Tags: Pope | Preached | Back-to-Basics | Conservatism

Pope Preached Back-to-Basics Conservatism

Saturday, 02 April 2005 12:00 AM

As the first non-Italian pontiff in 455 years and the first from Poland, John Paul preached a back-to-basics conservatism infused with a common touch and a longing to heal ancient religious wounds. And he survived an assassination attempt to become the third-longest-serving pope.

In his final days, the 84-year-old pontiff sought to set an example of a dignified death. A letter released on Good Friday reflected on his hospitalization as "a patient alongside other patients, uniting in the Eucharist my own sufferings with those of Christ."

John Paul's Polish roots nourished a doctrinal conservatism — opposition to contraception, abortion, women priests — that rankled liberal Catholics in the United States and Western Europe.

A sex abuse scandal among clergy plunged his church into moral crisis, with allegations that he didn't react to it swiftly enough. And while championing the world's poor, he rebuked Latin American priests who sought to involve the church politically through the doctrine of "liberation theology."

Warm and straightforward, an outdoorsman who wrote plays and poetry, the 264th pope stood as a moral voice for the world, battling what he called a "culture of death" in modern society. It made him a hero to those who saw him as their rock in a degenerating world, and a foe to those who felt he was holding back social enlightenment.

"The church cannot be an association of freethinkers," John Paul said.

As the abuse scandal struck in the waning years of his papacy, he summoned U.S. cardinals to the Vatican and told them: "The abuse which has caused this crisis is by every standard wrong and rightly considered a crime by society; it is also an appalling sin in the eyes of God."

His was a papacy of groundbreaking change — his pilgrimage to his native Poland in 1979 in the teeth of the communist dictatorship; his appeal to God to forgive the sins of Catholics through the ages; his Vatican's long-delayed recognition of Israeli statehood; his conciliatory gestures toward Islam and the estranged Orthodox Church.

No pope ever traveled so much or so far: He visited more than 120 nations, reaching out especially to Asia and Africa as fertile ground for missionary work. He kissed the earth in each country, even though in his late years he was so frail he had to kiss soil in a bowl held out before him.

No pope delivered so many speeches: He warned in vain against wars in Iraq and the Balkans, deplored the plight of Palestinians and visited a mosque during a visit to Syria, the first pope to step into a Muslim house of worship.

No pope wrote so much, or so popularly: He produced 14 encyclicals — major statements for Catholic clergy and the faithful — and the best-selling book "Crossing the Threshold of Hope."

And no pope celebrated so many Masses for so many of the world's 1 billion Catholics: His open-air ceremonies attracted multitudes to St. Peter's Square and became a hallmark of papal visits abroad. His first visit to Ireland drew the largest crowd in the island's history.

In his later years, stooped and frail from ailments that included Parkinson's disease, John Paul realized his dream of leading his church into the third millennium. He marked it by making pilgrimages to the very roots of Western faith, Mount Sinai and the Holy Land.

His reign in the waning years of the millennium allowed him to shape the church for the next. He placed like-minded conservatives in the Vatican government and key dioceses, and named most of the cardinals who will elect his successor, expanding the College of Cardinals in 2001 to a record 183 members.

John Paul's papacy began in 1978, the "year of the three popes."

Paul VI died after 15 years as pontiff. His successor, John Paul I, died after 33 days as pope. On Oct. 16, the world was stunned when the oldest cardinal emerged from the conclave to deliver the customary announcement in Latin, "Habemus papam" — We have a pope — and the choice turned out to be Archbishop Karol Wojtyla (pronounced Voy-TI-wa) of Krakow, Poland.

Wojtyla's name had not been among the "papabile," those considered contenders for the Chair of St. Peter. At 58, this non-Italian was the youngest pope in 125 years, charged with heading a church in turmoil from the reforms of the Second Vatican Council.

And he came from a communist-ruled country where the church had struggled to survive against a hostile government.

Albino Luciani, the short-lived John Paul I, had taken his papal name from his two 20th century heroes, Paul VI and John XXIII, and by taking the same name, Wojtyla wanted to signal continuity.

Yet he immediately brought a new dimension to the papacy and a tradition-steeped Vatican where monsignors speak in hushed tones and the Swiss Guards still wear red, yellow and blue uniforms designed by Michelangelo.

"Papa Wojtyla," as Italians called him, ate pizza with the president of Italy.

He introduced working breakfasts and lunches in the Vatican.

He sat down for simple meals with factory workers.

He skied.

Frequently he melted into crowds in St. Peter's Square or abroad, a broad-shouldered figure in white robes, beaming, shaking hands and sweeping little children into his arms.

One of those occasions was May 13, 1981, five days short of his 61st birthday. As the pope stood in his white jeep, waving to the cheering throng in St. Peter's Square, he was shot twice by Mehmet Ali Agca, a 23-year-old Turk.

One bullet entered John Paul's abdomen, a second hit his left index finger. Although the abdominal wound seriously damaged the pope's intestines, the would-be assassin had failed.

"The miracle bullet and the Holy Father's robust physical build saved him," the Rev. Romeo Panciroli, then the Vatican spokesman, said the next day.

Leaving the hospital three weeks later, John Paul told doctors: "You thought you had changed me, but I'm still the same old rascal."

He then visited Agca in prison and forgave him. The reasons behind the shooting have never been made clear.

John Paul's swift recovery was indicative of the vitality he brought to the papacy.

A sturdy man with a strong voice, the Polish pope had command of a dozen languages, a sense of humor and timing, and an untiring desire to get to know and endear himself to all.

But to communists, he gave no quarter.

"Nazi paganism and Marxist dogma are both basically totalitarian ideologies and tend to become substitute religions," he wrote in 1989 in an apostolic letter hailing democratic reform in Poland.

As before, his words were directed beyond Poland's borders, and clearly bolstered the will of the opposition in the Soviet bloc.

In taking over from his Italian predecessors, John Paul brought a piece of Poland to his third-floor apartment in the Apostolic Palace overlooking St. Peter's Square. His personal secretary, the nuns who served him and the food he ate were Polish.

His trips to his homeland — where for years the church had been the unifying opposition force — prompted an explosion of patriotism and anti-communist feeling. His 1979 pilgrimage helped foster the birth of Solidarity; his 1983 and 1987 tours kept alive the spirit of the trade union movement after Communist Party cracked down.

In 1991, with the Iron Curtain gone, the pope returned to a free Poland for the first time, and cautioned Poles and other eastern Europeans not to take their freedom lightly.

"We cannot simply possess freedom, we must constantly fight for it. We fight for it by putting it to good use and using it in the cause of truth," he said.

John Paul was the most accessible modern pope, meeting with reporters on foreign trips, listening to the problems of everyday people in parishes and receiving visitors ranging from kings and presidents to circus performers and victims of terrorism.

He recited the rosary on a best-selling CD and directed that his 11th encyclical — his strongest denunciation of abortion — be released on compact disc as well.

During his papacy, John Paul traveled some 723,723 miles — nearly three times the distance between the Earth and the moon. His pace slowed in 1990s after surgery for a bowel tumor, a broken leg and a hip replacement, and an appendectomy.

By 1994, he walked with a limp and used a cane. But still he kept traveling.

His world tours began with a swing through the Dominican Republic, Mexico and the Bahamas in 1979. He went to the United States that same year, and returned in 1987, 1993, 1995 and 1999.

His journeys took him to predominantly Catholic countries like the Philippines, where 4 million people turned out to see him in 1995.

But he also visited nations with few Catholics such as Japan and Azerbaijan.

Explaining his stop at the tiny island of Guam in 1981, he said: "To me, a small place is just as important as any big diocese. I don't want them to feel they are left alone."

He expounded a message he felt was needed in a secularized, dispirited society — hope, confidence, firm values, moral integrity, brotherhood, social justice and the simple life.

He delivered ringing condemnations of human rights violations, hunger, the arms race and restrictions on religious freedoms.

Italians criticized the pope when he praised doctors who refused to perform abortions, and when he called for the repeal of the country's liberal abortion law. But they hailed him for denouncing the Mafia.

The pope's hard line toward communist governments initially earned him the Kremlin's wrath. Relations were further strained by allegations — never proved — that the Soviets supported the assassination attempt.

But the rise of Mikhail Gorbachev in 1985 opened a new era. Eager to invigorate his doddering superpower and win allies abroad, he lifted restrictions on religion, and in 1989 became the first Soviet leader to visit the pope at the Vatican. (The pope never was able to fulfill his dream of visiting Russia.)

Another wall fell when Fidel Castro visited the Vatican in 1996 and invited John Paul to Cuba, one of the last bastions of communism. John Paul made the trip in January 1998, giving the church a firmer foothold on the island.

John Paul also championed better relations with Jews — Christianity's "older brothers," as he put it — and the Vatican formally recognized Israel in 1993. The pope — who had drawn criticism for meeting with Palestine Liberation Organization chief Yasser Arafat in 1982 — then pushed for diplomatic relations with Palestinians.

During his visit to Jerusalem in March 2000, John Paul prayed at the Western Wall, Judaism's holiest shrine. Copying a Jewish custom, he tucked a note between the stones in which he apologized to God for the behavior of those who made Jews suffer over the centuries.

John Paul was also intent on improving relations with Muslims. On a trip to Damascus, Syria, in May 2001, he became the first pope to step into a mosque.

One of his major goals was reconciliation with other Christians. In Athens, Greece, he apologized for wrongs committed against Orthodox Christians. But he was unable to overcome centuries of hostility. Accusations by some Orthodox that the Vatican was seeking to expand its influence in traditional Orthodox territory kept John Paul from visiting Moscow.

John Paul made clear his church was no democracy, and codified church teaching in the light of 20th century reality in a new Catechism of the Catholic Church, the first major revision in 400 years.

He criticized liberation theology, a movement strong in Latin America that emphasizes political activism by the church on behalf of the poor. He told priests worldwide to get out of politics, and some did.

His approach to doctrine was unyieldingly conservative. In his view, there were rights and wrongs that no moral shading could change.

He reaffirmed the church's ban on artificial birth control and denounced in vitro fertilization, abortion, euthanasia, divorce, sex outside marriage and homosexual relations. In his later years, he led a campaign against same-sex marriages.

He demanded celibacy of Roman Catholic priests. He reaffirmed the church's ban on women priests and sought to close debate on the subject. However, he did give in to the demands of liberal Catholics to allow altar girls.

But that did little to satisfy the liberal wing of his church, which claimed he was overstepping his authority.

"When the pope does that which isn't part of his office, he cannot demand obedience in the name of Catholicism. He must expect dissent," nearly 200 theologians from German-speaking countries said in a 1989 declaration.

Some church liberals criticized John Paul's fondness for the conservative, militant Catholic group Opus Dei. The beatification of its founder, Josemaria Escriva de Balaguer, in 1992, 17 years after his death, was one of the church's most controversial in decades.

The pope angered many Jesuits — an order with a tradition of independence and liberalism — by naming his personal representatives to run the order. The differences were largely patched over by 1995, when Jesuit leaders endorsed initiatives that dovetailed with many of the pope's views: using the church to help women and forging cooperation with the laity.

John Paul also held separate sessions with Dutch and U.S. prelates, summoning them to the Vatican to admonish them for liberal practices, such as questioning priestly celibacy.

The pope's discipline was not limited to liberals. In 1988, traditionalist French Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre ordained new bishops in defiance of the pope, provoking the first major church schism in more than a century. No Vatican official attended Lefebvre's funeral in 1991.

Also, his reconciliation efforts were marred in the eyes of some Jews by his ambition to beatify Pope Pius XII, who had been accused of failing to speak out strongly enough against Nazi genocide.

Karol Joseph Wojtyla was born in Wadowice, Poland, on May 18, 1920. His father, a foundry worker and a noncommissioned army officer, reared his two sons in piety and discipline, sometimes making them study in unheated rooms to toughen them.

His mother, Emilia Krezorowaska, was a former teacher whose frequent illnesses forced her to rely upon her nieces for help in rearing her sons. Karol was 9 when she died. In 1932, his elder brother, Edmund, a medical intern, caught scarlet fever from a patient and died.

While a student, Wojtyla worked in a stone quarry. He moved to Krakow in 1938 and in his free time wrote poetry, acted, played soccer, went canoeing in mountain streams and took daredevil swims in the Swaka River.

When Wojtyla was 20, his father died, leaving him with no immediate family in a country under brutal Nazi occupation.

His name appeared on a Nazi blacklist in 1944 for his activities in a Christian democratic underground. B'nai B'rith and other organizations testified that he helped Jews find refuge from the Nazis.

Stories circulated after he became pope suggesting that Wojtyla was married during World War II to a woman who was killed by a Nazi. The Vatican denied the reports.

The pope himself made a teasing reference to the rumors during his 1979 visit to Poland. He abruptly curtailed a reminiscence of his family by saying: "Well, that's enough of the past. I'm not going into details. There are a lot of reporters around, ready to investigate. Matters of the heart and youth should be left to God, who calls human beings at different stages of their lives."

John Paul has rarely discussed his vocation. In a visit to his birthplace in 1991, he recalled "that mystery I was taught by my mother who — joining a small child's hands in prayer — showed me how to make a sign of the cross." His father, he said, was also deeply religious.

In a 1999 visit, he reminisced about growing up in a small town, recalling his friends, his home, and Jewish neighbors who were sent to death camps by the Nazis.

He was ordained a priest on Nov. 1, 1946, at age 26 — relatively old, even then. He was then sent to Rome where he scored highest marks in philosophy and graduated summa cum laude from the Angelicum Pontifical University in 1948.

A year later he returned to Poland, and began working as a parish assistant under restrictive conditions imposed by the new Communist Party regime.

After earning a doctorate in theology, he began teaching at the Catholic University in Lublin in 1954 and later at the state university of Krakow. He published essays in several French philosophical reviews, and contributed poems to Catholic periodicals.

The future pope rose in the church hierarchy, becoming auxiliary bishop of Krakow in 1958 and bishop in 1964. Three years later, only 21 years after his ordination, Paul VI made him a cardinal.

With his mentor, Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski, the primate of Poland and archbishop of Warsaw who died in 1981, Wojtyla was instrumental in formulating the Polish church's moderate demands for religious freedom in communist countries.


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As the first non-Italian pontiff in 455 years and the first from Poland, John Paul preached a back-to-basics conservatism infused with a common touch and a longing to heal ancient religious wounds. And he survived an assassination attempt to become the third-longest-serving...
Saturday, 02 April 2005 12:00 AM
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