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Something indomitable at work

It was an exceptional year in the Catholic church -- 1978, the year of three popes. Before we had time to know John Paul I, he was gone. Then smoke from the Vatican tin chimney wafted white again. Word spread that the new man was Polish -- and it’s easy to forget Poland was communist then. This added a new dimension to the excitement.

The rest is, whatever else we think of it, a resounding chapter of papal history: the vastly visible pontificate of the globetrotting, crowd-pleasing John Paul II; and the turbulent story of his wrestling the domestic church back into line, as he understands it, after some years of post-Vatican II straying from some imagined straight and narrow.

Our four-page pullout chronology of John Paul’s papacy may be regarded in various ways. It is, for one thing, a tribute to an old warrior pope, a battler: the pope who took on communism and is not afraid to take credit for defeating it; the pope who took on what nearly everyone else on earth seems to hanker for, today’s materialist and consumerist excesses and their capitalistic underpinnings; the pope who took on everyone who disagreed with him, which as time passed came more and more to mean liberals of nearly every stripe.

The chronology serves as an easy overview and guide to this papacy: what John Paul did and said, where he went and hints of why. We anticipate that readers of different interests, from the academic to the journalistic, may want to preserve it for easy access -- because we have not heard the last of this man.

The chronology is also a sketch of the history of the Catholic church for the past 20 years. This equation will, no doubt, get some people riled. No, the pope is not the church. And yes, the laity, baptized all over again at Vatican II, is the people of God.

So fulminate if you want. A pope at the helm, with tenure for life, bolstered by infallibility and near-total autocratic power, may not be everyone’s idea of what the world needs at the end of the 20th century. But that’s the Catholic church. Guided by the Holy Spirit, of course. The hovering Spirit is given credit and blame for a multitude of good and bad things.

Some, as we know all too well, are full of glee that the “restoration” quarterbacked by John Paul II is nearly complete. Others wallow in consternation while waiting for the next pope to carry on the reforms so unceremoniously -- or is that ceremoniously? -- interrupted by this pope.

Never has a pope made his presence so felt in the world as this one. Modern means of communication and transport are largely responsible for this. But John Paul himself can take considerable credit, too. Seldom has a pope towered in the company of his contemporaries as has this one.

It does, in other words, matter who is pope.

The assumption behind our four-page chronology is that this pope will be with us for some time. He has made no secret of his intention to usher in the next millennium. And if he wills it, it is likely to happen. More and more I have come to see him as human will incarnate -- whether sitting in that big chair or waving his shaking hand feebly to the still-enraptured crowds or doing his polyglot turn on special occasions, behind the feebleness there is something indomitable.

Whether this comes from infallibility, or whether his is a personality that creates its own infallibility, or whether the truth is something else entirely, maybe even a working of the Holy Spirit, John Paul II challenges Catholics of the future to think twice before writing off the bishop of Rome as figurehead or symbol or even a harmless saint.

-- Michael Farrell

National Catholic Reporter, October 16, 1998