April 10, 2005
By Raffique Shah
NEVER before in modern times has the death of a pope generated the kind of international coverage, the outpouring of love and grief, as did that of Pope John Paul II. Besides his lengthy reign over the Holy See and the fact that he was a Pole elected as Pope at a time when the communist empire in Europe was alive if not kicking, John Paul benefitted from the rapid expansion of information technology.
Almost everything he did during his reign, from his inauguration in 1978 through his extensive travels, and finally, his death, reached people across the world via "instant television". Because of the latter, he became the best known pope, even at a time when Catholicism experienced a serious decline in its numbers and in candidates for priesthood.
There is no doubt that John Paul II was also a very pro-active pope. Having been born in a Catholic Poland that was the first country overrun by Hitler's mighty military machine, he was soldier, prisoner and priest.
These segments of his life no doubt influenced him later as he would move to firmly stamp his persona and his policies on the Church. He is credited with triggering the collapse of communist Europe when he visited Poland shortly after he assumed office.
I happened to be in Warsaw in 1977 with George Weekes and others, attending one of those "world conferences" Moscow was wont to summon to show its strength in that part of the world, and its influence worldwide.
I was never impressed with the new czars in the Kremlin, which did not exactly earn me respect from the likes of Cheddi Jagan and James Millette.
But I saw certain signs of collapse in Poland then, which I pointed out to Weekes. There was widespread drunkenness, prostitution, a thriving "black market" for hard currency, and more. "George," I said, "this place will explode." Lech Walesa would emerge from the dockyards of Gdansk two years later at the head of Solidarity, and the rest, as they say, is history.
It's not that John Paul did not provide inspiration to his fellow Poles at a time when the communist guns tried to deter them from moving to overthrow the regime. Oh, he did.
When the "iron curtain" eventually dropped, it revealed millions of Catholics (and people of other faiths Orthodox Christians, Muslims, Lutherans) whose faith had been ground by the Kremlin. Religion was restored, again, not so much as hope for the "liberated" people, but as the "opiate" it always was, something to assuage the suffering of the poor. One sees it in evidence so much today, people poor and starving, but finding solace in religion.
John Paul will be remembered for his outspokenness, for his apologies to Africans and Jews for the discrimination and worse they suffered at the hands of the Church. He also extended the hand of friendship to Jews, Buddhists, Muslims, something that was unthinkable in the early days of the Church. More recently, he spoke out against the unjust US-led invasion of Iraq in the strongest terms, which is why it was almost comical to see George Bush and his sidekicks playing pious in Rome at the funeral.
He was also the pope who put an end to liberation theology. He has been described as being conservative in many respects, and this was one area in which he reversed what was started by Pope John XXIII in 1962 at the Second Vatican Council (Vatican II).
That conference called for the Church "to become involved with the struggles of the poor". It rejected the idea that the church should align itself with the powerful elite.
Later, at an Episcopal conference in Medellin, Colombia in 1968, a document emerged that led to many priests eschewing the traditional alliance with the rich for siding with the poor.
At a time when the US, holding an iron grip over all of Latin America, had installed dozens of military "juntas", many were the priests and bishops who joined in the struggle against brutal oppression of the masses.
Archbishop Camara of Recife was one. He was lucky. Archbishop Romero of El Salvador was not: he was gunned down by US-instigated troops in the church in 1979. Nuns were raped and killed. Hundreds, maybe thousands, were killed in the name of militarism on the one hand, and liberation theology on the other.
John Paul issued an order against the clergy being involved in that type of liberation theology. Emboldened, the "junta" in El Salvador issued pamphlets headlined: "Be a Patriot, Kill a Priest". It was something that must have bothered "El Papa".
But he never apologised to those priests who had chosen to walk the path of Jesus, not that of Caesar. That was the big "red mark" he took with him to the Vatican crypt. And while it exposed his conservatism (as did his stance on contraception and feminism), as popes through history went (many were reprobates, greedy, some even fathered children), John Paul II stands out as one of the giants of the Church.