From the first, John Paul II was different. With his robust physique and great, craggy head, he looked nothing like the frail Italians who had preceded him to St. Peter’s. In appearance and energy, if not in moral qualities, he resembled a much older model of Italian pontiff: that of the Renaissance.
I watched him on television after his election in 1978, and I remember saying: “This pope is going to shake up more than one throne before he’s through.” We are each entitled to a moment of insight; that one was mine.
John Paul’s faith was forged in oppression, not the cloisters, and fed by courage rather than conformism. In 1978, communist despots ruled half the world, including Poland, the pope’s mother country. The free West, rich but outgunned, seemed demoralized. Many were unsure of the justice of their cause; many more were afraid – of nuclear death, of economic decline, of being left behind by history.
The new pope wielded the vast moral authority of the Church against the physical and military power of an evil empire. Practically his first words after election were, “Be not afraid.” That was his answer to Stalin’s sardonic riddle: “How many divisions has the pope?”
For Stalin, to rule meant to terrorize. John Paul understood that moral courage could trump brute power, and that the defeat of fear would shake totalitarianism to its foundations. He cared nothing for politics. Freedom from fear was a moral condition demanded by his faith.
In 1979 he journeyed to Poland, a trip that changed the world. Millions came out to see him. The communist system degrades and isolates dissenters, buries them alive in a terrible loneliness. Those who gathered to see the pope were amazed to find each other.
“We understood then,” one of them wrote years later, “we and our kind – the ‘outcasts’ and ‘instigators’ of the nation – that we were not alone, that we had a purpose, that it was not over, and that no one had broken us, the Polish people, down.” Lech Walesa, leader of the Polish revolt against communism, has similar memories.
During his first pilgrimage to Poland, the Holy Father uttered two sentences of great significance: “Be not afraid” and “Renew the face of the earth.” The pope showed us how numerous we were and showed us the…power we had if we joined together as one. We stopped being afraid and gathered together 10 million people in our trade union, Solidarity, which changed the face of this earth.
Twelve years later, Soviet communism, possibly the bloodiest system of control ever devised by ruthless men, had ceased to exist.
John Paul II was a larger than life figure, a “superpope.” Some have criticized him for being too conservative, and for failing to reform the Church. I’m not Catholic. I can’t say whether he was good or bad for the sectarian interests of his religion. But clearly he was a gift to the human race.
If there is a heaven, John Paul II is there now, being honored by the victims of the tyrants he helped to pull down, and (one can hope) trading anecdotes with Ronald Reagan and the other liberators of the last century. My guess is that he was a great pope. I’m certain he was a great man, a breaker of chains and a shaker of thrones. Let’s hope, as we engage in a new century’s struggle for freedom, that his successor chooses, as he did, to array the moral power of the Catholic Church against those who would use brute force to terrorize and enslave their brethren.