He was the Pope neither the Church nor the world expected. The surprises that characterized his twenty-six year pontificate began on the very night of John Paul II’s election.
On October 16, 1978, the Catholic Church was in a state of spiritual shock. The fifteen-year papacy of Paul VI, whom many veteran churchmen considered the perfectly prepared pope, had concluded in division and exhaustion. The bright promise of the Second Vatican Council was a fading memory. Paul’s successor, John Paul I, seemed on the verge of revitalizing the papacy when he died after a mere thirty-three days in office. To whom would the college of cardinals turn now?
Few expected that they would turn to Karol Wojtyla, the 58-year-old archbishop of Kraków. But after the first day’s balloting had revealed a deadlock between the two leading Italian candidates, the cardinals made the historic decision to look beyond Italy for a pope, and Wojtyla was quickly chosen. His appearance on the loggia of St. Peter’s Basilica that night was the first surprise; many in the vast crowd had never heard of “Wojtyla,” thinking the name Asian or African. But the surprises continued as John Paul II broke centuries of precedent and began his pontificate with an impromptu address in Italian, reassuring the worried Romans that, from this moment on, he, too, was a Roman. When he asked them to correct any mistakes he might make in “our Italian language,” they cheered wildly.
Six days later, at his papal inauguration, the surprises continued. In his homily, John Paul II challenged the Church to regain its evangelical fervor and its nerve, particularly in defending the fundamental human right of religious freedom throughout the world. After the three-hour ceremony ended, he refused to retreat into the Vatican basilica but walked toward the vast throng in the Square, waving his papal crozier as if it were a great sword of the spirit. When a small boy burst through the security cordon to present him with flowers, fussy local clergy tried to shoo him away; John Paul II swept him up in an embrace. The crowds refused to leave until John Paul told them, “It’s time for everyone to eat lunch, even the Pope!”
The stylistic surprises continued throughout his pontificate. John Paul acted as he thought a pastor should act, rather than according to the venerable script written by the traditional managers of popes. He invited guests to his private Mass and his meals, every day. He visited more of Italy and Rome than any of his Italian predecessors. He held seminars in his summer residence with agnostic and atheist philosophers. His world travels–wearing a tribal headdress in Kenya in 1980, holding a koala bear in Australia in 1986, gathering the largest crowd in human history in Manila in January 1995, improvising a Polish Christmas carol in New York’s Central Park nine months later, solemnly commemorating the Holocaust in Jerusalem in 2000–made him the most visible pope in history.
It would be a serious mistake, though, to think of this as the showmanship of an accomplished actor. John Paul II’s conduct of the papacy, however surprising it was to some, was based on a firmly held set of convictions. Bishops, he believed, were primarily evangelists and teachers, not managers. That was the way he had been the archbishop of Kraków, and that was how he thought he should be the Bishop of Rome. In doing so, John Paul II, 263rd successor to St. Peter, brought the papacy into the 21st century by retrieving the first-century model of the Office of Peter in the Church. In the New Testament, Peter is not the chief executive officer of a small niche company, “Christianity, Inc.” Peter is a witness, an evangelist, a pastor, the center of the Church’s unity. John Paul II revitalized that ancient concept of the Office of Peter for the third millennium, using all the instruments of the communications and transportation revolutions to bring Peter to the world.
In the course of this dramatic renovation of the world’s oldest institutional office, he continued to surprise. Throughout his pontificate, he was a magnet for the world’s young people, who flocked to him by the millions. In the early years of his papacy, some of this almost certainly reflected the contemporary cult of celebrity. But that was not all it was, and his status in the 1980s as a global superstar did not explain why John Paul II continued to attract the young when he was visibly weakened by disease and age.
Why did the Pope remain a compelling figure for the young? One reason was his transparent integrity. Young people have acutely sensitive hypocrisy detectors; in John Paul II, they saw a man who believed what he said and acted out his beliefs. There was no “spin” here–only integrity all the way through, the integrity of a man who committed every facet of his life to Jesus Christ. This was immensely compelling.
The Pope was also attractive to the young because he defied the cultural conventions of our age and didn’t pander to them. Rather, he challenged them to moral grandeur. While virtually every other authority figure in the world was lowering the bar of moral expectation, John Paul II held it high. You are capable of moral heroism, he told young people. Of course you will fail from time to time; that is human. But don’t demean yourself by holding your lives to a lower standard. Get up from your failures, seek forgiveness and reconciliation, try again. That, he insisted, is the path to the fulfillment all young people seek.
And they listened. Not all of them agreed. But they came, in their millions, and listened. There is little doubt that many were changed by the encounter.
John Paul II, the Pope from intensely Catholic Poland, also surprised many by his ecumenical initiatives and the passion of his commitment to a new relationship between Catholicism and living Judaism.
No Pope since the split between Rome and the Christian East in 1054 did as much to close that first massive breach in the unity of the Church. No Pope since the Reformation spent more time in dialogue with Protestant Christians. No Pope ever asked Orthodox and Protestants leaders and theologians to help him think through an exercise of the papacy that would serve their needs.
None of this bore immediate fruit. After an immensely difficult twentieth century, Orthodox Christianity was in no condition to respond to John Paul’s suggestion that he sought no jurisdictional role in the East and that it ought to be possible to return to the way things were before 1054. And while significant theological advances were made in the ecumenical dialogue with Protestants– notably the 1999 Joint Declaration on Justification by Faith by the Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation–it became clear throughout the pontificate that new, Church-dividing issues had emerged since the sixteenth century. Yet despite these frustrations, John Paul II secured the quest for Christian unity in the heart of the Catholic Church. Seeds he has planted will germinate in the third millennium.
The dialogue with Judaism saw more concrete accomplishments. After John Paul’s 1986 visit to the Synagogue of Rome, his repeated condemnations of anti-Semitism, his multiple apologies for centuries of Christian prejudice and persecution of the Jews, and his Jubilee year pilgrimage to Israel, Jews and Catholics stood on the edge of a new conversation, of a depth and range unseen for more than nineteen hundred years. Jewish leaders throughout the world have testified to the fact that John Paul II has been the best Pope for Jews ever. And if this is surprising to some, it was to the Pope himself an expression of the veneration for the living Judaism he learned in his boyhood, playing goalie on the local Jewish soccer team and occasionally visiting the synagogue in his hometown, which was 20% Jewish.
John Paul II canonized more saints than any Pope in history and beatified hundreds of other servants of God–another surprise to some, and a practice that came under criticism. But the Pope, who thought there was sanctity all around us, believed that the “universal call to holiness” of which Vatican II had spoken was being answered on every continent and among people in every walk of life. God, he believed, is quite profligate in making saints.
That same conviction about the abundance of grace inspired John Paul’s enthusiastic endorsement of a host of lay renewal movements in the Church. These movements–Focolare, Regnum Christi, the Neo-Catechumenal Way, Communion and Liberation, among many others–make some bishops and Church officials nervous; where did these movements of radical discipleship “fit” in the organization chart? John Paul II was content to leave that question to the future and encouraged every new movement that committed itself to “thinking with the Church.”
He was a Pope of many surprises. French journalist André Frossard understood that when, shortly after John Paul’s election, he wired his French newspaper, “This is not a Pope from Poland. This is a Pope from Galilee.” And that, in retrospect, was the greatest surprise of all.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.