A papal anniversary

October 06, 2003

WHEN THE WORLD'S Roman Catholic cardinals chose Karol J. Wojtyla to be the 263rd successor to the throne of St. Peter, he was the archbishop of Krakow, little known beyond the Iron Curtain, a philosopher-poet, an advocate of religious freedom and speaker of seven languages. Today, Pope John Paul II is recognized across the globe as a spiritual and ecumenical leader, a champion of peace and critic of policies that oppress the poor.

As he approaches the silver anniversary of his papacy, the 83-year-old pontiff is at once preparing for his successor and ensuring that his influence will be felt long after he is gone. Last week, Pope John Paul announced his intention to appoint 31 new cardinals, increasing the number eligible to choose his successor. The decision came earlier than expected and amid reports of the pope's failing health. The nominations continued his practice of diversifying the church's leadership and its outreach. And many of the new cardinals predictably hold the pope's theologically orthodox views.

But as the first non-Italian pope in 400 years, John Paul serves as a model for a religious leader in the 21st century.

Whoever next dons the white wool stole of the patriarch of the world's estimated 1 billion Catholics will find his role defined by the style and ethic of this dynamic son of a factory worker who has been prolific in his writings, wildly popular with youths and a traditionalist on priestly celibacy, the ordination of women and right-to-life issues.

Whoever assumes the mantle of the bishop of Rome can no longer remain comfortably ensconced at the Vatican. Pope John Paul II has traveled widely and often, frequently in the cause of justice. His 1979 trip to communist Poland so encouraged the trade unionists there that the pope is credited with helping to liberate Eastern Europe. His historic trip to Jerusalem in 2000, following a Vatican letter of remorse for Christian behavior during the Holocaust, underscored his commitment to reach a reconciliation with world Jewry.

His tours of the Third World have given him ample opportunities to publicize the plight of the poor and the industrialized nations' contributions to it. But the pope's liberal advocacy on global issues and international profile contrast markedly with his stewardship of the interior church, notably his centralization of church affairs, hard line with theologians and strict adherence to religious doctrine. Dissent is not tolerated.

The paradoxes of his papacy emerge in greater relief in the American church. The recent child sexual abuse scandals in the United States have prompted calls from Catholic groups for greater transparency, dialogue and participation with the laity. They have pointed up the dearth of priestly vocations and the Vatican's delayed response - some say indifference - to the crisis unfolding here.

But Americans represent only 6 percent of Catholics worldwide, although they account for the largest percentage of donations. Latin Americans dominate the church, while the fastest-growing sector of Catholics resides in Africa - sobering reminders of where Americans might rank on a papal agenda.

Who's to say how long this pope will reign or how he will be remembered? But there can be no disputing that Pope John Paul's intellectual prowess, courageous spirit, abiding love and power to inspire have helped to shape this past quarter-century.

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