Pope John Paul II died this past Saturday after striking a blow against the communist tyranny of Eastern Europe and bringing the Catholic Church into the third millennium.
When Karol Wojtyla became pope, Leonid Brezhnev led the Soviet Union, who was responsible for repressive acts in Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Eastern Europe. Poland remained a vassal state of the Soviet empire well through his tenure, while reform under Gorbachev was years away.
Just like the Orthodox Church was subjugated under the Soviet regime, the rich Catholic tradition of Poland was emasculated by soulless, oligarchic cowards who held the regressive belief that religion is the “opiate of the masses.” This base ignorance toward the spiritual side of the individual was an inherent fault of the Soviet system.
It was against this enemy that the pope went to work.
Ironically enough, the pope did a better job of relating to the working classes than Marxism did. His trips to Poland and visits with Lech Walesa galvanized and legitimized “Solidarity,” the Polish labor union responsible for effective strikes and protests against Communist rule in Poland.
The pope’s claim that “Christ cannot be excluded from human history in any part of the globe, from any latitude or longitude of the earth” showed the Muscovite invertebrates in the Politburo that their rule in Poland was surely going to be threatened and that his homeland can never be estranged from Catholicism.
It should be noted that he did not give material support to the Polish people per se, nor did he take on the Soviet empire in a militaristic or economic manner. Conversely, the pope provided intangible support, appealing to the damaged- yet still intact – spirit of the Polish people. Seeing fellow Pole, formerly Karol Wojtyla, elevated to such a position of power and prestige, and hearing his words of “be not afraid,” doubtlessly raised the morale of the oppressed Polish population.
Many people look past his actions in Poland, though, and focus on his stance on other issues. He remained firm on topics such as sexuality, the priesthood, birth control and abortion. Considering the controversy that is ripping apart Anglicanism, the installment of a gay bishop, the pope should not be overly criticized for waxing a bit conservative toward change.
Despite this conservatism in dogmatic matters, one would be hard-pressed to assert that the pope was a rightist in political matters.
The same spirit of social awareness with which the pope preached to the Polish masses also compelled him to be a vocal advocate for the poor of the world. He traveled to all areas of the earth – to about 120 nations – especially to poorer areas such as Latin America, Asia and Africa. Arguably, cardinals from these nations are in the running to replace the pope, due in part to his outreach to the growing congregations from these areas.
Directly opposite from his predecessors in the Renaissance, many of whom were overtly materialistic and corrupt, the pope made substantial efforts to be more mindful of class distribution. This mindset was evident in his critique of laissez-faire capitalism, which he derided as too materialistic to sufficiently provide for the needs of the poor. The pope also stood against capital punishment and war, most notably the U.S. wars in Iraq.
Furthermore, it cannot be forgotten that he apologized to a variety of groups – namely women, Protestants, Jews and the Eastern Orthodox – for injustices that the Catholic Church had perpetrated against them in the past.
Although he remained staunchly against many sorts of change in the Catholic Church, these requests for forgiveness and this humble nature toward past church victims calls into question the charges of intransigency and extreme conservatism that many have lodged against him.
Beginning with his stand in Poland, the pope stood up for a variety of social causes during his papacy.
Giving the Catholic faith a greater sense of legitimacy in the modern world, Pope John Paul II made me proud to say, “I’m a Catholic.”
Scott can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.