Overview of Life
John Paul II , sometimes called Blessed John Paul or John Paul the Great, born Karol Jozef Wojtyla (Polish: ; 18 May 1920 – 2 April 2005), reigned as Pope of the Roman Catholic Church from 1978 until his death in 2005. He was the second-longest serving Pope in history and the first non-Italian since 1523.
A very charismatic figure, John Paul II was acclaimed as one of the most influential leaders of the 20th century. He is credited with helping to end Communist rule in his native Poland and eventually all of Europe. John Paul II significantly improved the Catholic Church’s relations with Judaism, Islam, the Eastern Orthodox Church, and the Anglican Communion. Though criticised by progressives for upholding the Church’s teachings against artificial contraception and the ordination of women, and by traditionalists for his support of the Church’s Second Vatican Council and its reform, he was also widely praised for his firm, orthodox Catholic stances.
He was one of the most-travelled world leaders in history, visiting 129 countries during his pontificate. As part of his special emphasis on the universal call to holiness, he beatified 1,340 people and canonised 483 saints, more than the combined tally of his predecessors during the preceding five centuries. He named most of the present College of Cardinals, consecrated or co-consecrated a large number of the world’s past and current bishops, and ordained many priests. A key goal of his papacy was to transform and reposition the Catholic Church. His wish was “to place his Church at the heart of a new religious alliance that would bring together Jews, Muslims and Christians in a great armada”. On 19 December 2009, John Paul II was proclaimed venerable by his successor Pope Benedict XVI and was beatified on 1 May 2011 after the Congregation for the Causes of Saints attributed one miracle to him, the healing of a French nun from Parkinson’s disease.
Karol Jozef Wojtyla was born in the Polish town of Wadowice and was the youngest of three children of Karol Wojtyla (1879-1941), an ethnic Pole, and Emilia Kaczorowska (1884-1929), who is described as being of Lithuanian ancestry. His maternal grandmother’s maiden surname was Scholz therefore Wojtyla could have had distant German ancestry. Emilia died in childbirth in 1929, when Wojtyla was eight years old. His elder sister Olga had died before his birth, but he was close to his brother Edmund, nicknamed Mundek, who was 13 years his senior. Edmund’s work as a physician eventually led to his death from scarlet fever, which affected Wojtyla.
As a boy, Wojtyla was athletic, often playing football as goalkeeper. During his childhood, Wojtyla had contact with Wadowice’s large Jewish community. School football games were often organised between teams of Jews and Catholics, and Wojtyla often played on the Jewish side. “I remember that at least a third of my classmates at elementary school in Wadowice were Jews. At elementary school there were fewer. With some I was on very friendly terms. And what struck me about some of them was their Polish patriotism.” Wojtyla’s first, and possibly only, love affair was with a Jewish girl, Ginka Beer, who was described as “slender”, “a superb actress” and “having stupendous dark eyes and jet black hair”.
In mid-1938, Wojtyla and his father left Wadowice and moved to Krakow, where he enrolled at Jagiellonian University. While studying such topics as philology and various languages, he worked as a volunteer librarian and was required to participate in compulsory military training in the Academic Legion, but he refused to fire a weapon. He performed with various theatrical groups and worked as a playwright. During this time, his talent for language blossomed, and he learned as many as 12 foreign languages, nine of which he used extensively as Pope.
In 1939, Nazi German occupation forces closed the university after invading Poland. Able-bodied males were required to work, so from 1940 to 1944 Wojtyla variously worked as a messenger for a restaurant, a manual labourer in a limestone quarry and for the Solvay chemical factory, to avoid deportation to Germany. His father, a non-commissioned officer in the Polish Army, died of a heart attack in 1941, leaving Wojtyla as the immediate family’s only surviving member. “I was not at my mother’s death, I was not at my brother’s death, I was not at my father’s death,” he said, reflecting on these times of his life, nearly forty years later, “At twenty, I had already lost all the people I loved.”
After his father’s death, he started thinking seriously about the priesthood. In October 1942, while the war continued, he knocked on the door of the Bishop’s Palace in Krakow and asked to study for the priesthood. Soon after, he began courses in the clandestine underground seminary run by the Archbishop of Krakow, Adam Stefan Cardinal Sapieha. On 29 February 1944, Wojtyla was hit by a German truck. German Wehrmacht officers tended to him and sent him to a hospital. He spent two weeks there recovering from a severe concussion and a shoulder injury. It seemed to him that this accident and his survival was a confirmation of his vocation. On 6 August 1944 known as Black Sunday, the Gestapo rounded up young men in Krakow to curtail the uprising, similar to the recent uprising in Warsaw. Wojtyla escaped by hiding in the basement of his uncle’s house at 10 Tyniecka Street, while the German troops searched above. More than eight thousand men and boys were taken that day, while Wojtyla escaped to the Archbishop’s Palace, where he remained until after the Germans had left.
On the night of 17 January 1945, the Germans fled the city, and the students reclaimed the ruined seminary. Wojtyla and another seminarian volunteered for the task of clearing away piles of frozen excrement from the toilets. Wojtyla also helped a 14-year-old Jewish refugee girl named Edith Zierer, who had run away from a Nazi labour camp in Czestochowa. Edith had collapsed on a railway platform, so Wojtyla carried her to a train and stayed with her throughout the journey to Krakow. Edith credits Wojtyla with saving her life that day. B’nai B’rith and other authorities have said that Wojtyla helped protect many other Polish Jews from the Nazis. In Wojtyla’s last book Memory and Identity he described the 12 years of the Nazi regime as ‘bestiality’, quoting from Polish theologian and philosopher Konstanty Michalski.
On finishing his studies at the seminary in Krakow, Wojtyla was ordained as a priest on All Saints’ Day, 1 November 1946, by the Archbishop of Krakow, Cardinal Sapieha. He then studied theology in Rome, at the Pontifical International Athenaeum Angelicum, the future Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas Angelicum, where he earned a licentiate and later a doctorate in sacred theology. This doctorate, the first of two, was based on the Latin dissertation The Doctrine of Faith According to Saint John of the Cross. Among other courses at the Angelicum, Wojtyla studied Hebrew with the Dutch Dominican Peter G. Duncker, author of the Compendium grammaticae linguae hebraicae biblicae.
He returned to Poland in the summer of 1945 with his first pastoral assignment in the village of Niegowic, fifteen miles from Krakow. He arrived at Niegowic at harvest time, where his first action was to kneel and kiss the ground. This gesture, which he adapted from French saint Jean Marie Baptiste Vianney, would become a trademark action during his Papacy.
Pontifical International Athenaeum Angelicum in Rome
In March 1949, Wojtyla was transferred to the parish of Saint Florian in Krakow. He taught ethics at Jagiellonian University and subsequently at the Catholic University of Lublin. While teaching, he gathered a group of about 20 young people, who began to call themselves Rodzinka, the “little family”. They met for prayer, philosophical discussion, and to help the blind and sick. The group eventually grew to approximately 200 participants, and their activities expanded to include annual skiing and kayaking trips.
In 1954, he earned a second doctorate, in philosophy, evaluating the feasibility of a Catholic ethic based on the ethical system of phenomenologist Max Scheler, a German philosopher who founded a broad philosophical movement which emphasised the study of conscious experience. However, the Communist authorities intervened to prevent him from receiving the degree until 1957. Wojtyla developed a theological approach which combined traditional Catholic Thomism with the ideas of personalism, a philosophical approach deriving from phenomenology, which was popular among Catholic intellectuals in Krakow during Wojtyla’s intellectual development. He translated Scheler’s Formalism and the Ethics of Substantive Values.
During this period, Wojtyla wrote a series of articles in Krakow’s Catholic newspaper Tygodnik Powszechny (“Universal Weekly”) dealing with contemporary church issues. He focused on creating original literary work during his first dozen years as a priest. War, life under Communism, and his pastoral responsibilities all fed his poetry and plays. Wojtyla published his work under two pseudonyms Andrzej Jawien and Stanislaw Andrzej Gruda to distinguish his literary from his religious writings (under his own name), and also so that his literary works would be considered on their merits. In 1960, Wojtyla published the influential theological book Love and Responsibility, a defence of traditional Church teachings on marriage from a new philosophical standpoint.
While a priest in Krakow, groups of students regularly joined Wojtyla for hiking, skiing, bicycling, camping and kayaking, accompanied by prayer, outdoor Masses and theological discussions. In Stalinist-era Poland, it was not permitted for priests to travel with groups of students. Father Wojtyla asked his younger companions to call him Wujek (Polish for Uncle) to circumvent outsiders from deducing he was a priest. The nickname gained popularity among his followers. Later in 1958, when Wojtyla was on a kayaking trip, he was named an auxiliary bishop of Krakow. His acquaintances expressed concern that this would cause him to change. Wojtyla responded to his friends, “Wujek will remain Wujek,” and he continued to live a simple life, shunning the trappings that came with his position as Bishop. This beloved nickname stayed with Wojtyla for his entire life and continues to be affectionately used, particularly by the Polish people.
Bishop and Cardinal
On 4 July 1958, while Wojtyla was on a kayaking holiday in the lakes region of northern Poland, Pope Pius XII appointed him as the Auxiliary Bishop of Krakow. He was then summoned to Warsaw to meet the Primate of Poland, Stefan Cardinal Wyszynski, who informed him of his appointment. He agreed to serve as Auxiliary Bishop to Krakow’s Archbishop Eugeniusz Baziak, and he was ordained to the Episcopate (as Titular Bishop of Ombi) on 28 September 1958. Baziak was the principal consecrator. Principal co-consecrators were then-Auxiliary Bishop Boleslaw Kominek (Titular Bishop of Sophene and Vaga; of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Wroclaw and future Cardinal Archbishop of Wroclaw) and then-Auxiliary Bishop Franciszek Jop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Sandomierz (Titular Bishop of Daulia; later Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese of Wroclaw and then Bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Opole) . At the age of 38, Wojtyla became the youngest bishop in Poland. Baziak died in June 1962 and on 16 July Wojtyla was selected as Vicar Capitular (temporary administrator) of the Archdiocese until an Archbishop could be appointed.
In October 1962, Wojtyla took part in the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), where he made contributions to two of its most historic and influential products, the Decree on Religious Freedom (in Latin, Dignitatis Humanae) and the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes). Wojtyla and the Polish bishops contributed a draft text to the Council for Gaudium et Spes. According to the historian John W. O’Malley, the draft text Gaudium et Spes which Wojtyla and the Polish delegation sent “had some influence on the version that was sent to the council fathers that summer but was not accepted as the base text”. According to John F. Crosby, as Pope, John Paul II used the words of Gaudium et Spes later to introduce his own views on the nature of the human person in relation to God: man is “the only creature on earth that God has wanted for its own sake”, but man “can fully discover his true self only in a sincere giving of himself”.
He also participated in the assemblies of the Synod of Bishops. On 13 January 1964, Pope Paul VI appointed him Archbishop of Krakow. On 26 June 1967, Paul VI announced Archbishop Karol Wojtyla’s promotion to the Sacred College of Cardinals. Wojtyla was named Cardinal-Priest of the titulus of San Cesareo in Palatio.
In 1967, he was instrumental in formulating the encyclical Humanae Vitae, which dealt with the same issues that forbid abortion and artificial birth control.
In 1970, according to a contemporary witness, Cardinal Wojtyla was against the distribution of a letter around Krakow, stating that the Polish Episcopate was preparing for the 50th anniversary of the Polish-Soviet War.
Election to the Papacy
Coat of Arms of Pope John Paul II with the Marian Cross. The Letter M is for Mary, the mother of Jesus, to whom he held strong devotion
In August 1978, following the death of Pope Paul VI, Cardinal Wojtyla voted in the Papal conclave which elected Pope John Paul I. John Paul I died after only 33 days as Pope, triggering another conclave.
The second conclave of 1978 started on 14 October, ten days after the funeral. It was split between two strong candidates for the papacy: Giuseppe Cardinal Siri, the conservative Archbishop of Genoa, and the liberal Archbishop of Florence, Giovanni Cardinal Benelli, a close friend of John Paul I.
Supporters of Benelli were confident that he would be elected, and in early ballots, Benelli came within nine votes of success. However, both men faced sufficient opposition for neither to be likely to prevail. Franz Cardinal Kinig, Archbishop of Vienna suggested to his fellow electors a compromise candidate: the Polish Cardinal, Karol Jozef Wojtyla. Wojtyla won on the eighth ballot on the second day with, according to the Italian press, 99 votes from the 111 participating electors. He subsequently chose the name John Paul II in honour of his immediate predecessor, and the traditional white smoke informed the crowd gathered in St. Peter’s Square that a pope had been chosen. He accepted his election with these words: With obedience in faith to Christ, my Lord, and with trust in the Mother of Christ and the Church, in spite of great difficulties, I accept. When the new pontiff appeared on the balcony, he broke tradition by addressing the gathered crowd:
Dear brothers and sisters, we are saddened at the death of our beloved Pope John Paul I, and so the cardinals have called for a new bishop of Rome. They called him from a faraway land far and yet always close because of our communion in faith and Christian traditions. I was afraid to accept that responsibility, yet I do so in a spirit of obedience to the Lord and total faithfulness to Mary, our most Holy Mother. I am speaking to you in your no, our Italian language. If I make a mistake, please kirrect me…
Wojtyla became the 264th Pope according to the chronological list of popes, the first non-Italian in 455 years. At only 58 years of age, he was the youngest pope since Pope Pius IX in 1846, who was 54. Like his predecessor, Pope John Paul II dispensed with the traditional Papal coronation and instead received ecclesiastical investiture with the simplified Papal inauguration on 22 October 1978. During his inauguration, when the cardinals were to kneel before him to take their vows and kiss his ring, he stood up as the Polish prelate Stefan Cardinal Wyszynski knelt down, stopped him from kissing the ring, and simply hugged him.
During his pontificate, Pope John Paul II made trips to 129 countries, travelling more than 1,100,000 kilometres (680,000 mi) whilst doing so. He is famously known for kneeling and kissing the ground after airplane trips. He consistently attracted large crowds, some among the largest ever assembled in human history, such as the Manila World Youth Day, which gathered up to four million people, the largest Papal gathering ever, according to the Vatican. John Paul II’s earliest official visits were to the Dominican Republic and Mexico in January 1979. While some of his trips (such as to the United States and the Holy Land) were to places previously visited by Pope Paul VI, John Paul II became the first pope to visit the White House in October 1979, where he was greeted warmly by then-President Jimmy Carter. He was the first Pope ever to visit several countries, starting in 1979 with Mexico and Ireland. He was the first reigning pope to travel to the United Kingdom, in 1982, where he met Queen Elizabeth II, the Supreme Governor of the Church of England. He travelled to Haiti in 1983, where he spoke in Creole to thousands of impoverished Catholics gathered to greet him at the airport. His message, “things must change in Haiti”, referring to the disparity between the wealthy and the poor, was met with thunderous applause. In 2000, he was the first modern pope to visit Egypt, where he met with the Coptic pope, Pope Shenouda III and the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Alexandria. He was the first Catholic pope to visit and pray in an Islamic mosque, in Damascus, Syria, in 2001. He visited the Umayyad Mosque, a former Christian church where John the Baptist is believed to be interred, where he made a speech calling for Muslims, Christians and Jews to live together.
On 15 January 1995, during the X World Youth Day, he offered mass to an estimated crowd of between five and seven million in Luneta Park, Manila, Philippines, which was considered to be the largest single gathering in Christian history. In March 2000, while visiting Jerusalem, John Paul became the first pope in history to visit and pray at the Western Wall. In September 2001, amid post-11 September concerns, he travelled to Kazakhstan, with an audience largely consisting of Muslims, and to Armenia, to participate in the celebration of 1,700 years of Armenian Christianity.
Trip to Poland
In June 1979, Pope John Paul II travelled to Poland where ecstatic crowds constantly surrounded him. This first trip to Poland uplifted the nation’s spirit and sparked the formation of the Solidarity movement in 1980, which later brought freedom and human rights to his troubled homeland. Poland’s Communist leaders intended to use the Pope’s visit to show the people that even though the Pope was Polish it did not alter their capacity to govern, oppress, and distribute the goods of society. They also hoped that if the Pope abided by the rules they set, that the Polish people would see his example and follow them as well. If the Pope’s visit inspired a riot, the Communist leaders of Poland were prepared to crush the uprising and blame the suffering on the Pope.
“The Pope won that struggle by transcending politics. His was what Joseph Nye calls soft power the power of attraction and repulsion. He began with an enormous advantage, and exploited it to the utmost: He headed the one institution that stood for the polar opposite of the Communist way of life that the Polish people hated. He was a Pole, but beyond the regime’s reach. By identifying with him, Poles would have the chance to cleanse themselves of the compromises they had to make to live under the regime. And so they came to him by the millions. They listened. He told them to be good, not to compromise themselves, to stick by one another, to be fearless, and that God is the only source of goodness, the only standard of conduct. Be not afraid, he said. Millions shouted in response, We want God! We want God! We want God! The regime cowered. Had the Pope chosen to turn his soft power into the hard variety, the regime might have been drowned in blood. Instead, the Pope simply led the Polish people to desert their rulers by affirming solidarity with one another. The Communists managed to hold on as despots a decade longer. But as political leaders, they were finished. Visiting his native Poland in 1979, Pope John Paul II struck what turned out to be a mortal blow to its Communist regime, to the Soviet Empire, ultimately to Communism.”
On later trips to Poland, he gave tacit support to the Solidarity organisation. These visits reinforced this message and contributed to the collapse of East European Communism that took place between 1989/1990 with the reintroduction of democracy in Poland, and which then spread through Eastern Europe (1990-1991) and South-Eastern Europe (1990-1992).
As pope, John Paul II wrote 14 papal encyclicals and taught about “The Theology of the Body”. Some key elements of his strategy to “reposition the Catholic Church” were encyclicals such as Ecclesia de Eucharistia, Reconciliatio et Paenitentia and Redemptoris Mater. In his At the beginning of the new millennium (Novo Millennio Ineunte), he emphasised the importance of “starting afresh from Christ”: “No, we shall not be saved by a formula but by a Person.” In The Splendour of the Truth (Veritatis Splendor), he emphasised the dependence of man on God and His Law (“Without the Creator, the creature disappears”) and the “dependence of freedom on the truth”. He warned that man “giving himself over to relativism and scepticism, goes off in search of an illusory freedom apart from truth itself”. In Fides et Ratio ( On the Relationship between Faith and Reason) John Paul promoted a renewed interest in philosophy and an autonomous pursuit of truth in theological matters. Drawing on many different sources (such as Thomism), he described the mutually supporting relationship between faith and reason, and emphasised that theologians should focus on that relationship. John Paul II wrote extensively about workers and the social doctrine of the Church, which he discussed in three encyclicals: Laborem Exercens, Solicitudo Rei Socialis, and Centesimus Annus. Through his encyclicals and many Apostolic Letters and Exhortations, John Paul II talked about the dignity of women and the importance of the family for the future of humanity. Other encyclicals include The Gospel of Life (Evangelium Vitae) and Ut Unum Sint (That They May Be One). Though critics accused him of inflexibility in explicitly re-asserting Catholic moral teachings against euthanasia and abortion that have been in place for well over a thousand years, he urged a more nuanced view of capital punishment.
Social and Political Stances
John Paul II was considered a conservative on doctrine, and issues relating to sexual reproduction and the ordination of women.
While the Pope was visiting the United States of America he said, “All human life, from the moments of conception and through all subsequent stages, is sacred.”
A series of 129 lectures given by John Paul II during his Wednesday audiences in Rome between September 1979 and November 1984 were later compiled and published as a single work entitled Theology of the Body, an extended meditation on human sexuality. He extended it to the condemnation of abortion, euthanasia and virtually all capital punishment, calling them all a part of the “culture of death” that is pervasive in the modern world. He campaigned for world debt forgiveness and social justice. He coined the term “social mortgage”, which related that all private property had a social dimension, namely, that “the goods of this are originally meant for all.” In 2000, he publicly endorsed the Jubilee 2000 campaign on African debt relief fronted by Irish rock stars Bob Geldof and Bono, once famously interrupting a U2 recording session by telephoning the studio and asking to speak to Bono.
Pope John Paul II, who was present and very influential at the Vatican II (1962-65), affirmed the teachings of that Council and did much to implement them. Nevertheless, his critics often wished that he would embrace the so-called “progressive” agenda that some hoped would evolve as a result of the Council. In fact, the Council did not advocate “progressive” changes in these areas; for example, they still condemned abortion as an unspeakable crime. Pope John Paul II continued to declare that contraception, abortion, and homosexual acts were gravely sinful, and, with Joseph Ratzinger (future Pope Benedict XVI), opposed Liberation theology.
Following the Church’s exaltation of the marital act of sexual intercourse between a baptised man and woman within sacramental marriage as proper and exclusive to the sacrament of marriage, John Paul II believed that it was, in every instance, profaned by contraception, abortion, divorce followed by a ‘second’ marriage, and by homosexual acts. His beliefs were often assumed to be a rejection of women. In 1994 John Paul II asserted the Church’s lack of authority to ordain women to the priesthood, claiming that without such authority ordination is not legitimately compatible with fidelity to Christ. This was also deemed a repudiation of calls to break with the constant tradition of the Church by ordaining women to the priesthood. In addition, John Paul II chose not to end the discipline of mandatory priestly celibacy, although in a small number of unusual circumstances, he did allow certain married clergymen of other Christian traditions who later became Catholic to be ordained as Catholic priests.
On 22 October 1996, in a speech to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences plenary session at the Vatican, Pope John Paul II said of evolution that “this theory has been progressively accepted by researchers, following a series of discoveries in various fields of knowledge. The convergence, neither sought nor fabricated, of the results of work that was conducted independently is in itself a significant argument in favour of this theory.” The Pope qualified this by noting that, “rather than the theory of evolution, we should speak of several theories of evolution.” Some of these theories, he noted, have a purely materialistic philosophical underpinning which is not compatible with the Catholic faith: “Consequently, theories of evolution which, in accordance with the philosophies inspiring them, consider the mind as emerging from the forces of living matter, or as a mere epiphenomenon of this matter, are incompatible with the truth about man”.
Although generally accepting the theory of evolution, John Paul II made one major exception the human soul. “If the human body has its origin in living material which pre-exists it, the spiritual soul is immediately created by God”.
In 2003 John Paul II also became a prominent critic of the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq. In his 2003 State of the World address the Pope declared his opposition to the invasion by stating, “No to war! War is not always inevitable. It is always a defeat for humanity.” He sent former Apostolic Pro-Nuncio to the United States Po Cardinal Laghi to talk with American President George W. Bush to express opposition to the war. John Paul II said that it was up to the United Nations to solve the international conflict through diplomacy and that a unilateral aggression is a crime against peace and a violation of international law.
Wars generally do not resolve the problems for which they are fought and therefore… prove ultimately futile.
Pope John Paul II
In 2003, the year of the American invasion of Iraq, Pope John Paul II, who opposed the Iraq War perhaps more vigorously than any other world leader, was widely viewed as a favourite to win the Nobel Peace Prize.
Apartheid in South Africa
Pope John Paul II was an outspoken opponent of apartheid in South Africa. In 1985, while visiting the Netherlands, he gave an impassioned speech condemning apartheid at the International Court of Justice, proclaiming that “no system of apartheid or separate development will ever be acceptable as a model for the relations between peoples or races.” In September 1988, Pope John Paul II made a pilgrimage to ten countries bordering South Africa, while demonstratively avoiding South Africa. During his visit to Zimbabwe, John Paul II called for economic sanctions against South Africa’s government. After John Paul II’s death, both Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu praised the Pope for defending human rights and condemning economic injustice.
In 1984 and 1986, through leader of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith Cardinal Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI), John Paul II officially condemned aspects of Liberation theology, which had many followers in South America. Visiting Europe, scar Romero unsuccessfully attempted to obtain a Vatican condemnation of El Salvador’s regime, for violations of human rights and its support of death squads. In his travel to Managua, Nicaragua in 1983, John Paul II harshly condemned what he dubbed the “popular Church” (i.e. “ecclesial base communities” supported by the CELAM), and the Nicaraguan clergy’s tendencies to support the leftist Sandinistas, reminding the clergy of their duties of obedience to the Holy See. During that visit Ernesto Cardenal, a priest and minister in the Sandinista government, knelt to kiss his hand. John Paul withdrew it, wagged his finger in Cardenal’s face, and told him, “You must straighten out your position with the church.”
Views on Sexuality
While taking a traditional position on sexuality, defending the Church’s moral opposition to marriage for same-sex couples, Pope John Paul II asserted that people with homosexual inclinations possess the same inherent dignity and rights as everybody else. In his book, Memory and Identity, he referred to the “strong pressures” by the European Parliament to recognise homosexual unions as an alternative type of family, with the right to adopt children. In the book, as quoted by Reuters, he wrote: “It is legitimate and necessary to ask oneself if this is not perhaps part of a new ideology of evil, more subtle and hidden, perhaps, intent upon exploiting human rights themselves against man and against the family.” A 1997 study determined that 3% of the pope’s statements were about the issue of sexual morality.
Role in the Collapse of Dictatorships
Some observers of Chilean history believe that the six-day April 1987 visit of Pope John Paul II to Chile, during which he visited Santiago, Viva del Mar, Valparaaso, Temuco, Punta Arenas, Puerto Montt and Antofagasta was one of the reasons why the country’s military dictator Augusto Pinochet called for elections in 1988. Before John Paul II’s pilgrimage to Latin America, during a meeting with reporters, he criticised Pinochet’s regime as “dictatorial.” In the words of the New York Times, he was “using unusually strong language” to criticise Pinochet and asserted the journalists that the Church in Chile must not only pray, but actively fight for the restoration of democracy in Chile.
During his 1987 Chilean visit, the Polish pope asked Chile’s 31 Catholic bishops to campaign for free elections in the country. According to George Weigel, he held a meeting with Pinochet during which they addressed the theme of the return to democracy. John Paul II allegedly pushed Pinochet to accept a democratic opening of the regime, and would even have called for his resignation. In 2007, Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz, Pope John Paul II’s secretary, confirmed that, during his visit with Pinochet, the Pope asked him to step down and transfer power over to civilian authorities. According to Monsignor Slawomir Oder, the postulator of John Paul II’s beatification cause, John Paul’s words to Pinochet had a profound impact on the Chilean dictator. The Polish Pope confided to a friend: “I received a letter from Pinochet in which he told me that, as a Catholic, he had listened to my words, he had accepted them, and he had decided to begin the process to change the leadership of his country.”
During his visit to Chile, John Paul II supported the Vicariate of Solidarity, the Church-led pro-democracy, anti-Pinochet organisation. John Paul II visited the Vicariate of Solidarity’s offices, spoke with its workers, and “called upon them to continue their work, emphasizing that the Gospel consistently urges respect for human rights.” While in Chile, Pope John Paul II made gestures of public support of Chile’s anti-Pinochet democratic opposition. For instance, he hugged and kissed Carmen Gloria Quintana, a young student burned alive by Chilean police and told her that “We must pray for peace and justice in Chile.” Later, he met with several opposition groups, including those that had been declared illegal by Pinochet’s government. The opposition praised John Paul II for denouncing Pinochet as a “dictator,” for many members of Chile’s opposition were persecuted for much milder statements. Bishop Carlos Camus, one of the harshest critics of Pinochet’s dictatorship within the Chilean Church, praised John Paul II’s stance during the papal visit: “I am quite moved, because our pastor supports us totally. Never again will anyone be able to say that we are interfering in politics when we defend human dignity.” He added: “No country the Pope has visited has remained the same after his departure. The Pope’s visit is a mission, an extraordinary social catechism, and his stay here will be a watershed in Chilean history.”
Some have erroneously accused John Paul II of affirming Pinochet’s regime by appearing with the Chilean ruler in his balcony. However, Cardinal Roberto Tucci, the organiser of John Paul II’s pilgrimages revealed that Pinochet tricked the pontiff by telling him he would take him to his living room, while in reality he took him to his balcony. Tucci claims that the pontiff was “furious.”
Pope John Paul II visited Haiti on 9 March 1983. At the time the Caribbean country was ruled by the corrupt dictator Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier. During his pilgrimage to Haiti, Pope John Paul II bluntly criticized the poverty of the country, directly addressing Baby Doc and his wife, Michale Bennett in front of a large crowd of Haitians:
Yours is a beautiful country, rich in human resources, but Christians cannot be unaware of the injustice, the excessive inequality, the degradation of the quality of life, the misery, the hunger, the fear suffered by the majority of the people.
John Paul II’s visit inspired massive protests of Haitians against the Duvalier dictatorship. In response to the pope’s visit, 860 Catholic priests and Church workers signed a statement committing the Church to work on behalf of the poor. In 1986, Duvalier was thrown out of power in an uprising.
The collapse of the dictatorship of General Alfredo Stroessner of Paraguay was linked, among other things, to Pope John Paul II’s visit to the South American country in 1989. Since Stroessner’s taking power through a coup d’tat in 1954, Paraguay’s bishops increasingly criticized the regime for human rights abuses, rigged elections, and the country’s feudal economy. During his private meeting with Stroessner, John Paul II told the dictator:
“Politics has a fundamental ethical dimension because it is first and foremeost a service to man. The Church can and must remind men and in particular those who govern of their ethical duties for the good of the whole of society. The Church cannot be isolated inside its temples just as men’s consciences cannot be isolated from God.”
Later, during a Mass, Pope John Paul II criticized the regime for impoverishing the peasants and the unemployed, claiming that the government must give people greater access to the land. Although Stroessner tried to prevent him from doing so, Pope John Paul II met opposition leaders in the one-party state.
Role in the fall of Communism
John Paul II has been credited with being instrumental in bringing down communism in Central and Eastern Europe, by being the spiritual inspiration behind its downfall and catalyst for “a peaceful revolution” in Poland. Lech Walesa, the founder of Solidarity, credited John Paul II with giving Poles the courage to demand change. According to Walesa, “Before his pontificate, the world was divided into blocs. Nobody knew how to get rid of communism. In Warsaw, in 1979, he simply said: ‘Do not be afraid’, and later prayed: ‘Let your Spirit descend and change the image of the land… this land’.” It has also been widely alleged that the Vatican Bank covertly funded Solidarity.
President Ronald Reagan’s correspondence with the pope reveals “a continuous scurrying to shore up Vatican support for U.S. policies. Perhaps most surprisingly, the papers show that, as late as 1984, the pope did not believe the Communist Polish government could be changed.”
In December 1989, John Paul II met with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev at the Vatican and each expressed his respect and admiration for the other. Gorbachev once said “The collapse of the Iron Curtain would have been impossible without John Paul II”. On John Paul’s death, Mikhail Gorbachev said: “Pope John Paul II’s devotion to his followers is a remarkable example to all of us.”
In February 2004, Pope John Paul II was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize honouring his life’s work in opposing Communist oppression and helping to reshape the world.
President George W. Bush presented the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian honour, to Pope John Paul II during a ceremony at the Apostolic Palace 4 June 2004. The president read the citation that accompanied the medal, which recognised “this son of Poland” whose “principled stand for peace and freedom has inspired millions and helped to topple communism and tyranny.” After receiving the award, John Paul II said, “May the desire for freedom, peace, a more humane world symbolised by this medal inspire men and women of goodwill in every time and place.”
Warsaw, Moscow, Budapest, Berlin, Prague, Sofia and Bucharest have become stages in a long pilgrimage toward liberty. It is admirable that in these events, entire peoples spoke out women, young people, men, overcoming fears, their irrepressible thirst for liberty speeded up developments, made walls tumble down and opened gates.
Relations with other faiths
Pope John Paul II travelled extensively and met with believers from many divergent faiths. At the World Day of Prayer for Peace, held in Assisi on 27 October 1986, more than 120 representatives of different religions and Christian denominations spent a day together with fasting and praying.
Pope John Paul II had good relations with the Church of England, referred to by his predecessor Pope Paul VI, as “our beloved Sister Church”. He was the first reigning pope to travel to the United Kingdom, in 1982, where he met Queen Elizabeth II, the Supreme Governor of the Church of England. He preached in Canterbury Cathedral and received the Archbishop of Canterbury with friendship and courtesy. However, John Paul II was disappointed by the Church of England’s decision to offer the Sacrament of Holy Orders to women and saw it as a step in the opposite direction from unity between the Anglican Communion and the Catholic Church.
In 1980 John Paul II issued a Pastoral Provision allowing married former Episcopal priests to become Catholic priests, and for the acceptance of former Episcopal Church parishes into the Catholic Church. He allowed the creation of the Anglican Use form of the Latin Rite, which incorporates the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. John Paul II helped establish ‘Our Lady of the Atonement Catholic Church’, together with Archbishop Patrick Flores of San Antonio, Texas, as a place where Anglicans and Catholics could worship together.
Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, visited Pope John Paul II eight times, more than any other single dignitary. The Pope and the Dalai Lama held many similar views and understood similar plights, both coming from nations damaged by communism and both serving as heads of major religious bodies. As archbishop of Krakow, long before the 14th Dalai Lama was a world-famous figure, Archbishop Karol Wojtyla held special Masses to pray for the Tibetan people’s non-violent struggle for freedom from Maoist China. During his 1995 visit to Sri Lanka, a country where a majority of the population adheres to Theravada Buddhism, Pope John Paul II expressed his admiration for the Buddhist religion:
In particular I express my highest regard for the followers of Buddhism, the majority religion in Sri Lanka, with its …four great values of …loving kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity; with its ten transcendental virtues and the joys of the Sangha expressed so beautifully in the Theragathas. I ardently hope that my visit will serve to strengthen the goodwill between us, and that it will reassure everyone of the Catholic Church’s desire for interreligious dialogue and cooperation in building a more just and fraternal world. To everyone I extend the hand of friendship, recalling the splendid words of the Dhammapada: “Better than a thousand useless words is one single word that gives peace…”
Eastern Orthodox Church
In May 1999, John Paul II visited Romania on the invitation from Patriarch Teoctist Arapasu of the Romanian Orthodox Church. This was the first time a Pope had visited a predominantly Eastern Orthodox country since the Great Schism in 1054. On his arrival, the Patriarch and the President of Romania, Emil Constantinescu, greeted the Pope. The Patriarch stated, “The second millennium of Christian history began with a painful wounding of the unity of the Church; the end of this millennium has seen a real commitment to restoring Christian unity.”
On 23-27 June 2001 John Paul II visited Ukraine, another heavily Orthodox nation, at the invitation of the President of Ukraine and bishops of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church. The Pope spoke to leaders of the All-Ukrainian Council of Churches and Religious Organisations, pleading for “open, tolerant and honest dialogue”. About 200 thousand people attended the liturgies celebrated by the Pope in Kiev, and the liturgy in Lviv gathered nearly one and a half million faithful. John Paul II stated that an end to the Great Schism was one of his fondest wishes. Healing divisions between the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches regarding Latin and Byzantine traditions was clearly of great personal interest. For many years, John Paul II sought to facilitate dialogue and unity stating as early as 1988 in Euntes in mundum that “Europe has two lungs, it will never breathe easily until it uses both of them”.
During his 2001 travels, John Paul II became the first Pope to visit Greece in 1291 years. In Athens, the Pope met with Archbishop Christodoulos, the head of the Greek Orthodox Church. After a private 30-minute meeting, the two spoke publicly. Christodoulos read a list of “13 offences” of the Roman Catholic Church against the Eastern Orthodox Church since the Great Schism, including the pillaging of Constantinople by crusaders in 1204, and bemoaned the lack of apology from the Roman Catholic Church, saying “Until now, there has not been heard a single request for pardon” for the “maniacal crusaders of the 13th century.”
The Pope responded by saying “For the occasions past and present, when sons and daughters of the Catholic Church have sinned by action or omission against their Orthodox brothers and sisters, may the Lord grant us forgiveness”, to which Christodoulos immediately applauded. John Paul II said that the sacking of Constantinople was a source of “profound regret” for Catholics. Later John Paul II and Christodoulos met on a spot where Saint Paul had once preached to Athenian Christians. They issued a common declarations, saying “We shall do everything in our power, so that the Christian roots of Europe and its Christian soul may be preserved. … We condemn all recourse to violence, proselytism and fanaticism, in the name of religion”. The two leaders then said the Lord’s Prayer together, breaking an Orthodox taboo against praying with Catholics.
The Pope had said throughout his pontificate that one of his greatest dreams was to visit Russia, but this never occurred. He attempted to solve the problems that had arisen over centuries between the Catholic and Russian Orthodox churches, and in 2004 gave them a 1730 copy of the lost icon of Our Lady of Kazan.
Pope John Paul II made considerable efforts to improve relations between Catholicism and Islam.
On 6 May 2001, Pope John Paul II became the first Catholic pope to enter and pray in a mosque. Respectfully removing his shoes, he entered the Umayyad Mosque, a former Byzantine era Christian church dedicated to John the Baptist (who was believed to be interred there) in Damascus, Syria, and gave a speech including the statement: “For all the times that Muslims and Christians have offended one another, we need to seek forgiveness from the Almighty and to offer each other forgiveness.” He kissed the Quran in Syria, an act which made him popular among Muslims but which disturbed many Catholics.
In 2004, Pope John Paul II hosted the “Papal Concert of Reconciliation”, which brought together leaders of Islam with leaders of the Jewish community and of the Catholic Church at the Vatican for a concert by the Krakow Philharmonic Choir from Poland, the London Philharmonic Choir from the United Kingdom, the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra from the United States, and the Ankara State Polyphonic Choir of Turkey. The event was conceived and conducted by Sir Gilbert Levine, KCSG and was broadcast throughout the world.
John Paul II oversaw the publication of the Catechism of the Catholic Church which makes a special provision for Muslims; therein, it is written, “The plan of salvation also includes those who acknowledge the Creator, in ‘the first place amongst whom are the Muslims’; these profess to hold the faith of Abraham, and together with us they adore the one, merciful God, mankind’s judge on the last day.”
Relations between Catholicism and Judaism improved dramatically during the pontificate of John Paul II. He spoke frequently about the Church’s relationship with the Jewish faith.
In 1979, John Paul II became the first pope to visit the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland, where many of his compatriots (mostly Polish Jews) had perished during the Nazi occupation in World War II. In 1998 he issued “We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah” which outlined his thinking on the Holocaust. He became the first pope known to have made an official papal visit to a synagogue, when he visited the Great Synagogue of Rome on 13 April 1986.
On December 30, 1993, John Paul II established formal diplomatic relations between the Holy See and the State of Israel, acknowledging its centrality in Jewish life and faith.
On April 7, 1994, Pope John Paul II hosted The Papal Concert to Commemorate the Holocaust. It was the first-ever Vatican event dedicated to the memory of the 6 million Jews murdered in World War II. This concert, which was conceived and conducted by American Maestro Gilbert Levine, was attended by the Chief Rabbi of Rome Elio Toaff, the President of Italy Oscar Luigi Scalfaro, and survivors of the Holocaust from around the world. The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, actor Richard Dreyfuss and cellist Lynn Harrell performed on this occasion under Levine’s direction. On the morning of the concert, the Pope received the attending members of survivor community in a special audience in the Apostolic Palace.
In March 2000, John Paul II visited Yad Vashem, the national Holocaust memorial in Israel, and later made history by touching one of the holiest sites in Judaism, the Western Wall in Jerusalem, placing a letter inside it (in which he prayed for forgiveness for the actions against Jews). In part of his address he said: “I assure the Jewish people the Catholic Church… is deeply saddened by the hatred, acts of persecution and displays of anti-Semitism directed against the Jews by Christians at any time and in any place”, he added that there were “no words strong enough to deplore the terrible tragedy of the Holocaust”. Israeli cabinet minister Rabbi Michael Melchior, who hosted the Pope’s visit, said he was “very moved” by the Pope’s gesture.
It was beyond history, beyond memory.
We are deeply saddened by the behaviour of those who in the course of history have caused these children of yours to suffer, and asking your forgiveness we wish to commit ourselves to genuine brotherhood with the people of the Covenant.
In October 2003, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) issued a statement congratulating John Paul II on entering the 25th year of his papacy. In January 2005, John Paul II became the first Pope in history known to receive a priestly blessing from a rabbi, when Rabbis Benjamin Blech, Barry Dov Schwartz, and Jack Bemporad visited the Pontiff at Clementine Hall in the Apostolic Palace.
Immediately after John Paul II’s death, the ADL issued a statement that Pope John Paul II had revolutionised Catholic-Jewish relations, saying that “more change for the better took place in his 27-year Papacy than in the nearly 2,000 years before.” In another statement issued by the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council, Director Dr Colin Rubenstein said, “The Pope will be remembered for his inspiring spiritual leadership in the cause of freedom and humanity. He achieved far more in terms of transforming relations with both the Jewish people and the State of Israel than any other figure in the history of the Catholic Church”.
With Judaism, therefore, we have a relationship which we do not have with any other religion. You are our dearly beloved brothers, and in a certain way, it could be said that you are our elder brothers.
In an interview with the Polish Press Agency, Michael Schudrich, chief rabbi of Poland, said that never in history did anyone do as much for Christian-Jewish dialogue as Pope John Paul II, adding that many Jews had a greater respect for the late pope than for some rabbis. Schudrich praised John Paul II for condemning anti-Semitism as a sin, which no previous pope had done.
Pope John Paul II’s beatification was greeted with great enthusiasm among many Jews. On the occasion, the Chief Rabbi of Rome Riccardo Di Segni said in an interview with the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano that “John Paul II was revolutionary because he tore down a thousand-year wall of Catholic distrust of the Jewish world.” Meanwhile, Elio Toaff, the former Chief Rabbi of Rome, said that:
“Remembrance of the Pope Karol Wojtyla will remain strong in the collective Jewish memory because of his appeals to fraternity and the spirit of tolerance, which excludes all violence. In the stormy history of relations between Roman popes and Jews in the ghetto in which they were closed for over three centuries in humiliating circumstances, John Paul II is a bright figure in his uniqueness. In relations between our two great religions in the new century that was stained with bloody wars and the plague of racism, the heritage of John Paul II remains one of the few spiritual islands guaranteeing survival and human progress.”
On 15-19 November 1980 John Paul II visited the Federal Republic of Germany on his first trip to a country with a large Lutheran population. In Mainz he met with leaders of the Lutheran and other Protestant Churches, and with representatives of other Christian denominations.
On 11 December 1983 John Paul II participated in an ecumenical service in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Rome, the first papal visit ever to a Lutheran church. The visit took place 500 years after the birth of Martin Luther, the German Augustinian monk who initiated the Lutheran reformation.
In his apostolic pilgrimage to Norway, Iceland, Finland, Denmark and Sweden of June 1989, John Paul II became the first pope to visit countries with Lutheran majorities. In addition to celebrating Mass with Catholic believers, he participated in ecumenical services at places that had been Catholic shrines before the 16th century Lutheran reformation: Nidaros Cathedral in Norway; near St. Olav’s Church at Thingvellir in Iceland; Turku Cathedral in Finland; Roskilde Cathedral in Denmark; and Uppsala Cathedral in Sweden.
On 31 October 1999 (the 482nd anniversary of Reformation Day, Martin Luther’s posting of the 95 Theses), representatives of the Vatican and the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) signed a Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, as a gesture of unity. The signing was a fruit of a theological dialogue that had been going on between the LWF and the Vatican since 1965.
Assassination attempts and plots
As he entered St. Peter’s Square to address an audience on 13 May 1981, Pope John Paul II was shot and critically wounded by Mehmet Ali Agca, an expert Turkish gunman who was a member of the militant fascist group Grey Wolves. The assassin used a Browning 9 mm semi-automatic pistol, shooting the pope in the abdomen and perforating his colon and small intestine multiple times. John Paul II was rushed into the Vatican complex and then to the Gemelli Hospital. On the way to the hospital, he lost consciousness. Even though the two bullets missed his mesenteric artery and abdominal aorta, he lost nearly three-quarters of his blood. He underwent five hours of surgery to treat his wounds. Surgeons performed a colostomy, temporarily rerouting the upper part of the large intestine to let the damaged lower part heal. When he briefly gained consciousness before being operated on, he instructed the doctors not to remove his Brown Scapular during the operation. The pope stated that Our Lady of Fatima helped keep him alive throughout his ordeal.
Could I forget that the event in St. Peter’s Square took place on the day and at the hour when the first appearance of the Mother of Christ to the poor little peasants has been remembered for over sixty years at Fatima, Portugal? For in everything that happened to me on that very day, I felt that extraordinary motherly protection and care, which turned out to be stronger than the deadly bullet.
Agca was caught and restrained by a nun and other bystanders until police arrived. He was sentenced to life imprisonment. Two days after Christmas in 1983, John Paul II visited Agca in prison. John Paul II and Agca spoke privately for about twenty minutes. John Paul II said, “What we talked about will have to remain a secret between him and me. I spoke to him as a brother whom I have pardoned and who has my complete trust.?
On 2 March 2006 the Italian parliament’s Mitrokhin Commission, set up by Silvio Berlusconi and headed by Forza Italia senator Paolo Guzzanti, concluded that the Soviet Union was behind the attempt on John Paul II’s life, in retaliation for the pope’s support of Solidarity, the Catholic, pro-democratic Polish workers’ movement, a theory which had already been supported by Michael Ledeen and the United States Central Intelligence Agency at the time. The Italian report stated that Communist Bulgarian security departments were utilised to prevent the Soviet Union’s role from being uncovered. The report stated that Soviet military intelligence (Glavnoje Razvedyvatel’noje Upravlenije), not the KGB, were responsible. Russian Foreign Intelligence Service spokesman Boris Labusov called the accusation absurd. The Pope declared during a May 2002 visit to Bulgaria that the country’s Soviet-bloc-era leadership had nothing to do with the assassination attempt. However, his secretary, Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz, alleged in his book A Life with Karol, that the pope was convinced privately that the former Soviet Union was behind the attack. It was later discovered that many of John Paul II’s aides had foreign-government attachments; Bulgaria and Russia disputed the Italian commission’s conclusions, pointing out that the Pope had publicly denied the Bulgarian connection.
A second assassination attempt took place on 12 May 1982, just a day before the anniversary of the first attempt on his life, in Fatima, Portugal when a man tried to stab John Paul II with a bayonet. He was stopped by security guards, although Stanislaw Dziwisz later claimed that John Paul II had been injured during the attempt but managed to hide a non-life threatening wound. The assailant, a traditionalist Spanish priest named Juan Marne Fernandez y Krohn, was ordained as a priest by Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre of the Society of Saint Pius X and was opposed to the changes caused by the Second Vatican Council, claiming that the pope was an agent of Communist Moscow and of the Marxist Eastern Bloc. Fernandez y Krohn subsequently left the priesthood and served three years of a six-year sentence. The ex-priest was treated for mental illness and then expelled from Portugal to become a solicitor in Belgium.
Pope John Paul II was also a target of the Al-Qaeda-funded Bojinka plot during a visit to the Philippines in 1995. The first plan was to kill him in the Philippines during World Youth Day 1995 celebrations. On 15 January 1995, a suicide bomber was planning to dress as a priest, while John Paul II passed in his motorcade on his way to the San Carlos Seminary in Makati City. The would-be-assassin intended to get close and detonate the bomb. The assassination was supposed to divert attention from the next phase of the operation. However, a chemical fire inadvertently started by the cell alerted police to their whereabouts, and all were arrested a week before the Pope’s visit, confessing to the plot.
In 2009 journalist and former army intelligence officer John Koehler published Spies in the Vatican: The Soviet Union’s Cold War Against the Catholic Church. Mining mostly East German and Polish secret police archives, Koehler says the assassination attempts were “KGB-backed” and gives details. During John Paul II’s reign there were many clerics within the Vatican who on nomination, declined to be ordained, and then mysteriously left the church. There is wide speculation that they were, in reality, KGB agents.
John Paul II apologised to almost every group who had suffered at the hands of the Catholic Church through the years. Even before he became Pope, he was a prominent editor and supporter of initiatives like the Letter of Reconciliation of the Polish Bishops to the German Bishops from 1965. As Pope, he officially made public apologies for over 100 wrongdoings, including:
- The legal process on the Italian scientist and philosopher Galileo Galilei, himself a devout Catholic, around 1633 (31 October 1992).
- Catholics’ involvement with the African slave trade (9 August 1993).
- The Church Hierarchy’s role in burnings at the stake and the religious wars that followed the Protestant Reformation (May 1995, in the Czech Republic).
- The injustices committed against women, the violation of women’s rights and the historical denigration of women (10 July 1995, in a letter to “every woman”).
- The inactivity and silence of many Catholics during the Holocaust (see the article Religion in Nazi Germany) (16 March 1998).
On 20 November 2001, from a laptop in the Vatican, Pope John Paul II sent his first e-mail apologising for the Catholic sex abuse cases, the Church-backed “Stolen Generations” of Aboriginal children in Australia, and to China for the behaviour of Catholic missionaries in colonial times.
When he became pope in 1978, John Paul II was still an avid sportsman. At the time, the 58-year old was extremely healthy and active, jogging in the Vatican gardens, weight training, swimming, and hiking in the mountains. He was fond of football. The media contrasted the new Pope’s athleticism and trim figure to the poor health of John Paul I and Paul VI, the portliness of John XXIII and the constant claims of ailments of Pius XII. The only modern pope with a fitness regimen had been Pope Pius XI (1922-1939) who was an avid mountaineer. An Irish Independent article in the 1980s labelled John Paul II the keep-fit pope.
However, after over twenty-five years as Pope, two assassination attempts (one of which resulted in severe physical injury to the Pope), and a number of cancer scares, John Paul’s physical health declined. In 2001 he was diagnosed as suffering from Parkinson’s disease. International observers had suspected this for some time but it was only publicly acknowledged by the Vatican in 2003. Despite difficulty speaking more than a few sentences at a time, trouble hearing and severe osteoarthrosis, he continued to tour the world, although rarely walking in public.
Death and funeral
Pope John Paul II was hospitalised with breathing problems caused by a bout of influenza on 1 February 2005. He left hospital on 10 February, but was subsequently hospitalised again with breathing problems two weeks later and underwent a tracheotomy. On 31 March 2005 following a urinary tract infection, he developed septic shock, a form of infection with a high fever and low blood pressure, but was not hospitalised. Instead, he was monitored by a team of consultants at his private residence. This was taken as an indication that the pope and those close to him believed that he was nearing death; it would have been in accordance with his wishes to die in the Vatican. Later that day, Vatican sources announced that John Paul II had been given the Anointing of the Sick by his friend and secretary Stanislaw Dziwisz. During the final days of the Pope’s life, the lights were kept burning through the night where he lay in the Papal apartment on the top floor of the Apostolic Palace. Tens of thousands of people assembled and held vigil in St. Peter’s Square and the surrounding streets for two days. Upon hearing of this, the dying pope was said to have stated: “I have searched for you, and now you have come to me, and I thank you.”
On Saturday 2 April 2005, at about 15:30 CEST, John Paul II spoke his final words, “Pozwalcie mi odejsc do domu Ojca”, (“Allow me to depart to the house of the Father”), to his aides, and fell into a coma about four hours later. The mass of the vigil of the Second Sunday of Easter commemorating the canonisation of Saint Maria Faustina on 30 April 2000, had just been celebrated at his bedside, presided over by Stanislaw Dziwisz and two Polish associates. Present at the bedside was a cardinal from Ukraine who served as a priest with John Paul in Poland, along with Polish nuns of the Congregation of the Sisters Servants of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, who ran the papal household. He died in his private apartment, at 21:37 CEST (19:37 UTC) of heart failure from profound hypotension and complete circulatory collapse from septic shock, 46 days short of his 85th birthday. John Paul had no close family by the time he died, and his feelings are reflected in his words, as written in 2000, at the end of his Last Will and Testament.
The death of the pontiff set in motion rituals and traditions dating back to medieval times. The Rite of Visitation took place from 4 to 7 April at St. Peter’s Basilica. The Testament of Pope John Paul II published on 7 April revealed that the pontiff contemplated being buried in his native Poland but left the final decision to The College of Cardinals, which in passing, preferred burial beneath St. Peter’s Basilica, honouring the pontiff’s request to be placed “in bare earth”. The Mass of Requiem on 8 April was said to have set world records both for attendance and number of heads of state present at a funeral. (See: List of Dignitaries). It was the single largest gathering of heads of state in history, surpassing the funerals of Winston Churchill (1965) and Josip Broz Tito (1980). Four kings, five queens, at least 70 presidents and prime ministers, and more than 14 leaders of other religions attended alongside the faithful. It is likely to have been the largest single pilgrimage of Christianity ever, with numbers estimated in excess of four million mourners gathering in Rome. Between 250,000 and 300,000 watched the event from within the Vatican’s walls. The Dean of the College of Cardinals, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, conducted the ceremony. John Paul II was interred in the grottoes under the basilica, the Tomb of the Popes. He was lowered into a tomb created in the same alcove previously occupied by the remains of Pope John XXIII. The alcove had been empty since Pope John’s remains had been moved into the main body of the basilica after his beatification.
Title “The Great”
Upon the death of John Paul II, a number of clergy at the Vatican and laymen throughout the world began referring to the late pontiff as “John Paul the Great”only the fourth pope to be so acclaimed, and the first since the first millennium. Scholars of Canon Law say that there is no official process for declaring a pope “Great”; the title simply establishes itself through popular and continued usage, as was the case with celebrated secular leaders (for example, Alexander III of Macedon became popularly known as Alexander the Great). The three popes who today commonly are known as “Great” are Leo I, who reigned from 440-461 and persuaded Attila the Hun to withdraw from Rome; Gregory I, 590-604, after whom the Gregorian Chant is named; and Pope Nicholas I, 858-867.
Tomb of John Paul II in The Chapel of St. Sebastian
His successor, Pope Benedict XVI, referred to him as “the great Pope John Paul II” in his first address from the loggia of St. Peter’s Basilica, and Angelo Cardinal Sodano referred to Pope John Paul II as “the Great” in his published written homily for the Mass of Repose.
Since giving his homily at the funeral of Pope John Paul, Pope Benedict XVI has continued to refer to John Paul II as “the Great.” At the 20th World Youth Day in Germany 2005, Pope Benedict XVI, speaking in Polish, John Paul’s native language, said, “As the Great Pope John Paul II would say: keep the flame of faith alive in your lives and your people.” In May 2006, Pope Benedict XVI visited John Paul’s native Poland. During that visit, he repeatedly made references to “the great John Paul” and “my great predecessor”.
In addition to the Vatican calling him “the great”, numerous newspapers have done so. For example, the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera called him “the Greatest” and the South African Catholic newspaper, The Southern Cross, has called him “John Paul II The Great”. and many Catholic schools worldwide have been named after him using this title, for example recently renamed John Paul the Great Catholic University and John Paul the Great Catholic High School.
Inspired by calls of “Santo Subito!” (” Saint Immediately!”) from the crowds gathered during the funeral mass which he performed, Benedict XVI began the beatification process for his predecessor, bypassing the normal restriction that five years must pass after a person’s death before beginning the beatification process. In an audience with Pope Benedict XVI, Camillo Ruini, Vicar General of the Diocese of Rome who was responsible for promoting the cause for canonisation of any person who died within that diocese, cited “exceptional circumstances” which suggested that the waiting period could be waived. This decision was announced on 13 May 2005, the Feast of Our Lady of Fatima and the 24th anniversary of the assassination attempt on John Paul II at St. Peter’s Square.
In early 2006, it was reported that the Vatican was investigating a possible miracle associated with John Paul II. Sister Marie Simon-Pierre, a French nun and a member of the Congregation of Little Sisters of Catholic Maternity Wards, confined to her bed by Parkinson’s disease, was reported to have experienced a “complete and lasting cure after members of her community prayed for the intercession of Pope John Paul II”. As of May 2008 [update], Sister Marie-Simon-Pierre, then 46, was working again at a maternity hospital run by her religious institute.
“I was sick and now I am cured”, she told reporter Gerry Shaw. “I am cured, but it is up to the church to say whether it was a miracle or not.”
On 28 May 2006, Pope Benedict XVI said Mass before an estimated 900,000 people in John Paul II’s native Poland. During his homily, he encouraged prayers for the early canonisation of John Paul II and stated that he hoped canonisation would happen “in the near future.”
In January 2007, Stanislaw Cardinal Dziwisz of Krakow, his former secretary, announced that the interview phase of the beatification process, in Italy and Poland, was nearing completion. In February 2007, relics of Pope John Paul II pieces of white papal cassocks he used to wear were freely distributed with prayer cards for the cause, a typical pious practice after a saintly Catholic’s death. On 8 March 2007, the Vicariate of Rome announced that the diocesan phase of John Paul’s cause for beatification was at an end. Following a ceremony on 2 April 2007 the second anniversary of the Pontiff’s death the cause proceeded to the scrutiny of the committee of lay, clerical, and episcopal members of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Causes of Saints, to conduct a separate investigation. On the fourth anniversary of Pope John Paul’s death, 2 April 2009, Cardinal Dziwisz, told reporters of a presumed miracle that had recently occurred at the former pope’s tomb in St. Peter’s Basilica. A nine-year-old Polish boy from Gdansk, who was suffering from kidney cancer and was completely unable to walk, had been visiting the tomb with his parents. On leaving St. Peter’s Basilica, the boy told them, “I want to walk”, and began walking normally. On 16 November 2009, a panel of reviewers at the Congregation for the Causes of Saints voted unanimously that Pope John Paul II had lived a life of virtue. On 19 December 2009, Pope Benedict XVI signed the first of two decrees needed for beatification and proclaimed John Paul II “Venerable”, asserting that he had lived a heroic, virtuous life. The second vote and the second signed decree certify the authenticity of his first miracle, the curing of Sister Marie Simon-Pierre, a French nun, from Parkinson’s disease. Once the second decree is signed, the positio (the report on the cause, with documentation about his life and writings and with information on the cause) is complete. He can then be beatified. Some speculated that he would be beatified sometime during (or soon after) the month of the 32nd anniversary of his 1978 election, in October 2010. As Monsignor Oder noted, this course would have been possible if the second decree were signed in time by Benedict XVI, stating that a posthumous miracle directly attributable to his intercession had occurred, completing the positio.
The Vatican announced on 14 January 2011 that Pope Benedict XVI had confirmed the miracle involving Sister Marie Simon-Pierre and that John Paul II was to be beatified on 1 May, the Feast of Divine Mercy. 1 May is commemorated in former communist countries, such as Poland, and some Western European countries as May Day, and Pope John Paul II was well-known for his contributions to communism’s relatively peaceful demise. In March 2011 the Polish mint issued a gold 1,000 Polish zloty coin (equivalent to US$350), with the Pope’s image to commemorate his beatification.
On 29 April 2011, Pope John Paul II’s coffin was exhumed from the grotto beneath St. Peter’s Basilica ahead of his beatification, as tens of thousands of people arrived in Rome for one of the biggest events since his funeral. John Paul II’s remains (in a closed coffin) were placed in front of the Basilica’s main altar, where believers could pay their respect before and after the beatification mass in St. Peter’s Square on 1 May. On 3 May 2011 Blessed Pope John Paul II was given a new resting place in the marble altar in Pier Paolo Cristofari’s Chapel of St. Sebastian, which is where Pope Innocent XI was buried. This more prominent location, next to the Chapel of the Piets, the Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament and statues of Popes Pius XI and Pius XII, was intended to allow more pilgrims to view his memorial.
Marco Fidel Rojas, the mayor of Huila, Colombia, has testified that he has been “miraculously cured” of Parkinson’s disease through the intercession of John Paul II. Mr. Rojas’ doctor has certified his cure, and the documentation has been sent to the sainthood cause’s Vatican office in a case that may move John Paul’s canonisation forward.
Criticism and controversy
John Paul II was widely criticised, among other things, for his views against the ordination of women and contraception, his support for the Second Vatican Council and its reform of the Liturgy, and his stance on the sanctity of marriage.
Opposition to his Beatification
Some Catholic theologians disagree with the call for beatification of Pope John Paul II. Eleven dissident theologians, including Jesuit professor Jose Maria Castillo and Italian theologian Giovanni Franzoni raised seven points, including his stance against contraception and the ordination of women as well as the Church scandals that presented “facts which according to their consciences and convictions should be an obstacle to beatification”.
Child Sex Abuse Scandals
John Paul II was also criticised for failing to respond quickly enough to the sex abuse crisis. In his response, he stated that “there is no place in the priesthood and religious life for those who would harm the young”. The Church instituted reforms to prevent future abuse by requiring background checks for Church employees and, because a significant majority of victims were teenage boys, disallowing ordination of men with “deepseated homosexual tendencies”. They now require dioceses faced with an allegation to alert the authorities, conduct an investigation and remove the accused from duty. In 2008, the Church asserted that the scandal was a very serious problem and estimated that it was “probably caused by ‘no more than 1 per cent’ ” (or 5,000) of the over 500,000 Catholic priests worldwide.
In April 2002, John Paul II, despite being frail from Parkinson’s disease, summoned all the American cardinals to the Vatican to discuss possible solutions to the issue of sexual abuse in the American Church. He asked them to “diligently investigate accusations.” John Paul II suggested that American bishops be more open and transparent in dealing with such scandals and emphasized the role of seminary training to prevent sexual deviance among future priests. In what The New York Times called “unusually direct language,” John Paul condemned the arrogance of priests which led to the scandals:
Priests and candidates for the priesthood often live at a level both materially and educationally superior to that of their families and the members of their own age group. It is therefore very easy for them to succumb to the temptation of thinking of themselves as better than others. When this happens, the ideal of priestly service and self-giving dedication can fade, leaving the priest dissatisfied and disheartened.
The pope read a statement intended for the American cardinals, calling the sex abuse “an appalling sin” and said the priesthood had no room for such men.
In 2002, Archbishop Juliusz Paetz, the Catholic Archbishop of Poznan, was accused of molesting seminarians. Pope John Paul II accepted his resignation, and placed sanctions on him, prohibiting Paetz from exercising his ministry as bishop. These restrictions were lifted in 2010 by Pope Benedict XVI.
In 2003 John Paul II reiterated that “there is no place in the priesthood and religious life for those who would harm the young”. and in April 2003, the Pontifical Academy for Life organised a three-day conference, entitled “Abuse of Children and Young People by Catholic Priests and Religious”, where eight non-Catholic psychiatric experts were invited to speak to near all Vatican dicasteries’ representatives. The panel of experts overwhelmingly opposed implementation of policies of “zero-tolerance” such as was proposed by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops. One expert called such policies a “case of overkill” since they do not permit flexibility to allow for differences among individual cases.
In 2004 Pope John Paul II recalled Bernard Francis Law to be Archpriest of the Papal Basilica of Saint Mary Major in Rome. Law had previously resigned as archbishop of Boston in 2002 in response to the Roman Catholic Church sex abuse scandal after Church documents were revealed which suggested he had covered up sexual abuse committed by priests in his archdiocese. Law resigned from this position in November 2011.
Opus Dei Controversies
John Paul II was criticised for his support of the Opus Dei prelature and the 2002 canonisation of its founder, Josemara Escrive, whom he called ‘the saint of ordinary life.’ Other movements and religious organisations of the Church went decidedly under his wing (Legion of Christ, the Neocatechumenal Way, Schoenstatt, the charismatic movement, etc.) and he was accused repeatedly of taking a soft hand with them, especially in the case of Rev. Marcial Maciel, founder of the Legion of Christ. In 1984 Pope John Paul II appointed Joaquan Navarro-Valls, a member of Opus Dei, as Director of the Vatican Press Office. An Opus Dei spokesman says “the influence of Opus Dei in the has been exaggerated.” Of the nearly 200 cardinals in the Roman Catholic Church, only two are known to be members of Opus Dei.
Banco Ambrosiano Scandal
Pope John Paul was alleged to have links with Banco Ambrosiano, an Italian bank which collapsed in 1982. At the centre of the bank’s failure was its chairman, Roberto Calvi and his membership in the illegal Masonic Lodge Propaganda Due (aka P2). The Vatican Bank was Banco Ambrosiano’s main shareholder, and the death of Pope John Paul I in 1978 is rumoured to be linked to the Ambrosiano scandal.
Calvi, often referred to as “God’s Banker”, was also involved the Vatican Bank, Istituto per le Opere di Religione, in his dealings, and was close to Bishop Paul Marcinkus, the bank’s chairman. Ambrosiano also provided funds for political parties in Italy, and for both the Somoza dictatorship in Nicaragua and its Sandinista opposition. There are also rumours that it provided money for Solidarity in Poland. It has been widely alleged that the Vatican Bank funded Solidarity.
Calvi used his complex network of overseas banks and companies to move money out of Italy, to inflate share prices, and to secure massive unsecured loans. In 1978, the Bank of Italy produced a report on Ambrosiano that predicted future disaster. On 5 June 1982, two weeks before the collapse of Banco Ambrosiano, Calvi had written a letter of warning to Pope John Paul II, stating that such a forthcoming event would “provoke a catastrophe of unimaginable proportions in which the Church will suffer the gravest damage.” On 18 June 1982 Calvi’s body was found hanging from scaffolding beneath Blackfriars Bridge in the financial district of London. Calvi’s clothing was stuffed with bricks, and contained cash valued at US$14,000, in three different currencies.
Birth Control and Gender Roles
John Paul II’s defence of traditional moral teachings of the Catholic Church regarding gender roles, sexuality, euthanasia, artificial contraception and abortion came under attack. Some feminists criticised his traditional positions on the roles of women, which included rejecting women priests.
Gay Rights Activists
Many gay rights activists and others criticised him for maintaining the Church’s unbroken opposition to homosexual behaviour and same-sex marriage. During John Paul II’s reign, the Vatican described homosexuality as an “objective disorder” and in his own book Memory and Identity John Paul II describes the concept of gay families as an “ideology of evil”, phrases which incensed many parts of the LGBT community.
Problems with Traditionalists
In addition to all the criticism from those demanding modernisation, traditionalist Catholics sometimes denounced him as well. These issues included demanding a return to the Tridentine Mass and repudiation of the reforms instituted after the Second Vatican Council, such as the use of the vernacular language in the formerly Latin Roman Rite Mass, ecumenism, and the principle of religious liberty. He was also accused by these critics for allowing and appointing liberal bishops in their sees and thus silently promoting Modernism, which was firmly condemned as the “synthesis of all heresies” by his predecessor Pope St. Pius X. In 1988, the controversial traditionalist Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, founder of the Society of St. Pius X (1970), was excommunicated under John Paul II because of the unapproved ordination of four bishops, which was called by the Holy See a “schismatic act”.
The World Day of Prayer for Peace, with a meeting in Assisi, Italy, in 1986, in which the Pope prayed only with the Christians, was heavily criticised as giving the impression that syncretism and indifferentism were openly embraced by the Papal Magisterium. When a second Day of Prayer for Peace in the World was held, in 2002, it was condemned as confusing the laity and compromising to “false religions”. Likewise criticised was his kissing of the Qur’an in Damascus, Syria, on one of his travels on 6 May 2001. His call for religious freedom was not always supported; bishops like Antanio de Castro Mayer promoted religious tolerance, but at the same time rejected the Vatican II principle of religious liberty as being liberalist and already condemned by Pope Pius IX in his Syllabus errorum (1864) and at the First Vatican Council.
Some Catholics oppose his beatification and potential canonisation for the above reasons.
Religion and AIDS
John Paul’s position against artificial birth control, including the use of condoms to prevent the spread of HIV, was harshly criticised by doctors and AIDS activists, who said that it led to countless deaths and millions of AIDS orphans. Critics have also claimed that large families are caused by lack of contraception and exacerbate Third World poverty and problems such as street children in South America. The Catholic Agency for Overseas Development published a paper stating, “Any strategy that enables a person to move from a higher-risk towards the lower end of the continuum, believe, is a valid risk reduction strategy.”
He was criticised for recentralising power back to the Vatican following what some viewed as a decentralisation by Pope John XXIII. As such he was regarded by some as a strict authoritarian. Conversely, he was also criticised for spending far too much time preparing for and undertaking foreign travel. The frequency of his trips, it was said, not only undermined the “specialness” of papal visits, but took him away from important business at the Vatican and allowed the Church, administratively speaking, to drift. Especially in South America, he was criticised for conservative bias in his appointments of bishops; with an unusually long reign of over 25 years, the majority of bishops in place at his death had been appointed by him.
There was strong criticism of the pope for the controversy surrounding the alleged use of charitable social programs as a means of converting people in the Third World to Catholicism. The Pope created an uproar in the Indian subcontinent when he suggested that a great harvest of faith would be witnessed on the subcontinent in the third Christian millennium.
In 1988, when Pope John Paul II was delivering a speech to the European Parliament, then-leader of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Moderator of the Free Presbyterian Church of Ulster, Ian Paisley, shouted “I denounce you as the antichrist!” and held up a red banner reading “Pope John Paul II ANTICHRIST”. Archduke Otto of Austria, the last Crown Prince of Austria-Hungary snatched Paisley’s banner and, along with other MEPs, helped eject him from the chamber. The Pope continued with his address after Paisley had been ejected.
A number of quotes about the apparitions of Medjugorje have been attributed to John Paul II. In 1998, when a certain German gathered various statements which were supposedly made by the Pope and Cardinal Ratzinger, and then forwarded them to the Vatican in the form of a memorandum, Ratzinger responded in writing on 22 July 1998: “The only thing I can say regarding statements on Medjugorje ascribed to the Holy Father and myself is that they are complete invention.”