KAROL Josef Wojtyla had been many things before he became Pope. Among these many things, he had been a theatre actor and nothing had been more dramatic than the events that led to the day he was presented to the world’s stage as the newly elected Pope on October 27, 1978.
In 1968, Morris West’s bestselling novel, “Shoes of the Fisherman” became a movie blockbuster. Released at the height of the Cold War, the film captured the imagination of the free world because it told the story of how a Russian, a Siberian prisoner for 20 years, ended up playing a key role as pope in a very troubled world facing the horrid prospect of a nuclear world war. Kiril Lakota turned out to be a revolutionary pope who extended his papal influence beyond the boundaries of the Vatican and the spiritual needs of the Catholic Flock.
Ten years later, in 1978, a pope did rise from behind the Iron Curtain. The ascendancy of Polish Karol Wojtyla happened under most unusual circumstances – he was to be the first non-Italian pope in 455 years and the third pope to reign within the same year. Pope Paul VI died and was succeeded by John Paul I who died 33 days into his papacy. The stunning developments of having three popes in one year gave Pope John Paul II his dramatic entrance.
But far beyond the flourish and drama that attended his installation as the 264th leader of the Catholic Church, it was the unprecedented initiatives he had undertaken that really created the most impact in his 26-year papacy. Whoever will succeed him will find the last fisherman’s shoes mighty big to fill.
Pope John Paul II was the only pope who enjoyed tremendous recognition and made a personal impact on 50 per cent of the present world’s population – the youth. In the Philippines, the youth ratio is even higher, at 60 per cent. To those who are 30 years old and below, he is the only pope they know. Extolled for his spiritual and moral leadership that dealt the demise of communism in no time, Pope John Paul II leaves behind an image larger than life and one that no ordinary mortal can fill.
He knew the suffering, deprivation and gnawing despair of living in Poland in the Nazi era and perhaps even worse, the imprisonment of the mind and spirit behind the Iron Curtain during the Communist regime. Being a product of a tumultuous era, it can be said that Wojtyla was prepared by his own circumstances to lead Christ’s flock in a world now ruled by the swiftly changing winds of technology and globalization.
Pope John Paul II confronted the most contentious issues of his time with unambiguous positions to guide the modern Catholic faithful. He was the most pro-active pope since Pope John XXIII and his reign was marked by a lot of firsts. One of these was the softening of the battle lines between religions, traditional enmities and mindsets.
In an institution perceived to hold “antiquated” views and approaches, he personally brought the papacy to the over 100 countries that he visited. He was in the Philippines twice. His firm and consistent stand against the perpetrators of oppression and repression encouraged the Philippine Catholic Church led by Jaime Cardinal Sin to actively fight the Marcos dictatorship. A more traditional pope would have declined to intervene in ‘temporal matters’. But taking the cue from the man on top, a seasoned revolutionary himself, the Philippine Catholic Church mustered enough grit and spirit to launch a crusade against the Marcos dictatorship. Maybe it can be said that the seeds of the 1986 People Power revolt was sown on the day Karol Wojtyla became pope.
From day 1 of his papacy, Pope John Paul II understood that his power emanated from the moral force inherent in the papacy. His very presence in Communist Poland in 1979 – the very first of his many travels – signaled the doom of Communism there. The old Soviet Union feared him and the moral force that he brought with him. When he indicated his wish to visit China, the Chinese government knew better than to expose themselves open to the same fate as their Eastern European counterpart and they thought up creative impediments to prevent a papal visit.
At a time when the relevance of the Church had started to face serious challenges particularly among the more questioning youth, a world trend that began during the revolutionary period of the 1960s and 1970s, Pope John Paul II spoke in the language young people and the rest of the modern Catholics understood. That Pope John Paul II attracted the youth is not surprising really, considering how young people are attracted to visionaries and resolute men of action that appeal to their sense of idealism. To them, he walked his talk and was the real deal. The visionary pope soon drew in droves of young people to the fold, culminating in his founding of World Youth Day. In the Philippines one of the most celebrated and best attended staging of World Youth Day happened in 1995 – something Pope John Paul II never forgot. By the time Pope John Paul II rejoined his Maker, most of those who were seen at his vigil at St. Peter’s Square were the youth.
At no time had the Catholic Church faced so much adversity and challenge – the sexual abuse cases of the US clergy, abortion and gay rights ethics, women priests, contraceptives as measures by which to curb over population and poverty. True to his calling as the Vicar of Christ, Pope John Paul II steered the flock through the tempest of change, standing uncompromisingly firm on the timeless truths that form the moral and spiritual bedrock of the Catholic faith. He showed to the world that essential truths of faith and morality are unshakeable and unchanging, no matter how the world warps and breaks.
These issues are far from settled and will persist through the reign of whoever inherits the shoes of the fisherman. The question therefore is if the next fisherman can also have the strength of personality and character that had boosted the moral force of the papacy of Pope John Paul II in upholding Church dogma amid overwhelming challenges.
Style, coupled with his strong sense of mission, made for good, convincing and effective theatre. In a world thirsting for direction and guidance, Pope John Paul II’s certainty of mission and vision was powerfully reassuring. It is said that “the world steps aside to let a man pass if he knows where he is going.” The world indeed served Pope John Paul II’s papacy the red carpet treatment. Can the next fisherman steer St. Peter’s boat with such firm purpose and clarity of vision? Whether the Catholic Church keeps its flock of over 1.1 billion and grows will depend on whether the next fisherman can attract the young people that loved Pope John Paul II. He brought the papacy to unprecedented heights. Can his successor maintain or exceed that level?
Pope John Paul II is a classic case of the great product that was marketed well. He was a sensational media copy and was his own great publicist. Papal stories and photos invariably enjoyed prominent news play-up. He had a mastery of the power of symbolisms and possessed an electrifying stage presence. When he made that historic trip to Israel, the first modern day pope to visit the Holy Land, he made the appropriate prayer right on the Wailing Wall, a symbolism that could not have been more touching to any Jew. When he established the bridge to Islam, he made it a point to pray in the Syrian Mosque where St. John the Baptist is said to be buried, another act that surely tugged at the Muslim heart.
In June 2000, during the Jubilee Year’s World Journalists Day, I had the privilege of attending the Pope’s reception for journalists from all over the world. It was held at the Vatican’s Pope Paul VI Auditorium which is right below the Papal Apartments where he spent his last hours. When Pope John Paul II made his appearance, it was like an actor’s grand entrance. The organ primed the audience in the hall for the event. The moment the door opened, his superb stage presence permeated the environment. I saw the spontaneous surge of excitement coming from an audience of journalists, despite the fact that these are people who are trained in their profession to be detached and dispassionate.
Seated on a wheelchair next to me was Manuel, a disabled and diminutive journalist from Madrid. Manuel shocked the living daylights out of everyone around him when he thundered “Viva el Papa!” I never thought that anyone so tiny could have the vocal chords of a Goliath! Well he did and the pope could not help but look in our direction to check out the originator of the lusty cheer. Manuel and I previously attended the International Media Congress (organized by the Focolare Movement) that was held at the pope’s summer residence at Castelgandolfo. During the congress, Manuel never struck me as the type who would have the spunk and audacity to break into a cheer in the midst of a very solemn audience with the pope. No doubt, the pope must have inspired that spontaneous outburst of Manuel. Others soon followed his example and similarly cheered.
Manuel and I were among a distinguished few who were granted the opportunity to greet Pope John Paul II up close and personal. As I shook the pope’s hand, I said to him: “Your Holiness, I am from the Philippines.” His eyes lit up, he smiled and exclaimed: “Philippines!” No doubt he remembered the warm welcome and love that the millions of Filipinos accorded him when he visited us in 1981 and 1995. I shall forever treasure that moment when I came face to face, shook the hand and spoke with that great towering force of history.
In human terms, it would appear next to impossible to fill the shoes that Pope John Paul II left behind. But considering that there is an almighty hand that steers the process of selecting the successor to the throne of St. Peter, the first fisherman, and guides whoever is the successor – it could well be that Pope John Paul II was only the precursor to even greater things to come. Humanity certainly hopes so.
(To High Ground responders: Thank you for your emails. I may no longer reply to you but rest assured that your emails are read and appreciated.)
You may email William M. Esposo at: firstname.lastname@example.org