Pope John Paul II

Perhaps it is far too early to try to give an accurate historical assessment, but those who have already begun to call the recent pope "Pope John Paul the Great" ¾ even though only two other popes have ever been given that title ¾ may not be too far off in their judgment. Like Pope St. Leo the Great, who turned back the barbarians from the gates of Rome to save the still-struggling beginnings of Christianity in Europe, Pope John Paul II is largely credited, through his support of the Solidarity Movement in his native Poland, with the eventual downfall of Soviet Communism. And like Pope St. Gregory the Great, who was perhaps the greatest pastoral theologian of all the long line of popes, John Paul, not just because of his extensive travels throughout the world, but perhaps even more because of his extensive writings (which unlike some other recent popes, he has largely written by himself) will surely be remembered as philosopher and theologian who reached out to address the most vital concerns of all of humanity.

Nevertheless, I think that when it comes to assessing the effectiveness of his extraordinary term as pope, John Paul would first of all want us to judge him in terms of those popes whose names (like his immediate predecessor) he took: Pope Paul VI and Pope John XXIII before him. Like John XXIII, whose revolutionary council he participated in, John Paul has worked hard to open the "windows of the Church" to dialogue with the whole world and all humanity. And like Paul VI, to whom fell the task of completing the Council which John XXIII had begun, John Paul has had to wrestle mightily with the currents of modernity and the expectations that Council unleashed, none of which has been an easy task, and to a large extent, still remains unfinished. Some will take him to task, no doubt, for the contradictions that have resulted from this effort. Socially progressive (in the tradition of most modern popes) John Paul nevertheless remained (again like most modern popes) doctrinally conservative. Glorying in the power and influence of the Church, he nevertheless openly and sorrowfully confessed and apologized for its failings down through history. Openly advocating and calling for a more collegial structure in the Church (in keeping with the Vatican II documents he helped shape) he often seems to have let the Vatican bureaucracy get away with just the opposite. Championing the dignity and freedom of all human beings, he nevertheless has insisted upon adhering to customary ways of looking at things (e.g., the role of women) that often rankle those who see things quite differently.

At this point on everyone’s mind comes the question: how shall we ever replace him? I think that in more than one sense, John Paul is irreplaceable, but not just because he is/was an unique, highly talented individual. I think it is also because the papacy itself has become too big a thing for any one man to fill ¾ which fact is, I think, the cause of the contradictions within his tenure. It combines (as the now-discarded papal tiara or crown once symbolized) three quite distinct jobs: first, Bishop of Rome; second, Patriarch of the Western Church; and third, the center or symbol of unity for all Christians. When these three jobs get confused, which they have down through history, real problems result ¾ particularly those that occur when union or "communion" gets confused with uniformity. As a result, the person who will fill his shoes, I predict, will only be successful to the extent he is able to distinguish between these three quite different functions, and act accordingly. Who this man might be, I have no idea. Nor would I want the responsibility of having to choose him, but we must pray mightily for those who do have that responsibility.

R W Kropf 4/2/05 JohnPaul.doc 05-04-02.html