Pope John Paul II’s death a week ago today sparked an unprecedented focus on his teachings and those of the Catholic Church. In his life and in his death, the humble priest from Poland exemplified the precepts of a 2,000-year-old institution that has shaped much of the world for centuries.
He stood for life against death. He championed the vulnerable over the powerful. And he resisted the siren call to abandon fidelity to tradition and Church doctrine — which earned him many critics among the cultural elite, especially for his stance on human sexuality and women’s role in modern life.
Since the pope’s death, liberal commentators on television and radio have tried to walk the fine line between criticizing the pope’s theology and appearing to criticize the man, as if with this pope there could be any distinction between the two. Some dissident Catholics, for example, have suggested that whoever is chosen when the Conclave of Cardinals meet in Rome April 18, he must heal the wounds they claim were created by this pope. Father Andrew Greeley, an influential writer and sociologist, wrote in the New York Daily News this week on the legacy of Pope John Paul II: “The Catholic Church, so attractive during the time of Pope John XXIII [1958-63], lost much of its respect and esteem — especially because it was perceived, perhaps unfairly, to be hostile to both women and homosexuals.” But the growth among new Catholics would appear to contradict the dissidents’ carping.
Since Pope John Paul II became pontiff in 1978, the Catholic Church’s membership has nearly doubled from 757 million to some 1.1 billion, roughly keeping pace with the growth in world population. Though Islam is generally referred to as the world’s fastest-growing religion, Muslims number less than a billion and are losing ground to Roman Catholics in some traditionally Muslim areas, including Africa. In 2003, the last year for which statistics are available, Africa’s Catholic population grew 41/2 percent, for example. And even in the Americas (the church measures North and South America as one entity), where church membership grew only 1.2 percent in 2003, it has been losing ground to conservative Evangelical Christian denominations, not to “progressive” mainline Protestantism.
Indeed, the U.S. religious communities in deepest trouble are those that have most strayed from orthodox belief and practice: These run from Episcopalians, whose hierarchy have accepted ordination of homosexuals and even their consecration as bishop, to Reform Judaism, most of whose members rarely attend services beyond Jewish High Holy Days.
Pope John Paul II did not make it easier to be a Catholic in a modern, secular world. He asked that Catholics sacrifice, not be seduced by momentary pleasures and live for others rather than themselves. He urged Catholics to put their faith at the center of their lives, not to relegate it to an hour a week, or worse, to an occasional holiday like Christmas or Easter.
He expected Catholics to be an example to those who did not share their faith, and especially to those who lacked faith altogether. It was a tall order, but from the moment he assumed his office, Pope John Paul II promised faithful Catholics would not be alone in their struggle.
“Be not afraid,” the pope said in his inaugural sermon, harkening back to what Christ told his disciples when He reappeared after the Resurrection and said He would remain with us always. The words echo those used numerous times in the Old Testament to reassure the ancient Hebrews that God would stand steadfast with the people so long as they honored their covenant with Him. “Be not afraid. Christ knows ‘what is in man.’ He alone knows it,” the pope assured his listeners. The message was clear — Christ has faith in man even when we do not have faith in ourselves.
Like the Teacher whose vicar on Earth he was, John Paul II believed we are all capable of leading better, more authentically Christian lives — and his words and example remain with us even after he has departed this world.
Linda Chavez is a nationally syndicated columnist.