“A Period of Light and Shadow”: The Pontificate of John Paul II
by Erskine Howcroft


On April 2nd the Vatican announced that “Our Holy Father has returned to the House of the Father.” Then there began twelve days of unprecedented levels of mourning and public tribute which seemed to hold the attention of the whole of the world’s media. Over a million pilgrims made their way to Rome for the Pope’s funeral. At one stage following his death it was reported that 18,000 pilgrims per hour were filing past his body where it was lying in state in St. Peters Basilica.
Tributes poured in from around the world, many of them totally eulogistic in tone. In the fevered atmosphere of Rome pressure mounted for his virtual canonisation. Reports came in from around the world citing his miracles of healing; prayer cards were issued prematurely, calling him ‘Santo’; at times the atmosphere closely resembled that of a modern cult mourning the passing of their charismatic leader.
There is no doubt that in 1978 when Karol Wojtyla was elected Pope the world was introduced to an extraordinary spiritual and temporal leader.
He was unquestionably a man of profound spiritual depth and insight. As the words of Cardinal Ratzinger in his funeral homily testified: “The Holy Father was a priest to the last, for he offered his life to God for his flock and for the entire human family.”
John Paul went on to play a pivotal role in the collapse of the Soviet Union. Indeed three years after Mikhail Gorbachev had visited the Pope in 1989, he remarked, “Everything that has happened in these years in Eastern Europe would have been impossible without the presence of this Pope.”
It may be wise to take a moment to stand apart from the wave of largely uncritical establishment-led adulation and reflect on some aspects of the legacy of John Paul II. Gerald O’Collins, the Australian theologian, artfully summed up his pontificate as “a period of light and shadow.” Every papacy has a shadow side; and in truth a great deal of pain was caused by John Paul’s authoritarian, often blinkered approach.
The Fathers of the Second Vatican Council chose a motto to guide their deliberations. It was: “No more anathema, but understanding; no more condemnation but dialogue.” Nothing could be clearer. John XXIII as the author of the council set out to listen and understand.
On reflection the pontificate of John Paul II took a different window on the world. Dialogue commenced without listening; condemnation was often preceded with scant understanding.
Calling us to conversion
The pontificate of John Paul II will be remembered by many for his absolute insistence on the dignity of the human person. Over the course of one hundred and twenty nine Wednesday audiences he offered a series of scripture-based reflections on a vision of the human person, “truly worthy of man.” In so doing John Paul II distilled his theology of the body- a vision of man from Creation to the Fall and through to what we will become in the future- all applied to the vocation of marriage, the single life and celibacy -in preparation for the Kingdom of Heaven.
Staunchly conservative he reasserted traditional Catholic teachings on sexuality, birth control and human relationships. His orthodoxy in this arena remains for all Catholics: heterosexual or homosexual, single or otherwise, nothing less than a constant call to conversion.
He preached certainties in a world of moral relativism. His 1993 encyclical Veritatis Splendor confronted this relativism and the creeping culture of situational ethics. “God’s law does not reduce, much less do away with human freedom; rather it promotes that freedom…some people, however disregarding the dependence of human reason on divine wisdom…have actually posited a complete sovereignty of reason in the domain of moral norms.”
In the decadent liberal world of advanced capitalism Catholic sexual ethics hold very little sway over private mores. But in the hugely different social context of Africa where, for example, consensual sex is sometimes the exception rather than the norm the Vatican’s continued insistence on the prohibition of artificial means of contraception even as a barrier to sexually transmitted disease, and especially in the face of HIV/AIDS, seems cruel and irresponsible. It is difficult to assess accurately and far harder still to ignore the claims that tens of thousands of children have been indirectly orphaned as a result of his anti-condom dogmas.
Seeking reconciliation
John Paul II issued no new dogmatic statements; instead continuity rather than digression appeared to be his preferred modus operandi. His deliberate choice of name expressed a desire to emulate the spirit of his predecessors, a desire which may be best appreciated in his efforts to initiate a dialogue with Islam and Judaism.
During his pontificate Catholic-Jewish relations underwent a significant transformation. At the Yad Vashem memorial in Israel in 2000 he announced, “Let us build a new future in which there will be no more anti-Jewish feeling.”
He was the first pope to enter a Protestant church; in 2001 he became the first pope to enter a mosque. The Vatican under his guidance has established links with Muslim clerics in Iran and elsewhere.
Yet the recently approved letter of Cardinal Ratzinger, Dominus Iesus, offended many in the Protestant world by relegating non-Catholic churches to an inferior status and crediting them with only ‘ecclesial elements’. The insensitive language made it seems that Rome had forgotten the motto of Vatican II: “No more anathema, but understanding; no more condemnation, but dialogue.” Somehow over the course of the last papacy it feels as though there has been a drift away from the spirit of the Council.
‘Solidarity’- as long as you’re European!
Condemnation, rigid discipline and betrayal have sadly been the experience of many who were set out on a progressive path when John Paul II came to office.
His failure to intervene on the side of the political left during the struggles of Catholics in Latin America disappointed many and only history will judge to what extent this was a lost opportunity for the official Church to make a clear, unambiguous alliance with the poor and oppressed.
Mistakenly he identified all socialist currents in Latin America as atheist communism. Liberation Theology was suppressed as priests and scholars were disciplined and publicly humiliated. The ecclesial base communities were not accepted as they should have been accepted. Moreover he demonstrated a failure to understand the complexities of the local church; an example of this is the way the efforts of the saintly Helder Camara met with resistance.
Helder Camara was Bishop of Olinda and Recife in the north east of Brazil. During the years of military dictatorship he became a symbol of resistance on behalf of the poor. His commitment to grass roots pastoral action led him to spend his life dedicated to the cause of the poor, living with them frugally, leaving the Archbishop’s palace and renouncing the trappings of office and power. In the end his work was simply dismantled as an authoritarian conservative churchman in the old mould was appointed to replace him. His successor made it clear how Rome felt about closer alliances with the poor stating that he was commissioned to ‘clear up the mess that Helder Camara had left.’
John Paul’s political engagement in Europe was not marked with the same lack of partiality.
As Archbishop of Krakow (1964-1978) Wojtyla gained valuable experience dealing with Stalinist authorities which was to stand him in good stead for one of his most defining political engagements.
At the time of his election as pope in 1978 Poland was experiencing a period of economic instability and social unrest. A wave of strikes over price rises had given impetus to a growing workers movement which eventually came together under the banner of Solidarity. A stand-off ensued between the workers and the authorities.
Political authorities and business leaders in both east and west looked on with a mixture of hope and nervous apprehension. Some agencies however were more determined than others. It is alleged that the CIA advised the Vatican and gave critical financial and logistical support. And over the course of a few years between 1978 and 1981 Solidarity received over 50 million dollars through the Vatican.[1]
Sadly the energy generated by the emerging social democracy failed to yield any significant benefits for the working class in Poland. Critics suggest that the Pope’s preference that the workers avoid anything resembling open confrontation actually postponed the collapse of the regime. Widespread unemployment and poverty were the logical outcome of the mass arrests, martial law and the break-up of the union which followed.
Enemy of war
John Paul II was clearly a complicated personality. While many of his views are shared across the conservative political spectrum of the US he was one of only a few world leaders consistently against the war in Iraq. He was a vociferous opponent of this war over two decades prior to its inception warning that it would prove to be a defeat for humanity which could never be justified.
He strenuously resisted being co-opted by the Bush Administration in its belief that it was pursuing Christian destiny, and in certain quarters this was deeply appreciated. As Fidel Castro’s message of condolence stated:
“Rest in peace, indefatigable battler for friendship among the peoples, enemy of war and friend of the poor. The efforts of those who wanted to utilize your prestige and great spiritual authority against the just cause of our people in their fight against the giant empire were in vain." [2]
In an interview with Zenit on May 2nd 2003 Cardinal Ratzinger reiterated the Pope’s view on the Iraq war: “There were not sufficient reasons to unleash a war against Iraq. To say nothing of the fact that given the new weapons that make possible destructions that go beyond the combatant group, today we should be asking if it is still licit to admit to the very existence of a just war.”
Most of the general public are probably unaware of the extent of his opposition on the war in Iraq. He spoke fifty six times against the first Gulf war and yet the US media in particular simply suffocated his voice.
When every word and action of historical figures is filtered through the lens of the media it becomes increasingly difficult to get at their true identity, what they stand for, or how great, in terms of history their contribution will prove to be. This is especially so of John Paul II. His legacy sometimes appears a confused picture, quite simply, at this point in history, one of “light and shadow.”
For many it was the manner of his dying which will be remembered as the most powerful message of his papacy; demonstrating through personal example the possibility of dignity in weakness.
At his funeral mass Cardinal Ratzinger reflected that over his final months, John Paul in his suffering “increasingly entered into the communion of Christ's sufferings” and “in this very communion with the suffering Lord, tirelessly and with renewed intensity, he proclaimed the Gospel, the mystery of that love which goes to the end (cf. John 13:1). The Pope, he went on, “suffered and loved in communion with Christ, and that is why the message of his suffering and his silence proved so eloquent and so fruitful”.
As the controversies and achievements of his ministry recede into history it is this final testimony of suffering and love in union with Christ which will remain for many people the true measure of John Paul’s greatness.


Notes and References
[1] His Holiness: John Paul II and the Hidden History of Our Time by Carl Bernstein and Marco Politi, Doubleday, 1996, ISBN: 0385472374.
[2] Granma, International English Edition, April 5th, 2005.