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Towering figure had undeniable impact

The death of Pope John Paul II was a watershed event. In the contemporary world only monarchies and the papacy have leaders who hold office until death. This gives popes a special quality and their impact extends beyond the Roman Catholic Church.

As with any world leader, opinions about John Paul II vary. As the world prepares for to welcome his successor, Touchstone asked religious leaders in New Zealand to assess his legacy.

Communications director for the Catholic Church in New Zealand Lyndsay Freer says the reverence surrounding John Paul II’s death and funeral shows Catholics and people around the world honoured his integrity and recognized he had helped shape the course of human history.

“He gave the Catholic Church a human face in a way that no other pope ever has. It is said that he met and addressed more people than any human being in history.

“No other funeral has been attended and viewed by such numbers, including the heads of state of most countries and leaders of other Christian churches and faiths.”

Whether all his beliefs and teaching were accepted, or agreed with (even by some Catholics) nobody denied he was a godly man, a charismatic man of outstanding faith, goodness and courage.

Lyndsay says John Paul II brought hope, clarity and certainty to an increasingly confused, sceptical and fearful world. His was a strong voice for the poor and disenfranchised. The peace he called for has its roots in respect for the dignity of every person, from conception to natural death.

“He spoke out constantly against systems of oppression and exploitation and in defence of human rights and the dignity of the individual. He opposed violence, war and capital punishment.

“His message of peace was never more manifest than when he went to the prison cell of his would-be assassin Ali Agca to offer forgiveness. Photographs of those two men sitting in facing chairs, their heads almost touching as they spoke intimately, and afterwards of the Pope’s gentle embrace, are more eloquent than any words to describe how seriously he took Christ’s injunction to peace and forgiveness.”

His geopolitical influence was demonstrated in his well-documented role in ending the domination of communism in Eastern Europe. He advocated an international order of peace based on moral values that are inclusive and uniting of all cultures and faiths, Lyndsay says.

She also cites his ecumenical legacy. At Assisi in 1986 he called together leaders of the world’s faiths in an unprecedented meeting to worship God together according to each one’s understanding of the Deity. He disregarded the criticism of some of his own bishops, who felt that he might thereby compromise the essential truths of the Gospel. He was the first pope to enter a mosque or synagogue, or to visit Israel.

Jim Neilan is a former Catholic priest who did postgraduate studies in Rome during the latter part of the Second Vatican Council. Jim is now a lay parishioner of Sacred Heart parish in Dunedin and is a volunteer and occasional writer for the independent Catholic magazine Tui Motu.

Jim says John Paul II’s funeral and its press coverage reflect a man who couldn’t be ignored.

“His vitality, ability with languages, management of the media, and the length of time he was on the scene made it inevitable that he would make a huge impact. So his presence couldn’t be ignored, even if his words and admonitions often were.

“Much is made of John Paul’s part in the overthrow of communism. He was a fearless champion of human rights and a passionate advocate for the sacredness of all human life. But I think we must remember that it was because his ‘reign’ coincided with that of Gorbachev that the fall of Soviet totalitarianism occurred.”

Jim says many hoped 40 years after the Vatican Council its spirit of ecumenism would have made a bigger impact but this hasn’t happened. Some Vatican pronouncements about other churches during John Paul’s time have been damaging and they have come in for criticism from some senior Catholic churchmen.

“The result is that many Catholics are disillusioned. They feel the Church has been polarised. True dialogue is denied and conservative new movements with uncritical public loyalty to the pope, such as Opus Dei, have been favoured.

“Vatican authorities have undermined the collegiality of bishops by failing to consult with them before promulgating edicts that affect them. Intentionally or not John Paul contributed to this. He promoted himself as the sole dominant, authoritarian figure in the Church. The Catholic Church is suffering from a critical shortage of priests but under this pope the much needed debate on the nature of the priesthood has been neglected,” Jim says.

Methodist co-convenor of the Methodist-Catholic dialogue in New Zealand Rev Terry Wall says there is no doubt Pope John Paul II was a towering figure and it will take a long time to asses the contribution he made across many dimensions in the life of the church.

Among John Paul II’s notable features, Terry observes, were his challenges to both the ideology of communism and the spirit of capitalism. He was willing to admit past errors of the Church and open up interfaith dialogues in ways no previous pope has done.

“John Paul expressed regret for such scientific errors as the persecution of Galileo, the errors of the Crusades in relation to Islam, and the errors in relations with Jews that led to anti-Semitism.

“His contribution to Catholic-Jewish relations was also outstanding. No pope has so readily received Jewish leaders and he has led a transformation in Catholic theology in relation to Jews. His interfaith dialogues with Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims have also been historic really.

“John Paul was also an advocate for peace and reconciliation among people all over the world. He was a person of prayer who travelled all parts of the globe to pray with people and offer them pastoral care.”

Despite these achievements, Terry does take issue with some things that have taken place during John Paul II’s term in office. In recent years there seems to have been a reversal of moves toward collegiality and there has been a re-centralisation of papal authority over the bishops.

Methodists will also disagree with John Paul’s position on contraception and his views over the role of women in the church.

NZ Jewish Council president David Zwartz says New Zealand Jews sent their sincere condolences to the Roman Catholic community on the death of Pope John Paul II.

“As well as Catholics losing an outstanding and much-loved leader, the Jewish community has lost a valued friend. The Pope continued the reconciliation between the Church and the Jews that began 40 years ago with 'Nostra Aetate,' and took particular actions that endeared him to us, such as becoming the first pope to visit a synagogue.

“While referring to the Jews as Christianity's ‘older brother’, he called on Christians and Jews to become a blessing to one another and then to the world.

“The establishment of full diplomatic relations between the Vatican and the State of Israel in 1993 was of special importance to all Jews, and we will not forget his trip to the Holy Land in 2000 including a poignant visit to the Western Wall when he left a message between the stones like other pious people.”