The Legacy of Pope John Paul II
The legacy of John Paul II is still materializing and developing. The quarter-century he led the Church encouraged many vocations to the priesthood and religious life.
After the confusion that followed after Vatican II — not from the documents themselves but from what many claimed to be the “spirit of Vatican II” rather than the actual and literal message of Vatican II — some priests and nuns abandoned their vows, there was a rise in the divorce rate, fewer people attended Mass, there was more dissent among theologians, and more Catholics ignored Church teaching and discipline altogether.
Paul VI had closed Vatican II in 1965, but it was under his pontificate that much of the spiritual decay had begun to infect the mystical body of Christ. Paul VI tried to preserve, protect, and repair the damage, but the sexual and cultural revolutions were simultaneously transforming the world into a place of greater instability and uncertainty. John Paul II came in 1978 and did not repeal or repudiate the Second Vatican Council; rather, he sought to fully, properly, thoroughly, and correctly implement what the Council Fathers had intended but that time and circumstance had previously prevented from happening.
JP2 did not come to set back the clock to before 1963. He came to prepare the Church and the world for the third millennium, which would come as soon as the 20th century ended and the 21st began. He sought reconciliation where possible. He defended the consistent, perennial teachings of the 2,000-year-old religion. He used modern tools — like the jet plane, the Internet, television, and radio — to spread his message. He preserved the rich heritage and patrimony of Catholicism, while at the same time he shook some of the dust off the places that had become complacent and lethargic.
John Paul II did not define any new dogmas, nor did he deny, dilute, or tamper with the revealed truths he was entrusted with as Supreme Pastor of the Universal Church. He did explain the age-old doctrines in a brighter light and with full enthusiasm and gusto. Prolific in his writings and speeches, Pope John Paul II had an important message — but as a former actor and poet, he also knew the importance of how the message was delivered.
The pope is considered by Catholics to be the head of the entire Universal Catholic Church while a local bishop is head of the diocese and the local pastor is the head of the parish church. Universal Church is used to refer to the Catholic Church as a whole.
JP2 could defend the tradition of priestly celibacy while extolling the virtues of married love between one man and one woman for the rest of their lives. He could defend the doctrine of a male priesthood while denouncing the exploitation of women through pornography and abortion. He spoke of the sacredness of each human person and the beauty of conjugal love open to the possibility of new life.
He associated with all who suffer, because of the sufferings of his own past — losing his mother, brother, and father at an early age; living under Nazi and Communist oppression; surviving a would-be assassin’s bullet; and his long battle with Parkinson’s disease.
He was not able to convince all Catholics to embrace completely and totally all that the Church teaches, all the doctrines, disciplines, and sacred rituals. He could not get the Eastern Orthodox, for example, to come any closer to ecclesiastical unity, and the Protestant churches did not pack up and move to Rome.
Since 1054, the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches have been divided. Prior to that, there was one Christian Church with several patriarchs (bishops from historical places of antiquity — for example, Jerusalem, Antioch, Alexandria, Rome, and Constantinople). The division was called the Eastern Schism, and the churches that separated and sought to be autonomous from Rome and the pope are called Eastern Orthodox.
The patriarch of Moscow became independent in 1589. Although the Orthodox churches do not accept the primacy of jurisdiction of the pope as Supreme Pastor of the Universal Church, they do share the same theology, have the same seven sacraments, and have a strong devotion to the Virgin Mary as the Mother of God. Though very similar in substantial areas, the political and jurisdictional differences have historically prevented a formal reunion of the Eastern Orthodox and Western (Roman) Catholic churches.
The Protestant Reformation, which began in 1517 with Martin Luther then with John Calvin, John Knox, Thomas Cranmer, John Wesley, and others, broke from Rome and created the Lutheran, Calvinist, Presbyterian, Anglican, and Methodist churches. Unlike the Eastern Schism in the 11 century, the 16th-century Protestant Reformation divided Western Christendom along doctrinal and liturgical lines as well as jurisdiction.
Does the fact that JP2 wasn’t able to achieve all of his goals mean he failed? Should he have even tried? Well, look at it this way: For a long time, nothing was said about the dangers of cigarette smoking. Then doctors and the surgeon general began telling everyone that smoking can cause cancer. Despite the amount of information and the scope to which it has been disseminated, there are still those who choose not to believe or to just ignore the warnings.
Likewise, despite the global access John Paul II had, the 26 years he had it, and the wonderful manner he had in spreading it, not everyone paid attention. Those who did will never forget. Those who actually embraced it will never regret it. Not a waste then, after all.