The Shepherd returns

The death of Pope John Paul II brings to an end the third longest papacy in the history of the Catholic Church. But he leaves behind a rich legacy, one whose influence extends far beyond the Church that he presided over for 26 years. The Church is different than the one he had inherited in 1978. Born as Karol Wojtyla in 1920 in Krakow, Poland, he was ordained a priest in 1946 and rapidly rose to be voted for the top slot. His appointment was in many ways seen as groundbreaking for the Catholic Church. At 58, he was the youngest Pope of the 20th century and the first non-Italian in 455 years. His was a modernising voice and travelled widely revitalising the faith and moral freedom. Beyond the Church and record number of canonisations, history will remember Pope John Paul II for so many things.

After World War II when the Communists prevailed in Poland and discouraged religious discourse, Wojtyla opposed it from inside the Church. It was the Pope’s moral courage according to Lech Walesa, the former president of Poland, that consolidated people’s power to stand against Communism from behind the Iron Curtain. It was a task which Thatcher, Gorbachev, Reagan and others accomplished when Communist bastion fell in Eastern Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall. But the Pope will also be remembered for his outspoken bias for peace and dialogue to halt conflict around the world. He had regard and respect for other religions as exemplified by his visit to a mosque in Syria and meetings with other religious figures. Even an assassination attempt on his life and Parkinson’s disease failed to dissuade him. The Seer’s influence in the resurgence of his faith among believers in Latin America and Africa will go down in Catholic annals as one of the most noteworthy chapters of his rule.

Critics, however, will beg to differ with the pontiff’s views on issues that the 21st century has been grappling with. The holy father’s views on contraception, homosexuality, abortion and divorce have raised many an eyebrow among the less conservative Catholic ranks, because of which he has been held as religiously orthodox and socially conservative. The Vatican’s handling of the sex abuse scandal in the US also didn’t go down well with many. But these are issues the new Pope, who will be elected by the next conclave comprising of the College of Cardinals following the interregnum will have to deal with. Other problems will include tackling the falling number of congregations in Western Europe and a far more centralised Church. The idea of married and female priests into the diocese has been floated around for a long time now. Pope John Paul II’s successor will have to contend with the challenges of times that are changing.