et orbi" and, through specific questions, it always touched upon universal issues: good and evil, God and man, life and salvation.

Leszek Kolakowski