John Thavis
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As Pope John Paul II celebrates 25 years in office, the world is taking stock of a pontificate that has helped shape political events, set new directions for the Catholic Church and offered spiritual inspiration to millions of people around the globe. By any measure, this is a papacy for the ages. Since his election on Oct. 16, 1978, Pope John Paul has delivered more speeches, met with more world leaders, canonized more saints and kissed more babies than any previous pontiff. Visiting 129 countriesfrom the steppes of Asia to the Rocky Mountainshe has implemented the church’s own form of globalization. And in more than 50 major documents, on themes ranging from economics to the rosary, he has brought the Gospel and church teachings to bear on nearly every aspect of modern life.

Everyone agrees that this pope already has left a moral legacy, inside and outside the church. But Pope John Paul also has weathered his share of disappointments in recent years, including the scandal of sexual abuse by clergy in the United States, the ecumenical rupture with Orthodox leaders, legislative defeats on pro-life issues in many countries and the frustration of not being able to visit Russia and China.

Vatican officials are focusing on the accomplishments, but are going out of their way to make sure the anniversary celebration does not take on the tone of a retirement party.

“The pope still has an important message to deliver, and people are listening, perhaps more than ever,” the Vatican spokesman Joaquín Navarro-Valls said in an interview with the Catholic News Service. “He is the only global leader who is worried about the spiritual well-being of today’s men and women, as opposed to their material well-being. He asks, Who are you?’ instead of What do you want to do?’ or What do you want to buy?’ And people understand this and respond to it,” he said. 

At the start of the 21st century, a time of rapid changes in technology and biology, the pope has hewed closer to this dominant theme, Navarro-Valls said.

As the analyses and accolades rolled in before the 25th anniversary celebration, the pope was busy keeping a low profile. He purposely upstaged himself by scheduling the beatification of Mother Teresa of Calcutta for Oct. 19, a Sunday that falls between the anniversary of his election and his inaugural Mass. Whether for Mother Teresa or Pope John Paul, tens of thousands of Catholics are planning to converge on Rome and join in the festivities. The world’s cardinals have been invited, too.

So far, the pope has avoided great retrospective speeches or documents on his first quarter-century. In fact, he has spoken more about Mary, to whom he has dedicated this year in a special way, than about his own accomplishments.

At 83, he is frail and hobbled by Parkinson’s disease and other ailments. He no longer walks in public; instead, he sits and rides on a variety of newfangled mechanisms that allow him to keep celebrating liturgies and meeting with groups. But thanks in part to a new regime of therapy, he has regained strength in his voice and seems to breathe easier than he did a year ago. Those improvements have encouraged aides and put an end to speculation over papal retirementat least for now.

Many at the Vatican believe the pope’s infirmities have added a new dimension to his message. When the Mass is celebrated by someone in his condition, the sacrifice of Christ becomes even more evident, Cardinal Jozef Tomko, a longtime friend and retired Vatican official, said.

The first non-Italian pontiff in 455 years, Pope John Paul II declared early on that the Second Vatican Council had set his agenda. In particular, his global ministry quickly focused on Vatican II’s engagement with modern culture. As for teaching, the pope has penned three major encyclicals on economic and social justice issues and has addressed the rich-poor imbalance continent by continent in post-synodal documents.

Over the last 10 years, he also has authored three other encyclicals that strongly challenge what he sees as a prevailing moral relativism in postmodern society. Veritatis Splendor (1993) spoke of the truth of the church’s moral teachings, Evangelium Vitae (1995) defended the inviolability of human life against what the pope calls a culture of death, and Fides et Ratio (1998) argued that human reason cannot be detached from faith in God.

Meanwhile, under his guidance, Vatican agencies have issued important instructions on such specific questions as foreign debt, in vitro fertilization, the arms industry, the role of the mass media and the impact of the Internet.

Through all these pronouncements runs a central theme: that human freedom becomes destructive when people forget they are created in God’s image. Whether an unborn child, an impoverished African or an elderly shut-in, the pope says, every human being has a value that goes beyond earthly advantages and accomplishments.

While pushing Catholic teaching into virtually every area of modern life, the pope also has taken the measure of the church’s past mistakes. At his insistence, the church acknowledged historical errors in condemning the 16th-century astronomer Galileo Galilei, in participating in European religious wars and even in its missionary approach in some New World territories.

Against considerable resistance within his own Vatican hierarchy, the pope commissioned critical studies on the church’s role in the Inquisition and the Crusades and on the failings of Christians during the Holocaust.

In the area of interreligious relations, Pope John Paul has reached out in ways that were once considered impossible or even heretical. In 1986 he visited a Jewish synagogue in Rome, then in 2000 prayed at the Western Wall in Jerusalema gesture that won the hearts of many Jews worldwide. In Syria, he became the first pope to visit a mosque, and in Morocco he spoke to thousands of cheering Muslim youths. Twice he convened leaders of other religions and other churches for prayer meetings in Assisi, where participants denounced all acts of war and terrorism carried out in the name of religion.

Within the church, the pope has been no less dynamic. He has disciplined dissenting theologians and self-styled traditionalists, promulgated a new Code of Canon Law, issued new directives calling for clearer Catholic identity in church universities and defended with the full weight of his authority the church’s all-male priesthood.

As a teacher of the faith, the pope has been exhaustive, demanding and authoritative. The Catechism of the Catholic Church is his longest document and will no doubt be seen as one of the great accomplishments of this pontificate; a shorter compendium of church teaching is also in the works.

The pope brooks no dissent among the faithful, and in a 1998 document he invoked penalties against Catholics who reject the church’s wide range of definitive positions, including those on human sexuality. That has prompted criticism by some groups of laypeople and theologians, especially in Europe and the United States. Such groups say the pope has presided over an excessive centralization of church power and authority at the expense of local churches.

While supporting Vatican II’s promotion of the laity in the church, Pope John Paul has warned against confusing the roles of lay Catholics and ordained priests. He has supported clerically managed lay organizations like Opus Dei, which has grown in influence.

As opposed to models of power-sharing in the church, Pope John Paul has proposed models of holiness to the world’s 1.1 billion Catholics. He has canonized more than 470 people from dozens of countries and beatified more than 1,300including the first lay couple.

At the 25-year mark, the pope’s record on ecumenism shows a long list of agreements, joint declarations and mutual gestures of good will, especially with some ancient Eastern churches.

But as common ground has been staked out among the churches, the remaining obstacles have stood in even higher relief. The Vatican’s clear injunction against shared Eucharist with Protestant churches may seem arbitrary to critics, but the pope views it as a painful reminder of the distance yet to travel in ecumenical dialogue.

In recent years, relations with the Russian Orthodox Church have sharply deteriorated as a result of the pope’s determination to rebuild Catholic communities in Russia and other parts of Eastern Europe. Surely one of the pope’s biggest disappointments after 25 years has been the failure to visit Moscow, which he would undertake only with the Orthodox Church’s blessing.

Pope John Paul’s pontificate is the fourth-longest in history, after those of St. Peter (d. 64 or 67), Pius IX (1846-78) and Leo XIII (1878-1903); and perhaps more than any of his predecessors he has shaped the hierarchy in his image. He has named more than three-fourths of the world’s active bishops and 96 percent of the cardinals who will elect his successor.

During his papacy, the church has expanded greatly in Africa and made significant advances in Asia and Oceania. This distinctly third world tilt has been spotlighted during the pope’s more than 100 foreign trips, when he has used local customs in his liturgies, spoken the native language and praised indigenous writers and thinkers.

But the trips have enormous missionary objectives as well. While respectful of the non-Catholic or non-Christian majorities along his itinerary, the pope has always presented the figure of Christ and the Gospel message to any and all of his listeners.

That is in keeping with the pope’s conviction that while all people can be saved, Christ is the unique savior for all peoplea point made forcefully in the controversial document Dominus Iesus, which emphasized proclamation of Christ over dialogue.

Visiting India in 1999, the pope delineated the church’s approach on the Asian continent, where he predicted a great harvest of faith in the years to come. He praised his hosts’ non-Christian spiritual traditions but also preached the Gospel, and said the best way for Christians to evangelize was by living the Gospel values.

As the pope has aged, his rapport with young people has remained consistentlyand sometimes amazinglyfresh and energetic. World Youth Day celebrations, like the most recent one in Toronto in 2002, seem to bring out the pope’s good humor and vigor. He jokes more easily with the young, but there is a serious side to all this, too.

As the years of this pontificate roll by, the encyclicals and teaching documents have become fewer and the speeches shorter. Those close to him say the pope has clearly not run out of things to say, howeverhe is just saying them in different ways.

“At the start of the 21st century, the pope continues to open people up to the transcendent, telling them that we’re more than genetics, we’re more than psychology, we’re more than DNA,” said Navarro-Valls. This is a message that is resonating with Catholics and non-Catholics around the world, he added.

The pope is also finding time for more reflective writing. Earlier this year, he published a small book of poetry, meditations that were inspired by the frescoes of the Sistine Chapel.

As his 25th anniversary approached, the pope was in the final phase of writing a book on his 20 years as a bishop in Poland. He authored a similar volume in 1996 on his life as a priest, an intensely personal review of the spiritual path that eventually led to the papacy.

During the past 25 years, the face of the church has changedin some aspects dramatically. Numbers tell part of the story.

At the broadest level, the number of Catholics in the world has jumped more than 40 percent, from 757 million to 1.06 billion at the end of 2001, the last year for which official church statistics have been published.

More significant under this pontificate are the geographical areas of growth, which indicate a third world shift. Catholics in Africa have increased nearly 150 percent and in Asia more than 80 percent. In Europe the increase has been only 5 percent, and the number of Catholics has actually gone down in recent years. In the United States, the number of Catholics rose from 48 million to 64 million over the same period. That is an increase of about 33 percent, 4 percentage points higher than the growth of the general U.S. population.

When it comes to those who work in a ministerial or teaching capacity for the church, there has been an increase in most categories under Pope John Paul, but a decrease among members of religious orders.

Overall, the workforce for the church’s apostolate has jumped from 1.6 million to 2.8 million. The number of bishops in the world increased from 3,600 to more than 4,600and more than 70 percent of them have been appointed by Pope John Paul.

After declining for several years, the number of diocesan priests was up to 266,500 at the end of 2001, about 8,000 more than when the pope took office. The number of religious priests has declined steadily, from about 158,000 to 139,000, and religious brothers are down from about 75,000 to 55,000. The sharpest drop has been in the number of women religious, which has gone from 985,000 to 792,000.

While the number of foreign missionary priests has declined in many parts of the world, the number of indigenous catechists has exploded. When Pope John Paul assumed the papacy, the church had 173,000 catechists; today there are more than 2.8 million. The number of lay missionariesnot even a category when the pope was electedhas now reached 139,000, most of them in South America.

Permanent deacons have emerged as a pastoral force during this pope’s term. They numbered 5,500 in 1978 and are more than 28,000 today. Nearly half of them are in the United States.

Despite what the Vatican considers as hopeful trends in priestly vocations, there are far fewer priests per Catholic today than when the pope came to office. In 1978 the worldwide ratio was 1,800 Catholics for every priest; today it is more than 2,600 Catholics per priest.

But the church has bolstered its social and educational roles under Pope John Paul II. For example, there are more than 106,000 church-run health and welfare institutions today, compared to 64,000 in 1978. The figure includes clinics, homes for the elderly and disabled, orphanages and marriage counseling centers.

The number of church-run schools has gone way up, and enrollment has increased by 40 percent or more under Pope John Paul. At the university level, the increase is more dramatic. Enrollment at Catholic higher institutes of learning has risen from about 2 million in 1978 to 4.6 million today.

At the Vatican, the pope has continued the internationalization of the Roman Curia. When he came to office, Italians controlled about half the Vatican’s top 20 departments. Today, Italians hold only four of those top spots.

The pope also has made a direct and strong impact on the makeup of the College of Cardinals, the institution that will elect his successor. He expanded the total number of cardinals to a record 184 in 2001. Of the 109 cardinals under the age of 80 at the end of August and eligible to vote in a conclave, the pope has appointed all but five.

How will Pope John Paul II be remembered in the history books? On an ecclesial level, for his energetic missionary ministry that took him around the globe and saw rapid church growth in the third world. Internationally, he will go down as the godfather of Communism’s demise in Europe, and as a moral statesman whose pronouncements on poverty, human life and war often challenged conventional policies. But much of the world will remember him simply as a man of deep prayer, whose spiritual intensity impressed believers of every faith.

John Thavis is the Rome bureau chief of the Catholic News Service.