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How Pope John Paul II Changed the World


Commentators explore the influence of the first non-Italian pope in 455 years as he becomes the fourth-longest serving Roman Catholic Church leader

The following are excerpts from commentary submissions to The Detroit News, web sites and wire services on the 25th anniversary of John Paul II’s papacy:

Samuel Gregg, director of the Center for Economic Personalism at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty, Grand Rapids: Much has changed in the world since Pope John Paul II became pope in 1978. The world then was one-third communist; now it is barely communist. The Catholic Church, which appeared to many people in 1978 to be in a crisis, now seems much more stable. These things are in no small measure due to the witness of John Paul II. He is viewed as a leader not just by Catholics, but by many other Christians and even non-Christians. He is a man who is witnessing — in his acts, his teachings and his deeds — to the hope that is proclaimed by Jesus Christ.

Bruce Miller, Detroit labor attorney: John Paul is easily one of the greatest men of the 20th century. He is a labor priest. His endorsement of Solidarity, the Polish trade union, led to the peaceful destruction of communism and the creation of opportunities for working people to organize in unions in the former Soviet empire. In Centisimus Annus, the seminal encyclical on labor, the pope reiterated the centrality of labor unions as a countervailing force to the unbridled power of corporations.

Frances Kissling, president of Catholics for a Free Choice: The pope’s efforts on behalf of human rights and democracy in the larger world has been much noted and applauded. Sadly, those same values have not characterized his role within the church itself. He has polarized the church right and left, favoring conservative views and organizations over those that would liberate body and soul. His personal suffering has touched us all; unfortunately he has not responded in kind to the suffering of the world’s most marginalized: victims of AIDS, children abused by priests and women desperate not to bear children they cannot afford have been left behind. It will take the church a long time to heal from these tragedies.

Seth Armus, history professor at St. Joseph’s College, New York (Newsday): In the quarter-century of Pope John Paul II’s papacy, three moments stand out for me.
First, his 1983 visit to Nicaragua, where Daniel Ortega’s Sandinistas, having won over an element of the Catholic clergy, hoped John Paul II could be manipulated into defending the government and their “popular” church.
Mistaking the pope’s humanism for socialism, and accustomed to weak and corruptible Catholic leaders, Ortega attempted to turn a religious service into a Communist pep rally. The pope told him, in effect, to shut up and stop desecrating the Mass. Guest of the Marxist Sandinistas, he was nonetheless the eternal messenger of Jesus.
The second occurred 10 years later, at World Youth Day in Colorado. Addressing a half-million young followers in what the media quickly dubbed a “Catholic Woodstock,” the pope, after wallowing in mutual good-feeling, told the audience that America is too materialistic and selfish and, more pointedly, that all of our nation’s great accomplishments will be meaningless if we continue permitting abortion.
And the final example is his personal outreach to Jews. He stopped those within his own Polish church who wished to “Christianize” the Holocaust, and he prayed for forgiveness at Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust Memorial. He then angered many Jews by pushing for the canonization of Edith Stein, a woman murdered at Auschwitz for being a Jew but whom some Catholics want to transform into a “Christian martyr.”
These three instances contain the fundamental contradictions of John Paul II’s papacy: An instinctively political man, he resists political classification. A leader with a great instinct for freedom, he mistrusts any movement based on man. And, finally, although a deeply cultured European intellectual, he has consistently moved the Roman Catholic Church toward its ecstatic and medieval roots.

Bill Blakemore, Rome bureau chief and Vatican correspondent for ABC News from 1978-1983 (PBS “Frontline”): That first trip back to Poland (in 1979), he pierced the Iron Curtain, and you could tell it right there. … He came into town, and the Poles were standing there and looking at him. And they were very quiet. And he got up there and gave that first powerful sermon, right there in the middle of Warsaw. Little by little, over the next two or three days, the Poles discovered it’s all right to cheer for him. It’s all right to cheer; we’re not going to get mowed down if we cheer for him. And that’s the moment in my mind of real transformation. It’s when those crowds saw themselves as being a power that could not be denied.

James Carroll, author of “Constantine’s Sword” ( This pope has done more to bring about the reconciliation of the church with the Jews than any previous pope. We have to confront the legacy of anti-Semitism and finish the healing and the reckoning with it. And he’s begun that.

Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, editor of the Catholic magazine First Things (CNN): This pope has the church in a stronger position than it’s been in since the Protestant division in the 16th century. When has the Catholic church had as much respect as it does today?

This article originally appeared in the 16 October 2003 edition of the Detriot News.

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