Musical Chair

Karol Wojtyla takes his leave


As John Paul II's health was failing unto death, American cable news networks started with the around-the-clock coverage and newspapers over the world started to release their papal death packages. Because of the slow working of the Vatican press office, some members of the Italian media jumped the gun and called his demise early.

The news shot across newswires and websites, which sent television and radio producers frantically scrambling to find experts to tell us what this all means. I caught a few minutes of Larry King Friday night. The suspendered colossus of talk paired Father Richard John Neuhaus with deep thinker Deepak Chopra but cut them both short to make way for James Caviezel.

Next up, Jesus!

As the talking heads droned on, the basic shape of the A&E Biography version of the pope's life began to take shape: Born in Wadowice, Poland, Karol Wojtyla (nicknamed "Lolek") suffered along with his fellow countrymen first under Nazism and then under Communism. He studied in secret to become a priest under Nazi rule and brushed up against death-by-firing-squad several times.

As a priest, Wojtyla became a climber in the Polish arm of the Catholic Church. He was the youngest bishop in Poland's history and was promoted to archbishop in five years. He was made cardinal at 47, which gave him voting rights at papal conclaves and put him—very theoretically—in the running to sit on the Chair of Saint Peter.

As pope, Wojtyla was a rock star. From the start, he caught most observers by surprise. When John Paul I—the Jerry Ford of popes—died of a massive heart attack after only 33 days in office, this put the fear of a Seriously Pissed Off Deity into many of the cardinals. And so, when voting deadlocked over two popular Italian candidates, they decided to thrust John Paul II onto the world.

Looking at some of the television footage of Wojtyla when he was introduced to the world as John Paul II, and shortly after, I can see why the crowds took to him. He was young for a pope (58), vigorous, and cut quite the figure. He was the first non-Italian pope in over 400 years and the first Slavic pope ever. He was something new and different and unpredictable.

As if to underscore this, for his inaugural address, Wojtyla broke from protocol and shrugged off the dead language of the Vatican to address the crowds in his broken Italian. Over the next 26 years, he would redefine what we think of when the word "pope" is uttered.

Before, the pope was someone in Rome who oversaw the governance and development of the Church. If you wanted to talk to him, you went to Rome. The pontiff was well above the average visitor and the gate-keeping officers of the Vatican curia were seen as self-interested, cliqueish, almost sinister. Think Franco Zeffirelli's Brother Sun, Sister Moon.

This older mode of doing things may reassert itself with the next Vicar of Christ, but I doubt it. Wojtyla's way has proved more effective in reaching the masses, and, ultimately, more fun. John Paul II traveled and traveled and traveled. He addressed audiences from the Poland to the U.S. to Cuba to Nigeria. He even concocted his own holiday—World Youth Day—as an excuse to grab the attention of the young faithful every few years.

I don't mean to suggest that all this travel was a lark. Wojtyla's return to Poland, for instance, less than a year after he was elected marked his support for his country's struggle against domination by the Soviet Union.

John Paul II's support—both moral and financial—for the Solidarity movement in his fatherland, helped the country to survive under the crackdown of Martial Law, and worked to give the Russians another diplomatic black eye. This formed a one, two, three combo with the Jimmy Carter–funded resistance of the Mujahideen in Afghanistan and the incredibly expensive arms race that Ronald Reagan helped to start.

It has never been decisively established exactly who put the Turkish gunman Mehmet Ali Agca up to trying to assassinate John Paul II in 1981. But in his final book, Memory and Identity, Wojtyla decided to drop the politesse. In an interview appended to the back of the book, he called the attempt on his life, "one of the final convulsions of the arrogant ideologies unleashed during the twentieth century. Both fascism and nazism eliminated people. So did communism."

In Church governance, Wojtyla's record is mixed and incomplete and bound up in the fallout from the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965). The grand bargain of Vatican II—from this very amateur lay Catholic's perspective—should be stated in two complimentary but necessary parts.

The first part was that the Church would become less archaic and less authoritarian. So Latin Masses were sidelined (for a while, they were totally banned, which caused a lot of headaches and a traditionalist schism), priests were to face the audience rather than the altar during the moment of transubstantiation, and we were all expected to shake hands. The Catholic Church would still preserve its doctrines but it would no longer seek to use the state to enforce orthodoxy.

The second part—often overlooked—was the reason for these changes. The divisions between priest and pew-warmers should narrow because the old idea of the super-pious professional religious and the not-so-pious Joe Catholic was said to be wrong. Put simply: We should all want to be saints.

And maybe we should, but that hasn't been how it's worked out so far in practice. In the '70s the Catholic Church in the U.S. and the rest of the western world experienced a massive fall-off in the percentage of Catholics who attended weekly Mass.

At the same time, tens of thousands of priests decided to hang up their collars and a huge number of nuns decided to call it quits. Those who stayed often discarded their religious garb and innovated with the Mass to the point that it was nearly unrecognizable. This was often justified as being in the mythical "Spirit of Vatican II."

This was the church that Wojtyla inherited—the western part of it, at least—and he muddled through. He forced priests to pull out of partisan politics in part because the agendas that they tended to advance were not too far removed from the Communists that he was railing against. He slowly established a firmer grip on the standards of worship so that most Catholic services nowadays—even the happy clappy ones—are recognizably Catholic. With his writing and preaching, he urged his co-religionists to be more true to their own faith.

God knows, John Paul II had plenty of failings, though, from where I'm sitting, they were usually sins of omission. Many have fingered his lackluster response to the American priest sex scandals. They have a point, but then the episode goes to show why this pope, until the very end, remained the thundering moral voice of the Church.

In a special meeting of the U.S. bishops in April of '02, Wojtyla he let them have it. "The abuse," he said, "which has caused this crisis is by every standard wrong and rightly considered a crime by society. It is also an appalling sin in the eyes of God. To the victims and their families, wherever they may be, I express my profound sense of solidarity and concern."