The Pope is not finished yet

After 20 years in the Vatican John Paul II aims to put his stamp on the next century, writes Anne Hanley in Rome

ON FRIDAY a frail, trembling 78-year-old will celebrate his 20th anniversary as one of the world's last absolute monarchs. He will do so without pomp and without festivities, working hard to finish a long-awaited encyclical, and contemplating a new millennium which he hopes to usher in personally with a list of mea culpas for his tiny state's actions during the previous one.

He will have the satisfaction of knowing that he has occupied the throne of St Peter's for longer than anyone else this century, and the painful awareness that, whatever his state of health, he has no choice but to remain there, a lonely figure at the head of a church which he has changed profoundly, and at the end of an era on which he has left an indelible mark.

Karol Jozef Wojtyla - Pope John Paul II - has an enviable number of records to his name. The first Polish pope; the first non-Italian to head the Catholic Church in 456 years; the first pope to have dirtied his hands with factory work; the most travelled pope. He has created more saints than any of his modern predecessors, and issued more letters and encyclicals.

He has met more foreign heads of state and government and has arguably had more influence in changing the course of world events than any of his predecessors since the great popes of the Renaissance.

He has also alienated more liberal Catholics than any other pontiff before him, sticking rigidly to conservative dogma and refusing to give any ground to late 20th-century changes of mores. And he has appointed almost 90 per cent of the cardinals who will be called upon to elect his successor, making it likely that his rigid principles will be carried forward into the next millennium by a new pope in his own likeness.

Born in the town of Wadowice in 1920, Karol Wojtyla grew up in a devout Catholic household, his faith instilled by a mother on whom he doted - a fact, perhaps, which explains his almost obsessive devotion to the Virgin Mary. She died when he was nine years old. He played football and wrote poetry and acted in plays, contemplating a life in the arts rather than in the church.

But during the rigours of Nazi-occupied wartime Poland, this employee of the German-owned Solvay chemicals plant opted for a secret training for the priesthood under Krakow's Archbishop Adam Sapieha. He was ordained in 1946 and, after an unremarkable few years keeping out of the way of trouble with his country's Communist rulers, he was consecrated as a bishop in 1958.

The man who, as pope, was to see the fall of communism, was looked upon kindly by the Polish regime, which viewed him as a malleable priest and backed him for the job of Archbishop of Krakow in 1964. They soon realised their mistake: the new bishop threw his weight behind student protests in 1968 and riots against food price increases in 1970.

Monsignor Wojtyla was a distant outsider to replace John Paul I when the consistory of cardinals met to elect a new pope in the Sistine Chapel in 1978. The choice of a pontiff from behind the Iron Curtain at a time when the first small cracks were appearing in the communist fortress grew in significance, however, when Ronald Reagan entered the White House in 1980. Together, the Vatican and Washington elicited solid international support for the burgeoning Solidarity labour union movement in Poland, while a strong hunch in Rome that the Kremlin's rising star, Mikhail Gorbachev, might prove a boon helped to temper hostility between the US and Moscow during the second half of the 1980s. In December 1989, the Pope and Mr Gorbachev came face to face in an emotional meeting in the Vatican.

If John Paul II has been a ground-breaker politically, he has been reactionary as far as the tenets of the Catholic church go. He has refused to budge an inch from an outright ban on artificial birth control, deigning last year only to recommend that priests grant absolution for contraception users who repent in the confessional and promise not to do it again. Abortion remains anathema; divorcees have no hope of a second church wedding.

The Pope's determination to restrict the priesthood to men - he wielded his infallibility on this topic in November 1995 - was so great that he was prepared to accept a cooling-off in ecumenical progress with the Anglican Church rather than abandon it. And to make sure that no wrong-thinking Catholic academics or philosophers should propound anything contrary to Vatican orthodoxy, he threatened them over the summer by adjusting canon law so that any wavering could lead to excommunication.

Critics of these conservative stances rarely pay much attention to his vindications of workers' rights, or his harsh words against the inequalities of extreme capital which he described as on a par with the extremes of communism.

Shot and near-fatally wounded in 1981, and operated on at various times since then for a tumour, a rumbling appendix and a broken hip, John Paul approaches his 20th anniversary with chronic Parkinson's disease which has slurred his speech and made his movements painful. Nothing daunted, the Pope made his 85th foreign trip, for a controversial beatification, to Croatia a week ago. A massive and demanding encyclical, Fides et Ratio (Faith and Reason) will be issued any day.

In it, John Paul will beg for an end to the modern minimalist approach to problems, urging superficial end-of-millennium mankind to return to the simplest, but most profound, questions posed by philosophy. He will suggest they shift their attention from phenomena to fundamentals through interaction between philosophy and faith.

The work, say Vatican commentators, is likely to be John Paul's final word to the church of the new millennium, a millennium he may never himself see. Though tired, ill, and eternally on his last legs, the Pope has other ideas.

His 20th anniversary will be marked by a mass in St Peter's next Sunday, but there is nothing more on the official agenda. The jubilee, on the other hand, will be a 15-month jamboree of the kind that the Pope loves. With a twinkle in his pained eyes each time the year 2000 is mentioned, John Paul has made it clear that he firmly intends to stick around for that date.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Money
Welcome to tinsel town: retailers such as Selfridges will be Santa's little helpers this Christmas, working hard to persuade shoppers to stock up on gifts
news
News
i100
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Architect Frank Gehry is regarded by many as the most important architect of the modern era
arts + entsGehry has declared that 98 per cent of modern architecture is "s**t"
Arts and Entertainment
Soul singer Sam Smith cleared up at the Mobo awards this week
arts + entsSam Smith’s Mobo triumph is just the latest example of a trend
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Maths Teacher

£110 - £200 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Secondary Maths Teacher for spe...

Business Analyst - Surrey - Permanent - Up to £50k DOE

£40000 - £50000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

***ASP.NET Developer - Cheshire - £35k - Permanent***

£30000 - £35000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

***Solutions Architect*** - Brighton - £40k - Permanent

£35000 - £40000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

Day In a Page

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
11 best sonic skincare brushes

11 best sonic skincare brushes

Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

Paul Scholes column

I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker