The beatification of John Paul II: How did he change the Catholic Church?

The ceremony of beatification of the late Pope John Paul II (1920 – 2005) will take place tomorrow in Rome.

Questions:

1. John Paul II. is one of the most popular popes. What do you think is the reason of that? Is it just because his papacy is so recent, lasted long time and we live in specific media and celebrity age or was he really exceptional even when you compare him to other popes? How would his style of papacy fare in comparison to other pontiffs?

2. What do you consider to be John Paul II.’s biggest feat, biggest impact on the life of the Church and religion and on the society in general?

3. John Paul II. is one of the persons, credited or connected with the fall of communism in Central and Eastern Europe. How do you see his contribution?

Answers:

Steven Avella, Professor of History, Marquette University, Former President of the American Catholic Historical Association

1. Pope John Paul II was the first pontiff to understand the extent to which the communications media has transformed the world. His words are less remembered or heeded than were his gestures, actions, huge public liturgies and celebratory visits to all parts of the globe. Although perhaps a bit too much has been made of of his work as an amateur actor when he was a youth, he and his advisors (particularly Archbishop Piero Marini his former MC) understood the tremendous evocative power of Catholic liturgy, ritual and ceremony–and used them to maximum advantage. Hence images of him with Native Americans (wearing a ceremonial head-dress), swaying to the rhythm of African drummers, embracing young children and kneeling before images and icons of Mary were powerful. Few could forget his memorable trip to the Holy Land and praying at the Wailing Wall. He was pontiff who visited the living rooms of millions around the globe–a friendly and benign face, a universal shepherd. People remembered his face and the images on the television screen–and little of what he said. The World Youth Days are perhaps the best staged and most powerful of these ongoing events.

When one looks carefully at his administrative track record, it is clear that he began the process of reining in what he considered the “excesses” of Vatican II, particularly in the Western world. He centralized papal power, cracked down on “dissident” theologians, and appointed totally loyal and career-minded men to the international episcopate. He reinvigorated devotional practices (e.g. Divine Mercy) to the point that they once again became rivals to the Sacred Liturgy and opened the door–in the interest of reconciliation–to those who had left the church because of disdain for the reforms of Vatican II. His strong opposition to artificial contraception and the ordination of women overwhelmed his equally strong support of social justice–e.g. unions, the right to a living wage, economic justice. The record and impact of his pontificate is not yet susceptible to serious historical analysis. We will have that when we can view of his papers and the papers of those closest to him. Clearly, a dark cloud on the horizon was his handling of the Maciel scandal–a horrible abuse of people, money and power that reached right into his household.

2. He invigorated the Holy See to be an actual player–to a limited extent–in the international sphere. In more personal terms, his willingness to forgive his would-be assassin-Mehmet Ali Agca–was a profound act of charity…as was his jubilee request for forgiveness for those whom the church had harmed. His two prayer services at Assisi with leaders of other religious traditions was an under-reported and yet powerful acknowledgment of the substance of these faith traditions–something that some of his most ardent followers find difficult to accept. In fact hosting these events won him some intense criticism from his supporters and reassertions of the “superiority” of Catholicism over other world religions and Christian faith communities. However, put together with his respect for the multiple cultures of this vast and diverse planet–one sees a side to him and his work that complicates a simple liberal or conservative interpretation of his pontificate. Likewise, when one quotes some of his statements on economic justice to his most conservative supporters in America they dismiss it as “socialism” or come up with elaborate justifications why believing Catholics can simply ignore or dismiss it. His reassertion of strong, centralized papal authority hits its limits very early on.

3. John Paul II. is one of the persons, credited or connected with the fall of communism in Central and Eastern Europe. How do you see his contribution? He was a tremendous moral force in the Polish struggle–no doubt about that. He put wind in the sails of the Solidarity Movement and his 1979 trip to Poland helped topple the communist regime there. However, it is really premature to “credit” him with the fall of communism. Various schools of thought prevail among those who are analyzing this issue now. Some insist that the Soviet bloc was already rotting within and that a young, vigorous Gorbachev was the one who put the nail in its coffin. Local revolutionary movements–often invisible– may have had more of a hand than highly visible public actors. At any rate, this story remains to be told in its fullness and we can expect a flood of articles, books and lectures in the coming years when all relevant documentation is made available to historians and other analysts. For now, I would say he had a role–what that actual role was may be greater or smaller depending on what the historical record reveals.

Brian Porter-Szűcs, Professor, Department of History, University of Michigan

1. Regarding John Paul II’s popularity: he had an extraordinary awareness of the power of his physical presence, to a degree no previous pope had demonstrated. He was charismatic, but in truth this doesn’t explain his popularity, because very few people ever saw him except at a great distance, often in the setting of a mass where personal charisma does not play a significant role. Ultimately, it was the simple fact that he was there that mattered: he became the focal point around which enormous crowds would gather, and the crowds themselves generated a sense of collective experience and collective emotion. Since the setting was often a Catholic mass, that experience involved a sense of the sacred that is hard to describe, but powerful for those who were there. Some of this can be attributed to the culture of celebrity, but it was more than that. At the time of the Second Vatican Council Pope Jon XXIII said that he wanted the gathering to be “pastoral” rather than “dogmatic”; that he wanted to focus on outreach to Christians and non-Christians alike, and not emphasize the doctrinal issues that could divide people. This is the sense that John Paul II carried on the legacy of the Council.

2. The most lasting accomplishment of John Paul II was not one that gained a lot of attention among the general public during his papacy.  In 1967 Pope Paul VI issued the encyclical Regimini Ecclesiae Universae, which established new rules regarding the division of authority between the individual dioceses and the Vatican, and the rules of governing the Curia itself.  This document decentralized power away from Rome, set term limits on Curia officials, and balanced the powers of the various Curia congregations.  The Bishops of the Second Vatican Council had wanted to ensure that they, not the Curia, govern the Church in the future.  John Paul II reversed that 1967 text with the Apostolic Constitution Pastor Bonus of 1988. Many powers were returned to Rome, and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (headed then by Joseph Ratzinger, the current pope Benedict XVI) was once again established as the dominant office in the Curia, responsible for approving actions by any other congregation.  Accompanying this centralization, the Vatican played a bigger role in selecting bishops throughout the world, ensuring that Church leaders would never again diverge significantly from the Curia in terms of goals or ideology. In most parts of the world this led to a dramatic shift away from the openness of the 1960s towards a much more conservative stance. Here in the US we have experienced this shift acutely, as the Church hierarchy has moved far to the right of the Catholic laity and become closely tied to the Republic Party (something that would have been unimaginable prior to John Paul II).  Because of the Church’s post-1988 centralization, there is little chance that this will change any time soon.

3. John Paul II’s contribution to the fall of communism has been both overrated and understated at the same time.  It is overrated by those who imagine that the Vatican was working in any direct sense to undermine communism ideologically or (as some conspiracy theories have it) politically.  If you actually read the totality of John Paul II’s writings, he was far more scathing and insistent in his attacks on capitalism and liberalism than in his attacks on communism and socialism.  But his role in the fall of communism are understated insofar as people fail to recognize the importance Catholicism played in ensuring that the Solidarity movement would never become violent, and in creating the rhetorical framework for compromise that enabled the Round Table talks in Poland in 1988. John Paul II always emphasized that one should talk to one’s opponents, always seeing them as fellow humans and not “enemies.”  He met with Wojciech Jaruzelksi on several occasions, and later he met with Mikhail Gorbachev, Fidel Castro, and other communist leaders.  This is to be contrasted (for example) with the stance of Pius XII, who threatened to excommunicate anyone who even acknowledged the legitimacy of a communist regime.  John Paul II, perhaps ironically, was not really a hard-line anti-communist.  He opposed communism, but from a stance that encouraged dialogue and compromise. This provided a framework for (at least) the Polish opposition in the 1980s, and that in turn started the process that brought down communism everywhere.  

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