The Legacy of St. John Paul II

When the newly elected Pope John Paul II — formerly Cardinal Karol Jozef Wojtyla — stepped onto the loggia of St. Peter’s Basilica on Oct. 16, 1978, history was being made. The first non-Italian pope in nearly 500 years and the youngest (58 years old) in almost as long, he quickly took the reins of the papacy with a confidence and a charisma that captivated the attention of the world. He led the Church for more than 26 years, the second-longest pontificate in history (not including St. Peter, our first pope).

Now, his April 27 canonization — only nine years after his death in 2005 — offers an important opportunity to consider his achievements and legacy. More than two-and-a-half decades in the Chair of St. Peter offered this energetic pope time to accomplish much.

New evangelization

Pope St. John Paul II reminded the Church of its central mission: the proclamation of Jesus Christ to the world. From his very first encyclical letter in which he proclaimed Jesus as “the center of the universe and of history,” John Paul produced a massive amount of documents, speeches and books marked by the centrality of Jesus and the redemption he won for humanity.

Besides his words, this pope also provided a striking personal example, traveling to 129 countries to proclaim the Gospel. On each voyage, he made contact with common people — particularly with the young, the sick and the poor — just as effectively as with world leaders. One of his most striking evangelization efforts is the World Youth Day celebrations. Starting with an event in Rome in 1984, he led massive gatherings of young people in such cities as Buenos Aires, Czestochowa, Denver and Sydney. (The 1995 event in Manila brought a gathering of a stunning 5 million people, one of the largest gatherings of people for any reason in history.)

World Youth Day events have been enthusiastically continued by John Paul’s successors, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI and Pope Francis.

Fidelity to doctrine

Pope St. John Paul II
Pope St. John Paul II celebrates Mass at Oriole Park at Camden Yards in Baltimore in 1995. John Paul II was a globetrotter who made 104 trips outside Italy during his papacy. CNS photo

By his intellect, charisma and strong-willed efforts, John Paul II reminded the Church of the importance of fidelity to its doctrinal heritage and brought about a greater attentiveness to the authority of the pope and the Church’s magisterium.

One of the most important examples of this is the publication of the Catechism of the Catholic Church in 1992. Called by the pope “a sure norm for teaching the Faith,” the catechism also led to other important resources such as the Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, YouCat (a catechism for young people), and the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church.

John Paul also published a steady stream of papal encyclicals explaining and exploring almost every important aspect of Church teaching: Jesus, God the Father, the Holy Spirit, Mary, moral theology, Christian unity, human dignity, the Eucharist, Catholic social teaching and more.

Fall of communism

John Paul’s most lasting effect in terms of geopolitics is the collapse of communism in eastern Europe through a series of mostly peaceful political revolutions that swept the region in 1989. Though he certainly did not achieve this single-handedly, he was a key figure in the unfolding drama.

In June 1979, less than a year after his election, John Paul visited his native Poland. In massive public liturgies and gatherings, he reminded Poles of their long history and Christian heritage (which the Soviet regime had tried to erase). Within a year, the illegal labor union Solidarity was born. Led by shipyard worker Lech Walesa and encouraged by the enthusiastic support of the pope, the union drew the world’s attention to the repressive policies of the Soviet Union. The Polish government was forced to negotiate with the union and in early 1989 agreed to free elections.

The momentum of these events, supported by the pope’s continual insistence on respect for human rights, led to the political transformation of eastern Europe. By the end of 1991, more than a dozen countries had declared their independence and the Soviet Union was dissolved. This alone “makes him one of the most significant figures in the history of the 20th century,” said Richard Spinello, author of several books on John Paul II, in a recent interview with Our Sunday Visitor.

Focus on family

John Paul II paid special attention in his teaching to the Church’s doctrines on sexuality, marriage and family. He called a Synod of Bishops on the family in 1980, and the following year founded both the Pontifical Council for the Family and the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family, which operates in Washington, D.C., on the campus of The Catholic University of America. He published a major document on the family in the modern world, Familiaris Consortio, and later, in 1994, which he proclaimed “The Year of the Family,” a Letter to Families of the World.

Also significant is John Paul II’s Theology of the Body, which he articulated in a long series of addresses over a period of about five years. In these talks, said Spinello, John Paul “elevated sex as our culture demeaned it. He connected it to human dignity.”

Spinello, who teaches at Boston College, said the principles of Theology of the Body have resonated with many of his students. “We’re familiar with the kind of lives many college students live, but they often realize it’s about using others and being used. There is often an undeniable feeling that there is something wrong with all this, and Theology of the Body articulates this for them.”

Saints galore

Another undeniable aspect of John Paul II’s legacy is the great number of new saints and blesseds to whom he introduced the Church. He canonized more than 480 people and beatified more than 1,300 — more than all of the previous popes combined — from among the peoples and nations of the entire globe. (Interestingly, in May 2013, Pope Francis, just two months into his pontificate, smashed John Paul’s record of number of saints canonized.)

These holy men and women will continue to stand for centuries as examples of heroic Christian living and inspirations to holiness. Less than a decade after his death, it is hard to know exactly what the ultimate legacy of St. John Paul II will be. But it is likely these five elements always will be included in future assessments.

Barry Hudock is the author of “Faith Meets World: The Gift and Challenge of Catholic Social Teaching” (Liguori, $16.99).