National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  October 17, 2003

His iron will marks pope's 25 years

Despite hard line on church governance, record is more mixed than partisans acknowledge


On Oct. 16, Pope John Paul II marks the 25th anniversary of his election to the papacy. He is the third-longest-reigning pope in history, only five months behind Leo XIII (1878-1903).

If he is to surpass Pope Pius IX (1846-78), whose pontificate was the longest of all, John Paul II would have to remain in office six years, seven months, and three weeks more. He would be 90 years old.

As these lines were being written, the pope had just returned from his latest foreign trip, this time to Slovakia. Notwithstanding the usual, exuberant outpouring of the faithful by the hundreds of thousands, there was something different about this particular pastoral visit.

The pope was unable to complete the reading of his opening statement upon arriving in the country, and he had to have someone finish his homily at the Mass in which he beatified two local figures, a bishop and a nun who had suffered for their faith during the communist period in the former Czechoslovakia.

Reporters observed that the pope had never looked so fatigued or acted so feebly as he did on this, his 102nd trip outside the Vatican. Many wondered if it would be his last.

Those who have made dire predictions in the past about the pope’s health, his capacity to travel outside of Italy, and even about his impending death have consistently been proved wrong.

But even a stopped clock gives the correct time twice a day. At some point in the future, known only to God, those observers will finally be proved right.

Meanwhile, as the pope approaches his silver anniversary, the media and thousands of other interested parties within the church have been taking their measure both of the man and of his long tenure as earthly head of the Catholic church.

It is clear that, in electing Karol Wojtyla, then cardinal-archbishop of Kraków, the second conclave of 1978 chose a candidate of immense personal strength and iron will. He was at the time a hiker, swimmer, and mountain climber -- a man even younger than his 58 years in physical vigor and energy.

His strength and will had been sharpened in sustained personal and official resistance to the forces of Nazism and then of communism in his native Poland and in his daily round of pastoral responsibilities exercised in the teeth of determined and powerful political opposition.

Following the death of John Paul I after only 33 days in office, the cardinal-electors returned hurriedly to Rome in no mood to take any more risks on a less-than-robust figure. Wojtyla, whom many of them had come to know through his frequent travels around the world and at synodal meetings of bishops, offered a striking contrast to the mild, small-of-stature John Paul I.

That robust strength and iron will would also characterize the new pope’s personal style of governance. Some came to refer to him as a “hard-line” pope -- a quality that endeared him to a faction in the church that, truth to tell, had been secretly contemptuous of his predecessor, Paul VI. They had faulted Paul for weakness in the face of dissent and for the apparent drift of the church away from orthodoxy and traditional discipline.

Certain progressive cardinals such as Franz Koenig of Austria and Aloísio Lorscheider of Brazil, both thoroughly formed by the spirit of Vatican II, had promoted Wojtyla’s candidacy in 1978 because they expected him to apply that strength of character and of will to the service of the church behind the Iron Curtain and in the Third World.

They were right. But both cardinals admitted some years later that they had not expected their candidate to adopt the same hard line in the governance of the church itself, particularly in his dealings with theologians, in his appointments of bishops and officers of the Roman curia and in his re-centralization of authority in the papacy at the expense of the council’s teaching on collegiality.

At the 25-year mark, the Catholic church can surely take pride in the many achievements of its pope: his following in the footsteps of John XXIII in taking seriously his primary pastoral role as bishop of Rome, his ecumenical outreach to separated Eastern churches, his extraordinary initiatives in Jewish-Catholic relations, and his accelerating of the downfall of the Soviet empire through his courageous support of the cause of freedom across Central and Eastern Europe.

To be sure, it is a record more mixed than partisans on either side are prepared to acknowledge.

Fr. Richard McBrien is the Crowley-O’Brien Professor of Theology at the University of Notre Dame.

National Catholic Reporter, October 17, 2003

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