The National Catholic Review
John Thavis
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Pope John Paul II spent more than 26 years as a dominant figure on the world stage, using his moral leadership to promote human rights, condemn ethical failings and plead for peace. He had the ear of presidents, prime ministers and kings, who came in a steady stream for private audiences at the Vatican. Although the pope’s fading health in later years made these one-on-one meetings less substantive, his encounters with U.S. and Soviet leaders in the 1980’s and 90’s gave a spiritual impetus to the fall of European Communism.

More than any previous pontiff, he pushed religious teachings into the center of public debate, arguing that universal moral normssuch as the sanctity of lifeare not optional for contemporary society.

The pope’s bold words and gestures won acclaim, but not from all quarters. As his pontificate wore on, his message increasingly went against conventional thinking on issues like abortion, gay marriage and genetic research.

When it came to war, the pope gave no comfort to those pressing for the use of military force. His outspoken opposition to the U.S.-led war on Iraq in 2003 was based on the conviction that both sides should have done more to settle the dispute peacefully. He mobilized an unprecedented, though unsuccessful, diplomatic effort to help prevent hostilities and to preserve the role of the United Nations in global peacemaking.

Following the terrorist attacks in the United States on Sept. 11, 2001, by extremists acting in the name of Islam, the pope led a spiritual campaign against all violence in the name of religion. He convened a meeting of Muslims, Christians, Jews and others in Assisi in early 2002; the gathering produced a joint statement against terrorism.

Pro-life issues brought out a fighting spirit in the Polish-born pontiff. In 1994, for example, he challenged U.N. population planners on abortion and birth-control policies and steered an international development conference toward a moral debate on life and family issues.

The pope and his aides took some flak for that. But as he aged, he seemed more determined than ever to speak his mind, applying church teaching to technical questions such as economics, biology and demographics, and prodding individual consciences on what he has called a worldwide moral crisis.

The Gospel of Life, his 1995 encyclical on pro-life issues that he addressed to all people of good will and sent to government leaders around the globe, reflected the pope’s sense of resolve.

To speak out on an issue like abortion confirms this pope’s leadership in a dramatic way. If a pope doesn’t try to awaken ethical responsibility, what is his value? said the Vatican spokesman Joaquín Navarro-Valls.

The pope’s pro-life stand also virtually excluded the death penalty, and he made frequent appeals against executions in the United States. After one dramatic plea during his visit to St. Louis in 1999, the sentence of a death-row inmate in Missouri was commuted.

During jubilee celebrations in 2000, the pope continually prodded and pressured global financial powers to forgive at least part of the third world debt, a request that added a moral dimension to the issue and helped bring about debt relief for some of the poorest nations.

The pope conferred with presidents, stood up to tyrants and preached to crowds of more than a million people. Almost immediately after his election in 1978, he began using the world as a pulpit: decrying hunger from Africa; denouncing the arms race from Hiroshima, Japan; and promoting human equality from caste-conscious India.

As Poland’s native son, he had a special interest and a key role in the demise of European Communism. For years he criticized the moral bankruptcy of the system, to applause in the West. His visits to his homeland helped light the fire of reform, which eventually led to the first non-Communist government in the Soviet bloc.

In an astute political move, he cultivated an ally in Mikhail Gorbachev, whose glasnost policies set the stage for the breakup of the Soviet Unionand the return of religious freedom.

But the pope was also a sometimes unwelcome critic of capitalism, warning that the profit motive alone would never bring justice and cautioning about the effects of globalization in the post-Communist era.

Modern leadership is often a question of personal rapport, and Pope John Paul met with world figures across the spectrum. During his pontificate, every U.S. president made a pilgrimage to the Vatican, including President George W. Bush in 2001, 2002 and 2004.

The pope’s door almost always was open to the world’s powerful, a policy that brought controversial figures to his private libraryamong them the Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat, Cuba’s President Fidel Castro and the former president of Austria, Kurt Waldheim.

Many observers, including former U.S. ambassadors to the Vatican, said Pope John Paul’s influence on world events was tremendous. They praised his political savvy, reflected less in the public realm than in behind-the-scenes efforts by Vatican diplomats. The pope’s tenure saw a near-doubling of the number of countries with which the Vatican holds diplomatic relations.

At the same time, his flair for the dramatic gesture helped make him the most televised pontiff in history. That was a form of global influence that this pope never underestimated. Millions watched him walk through crowds of African poor or visit a shanty-town family in Latin America. As the pope once said, one reason he kept returning to these places was that he knew the cameras would follow, spotlighting human problems around the globe.

The pope was a consistent critic of war and a booster of peace, and during his pontificate the Vatican issued major statements calling for disarmament. His aides successfully headed off a shooting war between Chile and Argentina in 1978.

But sometimes the pope’s peace efforts went unheeded, to his bitter disappointment. That was true not only in Iraq; his warnings about conflagration in the Balkans and his horror at ethnic fighting in Africa illustrated the limits of papal influence.

When Pope John Paul first addressed the United Nations in 1979, he emphasized that harmonious international relations were deeply tied to a proper understanding of freedom and respect for moral precepts. That was a message he honed over the years in face-to-face meetings with world leaders and in public speeches.

Returning to the United Nations in 1995, frailer but just as forceful, he again insisted that the family of nations must be founded on strong moral principles and warned of unspeakable offenses against human life and freedom in today’s world.

The pope never stopped prodding the world’s conscience, nor did he shy away from appealing directly to heads of state. Visiting Cuba in 1998, he challenged Castro’s government to allow freedom of expression and a wider church role in society.

In these and other interventions, the pope felt certain that he acted in the name of civilians who had little or no voice in world events.

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

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