The legacy of a globe-trotting pope

Sari Gilbert September 10 1984

The legacy of a globe-trotting pope

Sari Gilbert September 10 1984

The legacy of a globe-trotting pope


Sari Gilbert

To many he is known simply as the Pilgrim Pope. Six years after his election to the throne of Saint Peter as the first non-Italian pontiff in 456 years, the travels of Polish-born Pope John Paul II have made him the best-known pope in history, and they have irrevocably changed the nature of the modern Roman Catholic Church.

The Pope’s 12-day visit to Canada this month is his 24th foreign trip since the College of Cardinals elected Karol Cardinal Wojtyla of Krakow Pope on Oct. 16,1978. The trips have taken him to 40 different countries on five continents and have enabled him to take his personal message of salvation to black and white, rich and poor in developed and underdeveloped countries. John Paul contends that his trips will bring Catholicism to the far corners of the world, and, in one of his first speeches as pope, he spoke of his “universal mission.” Indeed, the trips have become the hallmark of John Paul’s unorthodox and often controversial papacy.

Critique: Inevitably, the contrast between him and his stay-in-Rome predecessors has prompted complaints within the conservative hierarchy of the church, especially in the powerful Roman Curia, which acts as the papacy’s bureaucracy. The objections by some Curia members also extended to a critique of his unorthodox papal style, including his rejection of the traditional, royal-sounding “we” in formal speeches. Conservatives are also critical of his generally informal attitude, which, combined with his seemingly boundless energy, sends him plunging into crowds to embrace children and leads him to join Catholic young people in song at his summer residence at Castel Gandolfo south of Rome in the Alban Hills. He has also maintained his fondness for sports. Vatican staff built a swimming pool for him at Castel Gandolfo, and he also plays tennis regularly. As well, in late July the 64-year-old Pope surprised papal observers when he left the Vatican for a day of skiing with Italy’s Socialist President Sandro Pertini. Commented one longtime Vatican insider: “People have been made aware that the Pope is also a man.”

But internal skepticism about the Pope’s style is also based on other concerns. Some churchmen are critical of the high cost of his trips, usually borne to a large extent by the church in the host country. Others warn of the dan-

gers to the Pope’s safety after the nearly successful attempt on the Pope’s life by Turkish terrorist Mehmet Ali Agca in May, 1981. But the most serious criticism is made by clerics within the Curia who charge that the Pope’s trips detract from what they claim is his primary task of providing firm leadership to the

Vatican’s large and complex bureaucracy. Members of the Curia also contend that he failed to deal effectively with such problems as a financial scandal involving the Vatican bank, which came to public attention after the collapse of Italy’s Banco Ambrosiano, and the mysterious death in London two years ago of its chairman, Roberto Calvi.

Power: In response, John Paul announced a major reshuffle of the Curia in April which increased the power of Secretary of State Agostino Cardinal Casaroli, the Vatican’s “prime minisI ter,” and ostensibly will free the Pope

from some of his involvement with administrative detail. As a result, complaints about his travelling have subsided considerably.

Many clerics are also now beginning to reverse their earlier skepticism about whether the Pope’s first-person evangelizing produces positive results for the

church. Said Bishop Edouard Gagnon, the highest-ranking Canadian bishop in Rome: “There are definitive signs that after he goes to a country there is change and renewal, and this is why he goes in person—to bring the message of the church.” His travels have also allowed Pope John Paul to speak out on the issues that are at the top of his personal agenda. One of those is Christian unity, a topic that the pontiff addressed during his visit in 1979 to Turkey, where he met with the patriarch of the Eastern Orthodox church, and in Britain in 1982, where meetings with

Anglican church leaders produced plans for new talks on doctrinal differences.

Peace is another recurring papal theme. In 1982 the Pope visited both Argentina and Britain in an attempt to help end the Falklands War. He has also visited strife-torn Central America and Ireland and contemplated a visit to wardivided Lebanon.

Another enduring topic of the Pope’s is human rights, and he uses every available forum to speak out about dignity and the natural rights of man. His preoccupation throughout 1982 with the struggle between the Polish trade union,

Solidarity, and the Polish government was so intense that it seemed to overshadow the pontiff’s concern for similar problems that existed in other parts of the world. But since his second trip to Poland, in June, 1983, he has broadened his choice of subjects and he recently spoke out about repression in South Africa, Indonesia and Nicaragua.

Most of those papal interests are not controversial. But in other doctrinal matters Pope John Paul has been the centre of severe controversy. His fervor in renewing the vigor and unity of the church has led French theologian Olivi-

er Clement, for one, to label him a spiritual totalitarian. And some Catholics are concerned that the Pope’s rigor and his intense desire for a church strongly rooted in tradition will make the institution too restrictive to deal with contemporary problems and that the credibility of the church, especially among the young, will decline.

One persistent area of controversy has been the Pope’s narrow view of the priestly role and his demands that priests avoid political activity while remaining committed to social and economic justice. He has been consistently

critical of so-called liberation theology, a blend of Catholicism and Marxism which many activist priests propound, especially in Latin America. It was a theme that John Paul repeated in late August in a message to South African bishops, in which he declared: “The solidarity of the church with the poor goes without saying. The forms in which this solidarity is realized cannot be dictated by an analysis based on class distinctions and class struggle.”

Although his own actions, particularly with regard to Poland, appear to blur the prohibition against political in-

volvement, he is firm in his instructions to Catholic clerics. Three years ago he intervened in the electoral process of the socially activist Jesuits by appointing a special papal delegate to run the 26,000member religious order for two years.

In many parts of the world the Pope’s views have been well received. But opposition has arisen in poorer societies in the Far East and Latin America, where priests and Marxists have often found themselves allied in the cause of reform. Next week Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, head of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, is scheduled to “question” Rev. Leonardo Boff, the Brazilian theorist of liberation theology. And activist priests will watch the meeting with concern.

Controversy: Many critics also contend that the Pope’s sometimes fractious relations with Catholic women, particularly in northern Europe and North America, are a symptom of his inability to understand the modern world. Much of the controversy centres on the desire of many Catholic women, particularly nuns, to be allowed to conduct liturgical services. During the Pope’s visit to the United States in 1979 a nun, Theresa Kane, defiantly wearing civilian clothes, made a public plea to the Pope to respond to women “desirous of serving in and through the church as fully participating members”—an innovation that John Paul has consistently rejected.

The Pope’s opposition to abortion and birth control, his praise of virginity and his views on the family have angered many Catholic women. Over the past year he has renewed his support for the controversial 1968 papal encyclical Humane Vitae, which bans artificial methods of birth control for Catholics.

Still, John Paul has avoided treating progressive dissidents in the church harshly. The West German theologian Rev. Hans Kiing, who rejects the doctrine of papal infallibility, received a relatively mild punishment—he lost his standing as a Catholic theologian but not as a priest. Even the so-called Jesuit controversy appears to have ended satisfactorily. After a two-year period under the direct control of papal appointee Rev. Paola Dezza, last September the order held a free election which resulted in the appointment of a “nonofficial” candidate, Dutch cleric Rev. Peter Hans Kolvenbach.

The contradictions may be inevitable in a pope who is as innovative as John Paul II. Clearly, few of his critics question the sincerity and daring of his worldwide pilgrimage. Said a Romebased church scholar who was previously critical of the Pope’s trips: “He is going where the church still means something, where it is growing. He is going where the ferment is.”