Requiescat In Pace: Pope John Paul II has died. Catholics - a billion strong - are in mourning. He was the fifth Pope in my lifetime. His 26-year pontificate was one of the longest in history. There is no doubt that he was both a holy man and a decisive pontiff who imposed his will and direction upon the Catholic Church.
John Paul II opposed communism. Growing up in Poland, he experienced the repression of the Nazis and, later, the Commies. His clandestine support of the Solidarity movement (Poland's first independent labor union) certainly contributed to the downfall of the Soviet state. Shortly after his papal coronation, he returned to Poland and reminded his fellow Poles of their human rights. The huge crowds he drew were an acute source of embarrassment to the communist government. The Soviets responded by having a Bulgarian-paid Muslim killer try to assassinate John Paul. I don't think he ever completely recovered from that assassination attempt - the athletic, always-on-the-move man began to fade into a slower, halting senior statesman.
This pope was not without faults. His head-in-the-sand approach to the shortage of priests - refusing to consider either women or married men for the task - will impact the Church for many years. His rigid approach to contraception was opposed/ignored/scoffed at by many lay Catholics and clergy.
John Paul II was often critical of America. During his first papal visit to the United States, he warned his hosts about the dangers of materialism, selfishness and secularism, and suggested lowering the standard of living and sharing the wealth with the Third World. (This was an odd statement coming from an acknowledged foe of communism and collectivism. And the leader of a Church whose charities rely heavily on the generosity of those same American Catholic capitalists.) In 1994, he used his influence to defeat a U.S.-backed initiative on population control at the U.N.'s International Conference on Population and Development. He later accused the West of fostering "a culture of death."
Tariq Aziz, Saddam Hussein's puppet, henchman and an alleged Catholic, was given a friendly reception by John Paul II just before the U.S. invaded Iraq. Tony Blair tried to get the Pope's blessing on the just cause of the Iraq invasion. But John Paul declined. I think Tony Blair, rather than the Pope, had the moral high ground in that situation. Columnist George Neumayr wrote: "Had the United States taken Pope John Paul II's advice before the Persian Gulf War, Saddam Hussein would still be in Kuwait." The Pope had proclaimed that "war is an adventure with no return" and "a defeat for humanity."
The Pope's reality-denying approach to the priest-pedophile scandal was disappointing, to say the least. It almost seemed as though his strong convictions waned as age and infirmity set in. Perhaps he stayed on the job too long.
Nevertheless, he will be remembered as a pontiff who made changes and developed a great following - particularly of young people - throughout the world. His predecessors rode like royalty in black, custom-built limousines. JP II hung on to the roll bar of a white open jeep, bringing him closer to his flock as he waved and blessed them as his "Popemobile" weaved slowly through the crowds. He acted like a man of the people rather than a potentate. Even after the assassination attempt, this pope continued to ride in a jeep-like vehicle, albeit one fitted with bulletproof glazing. And traveled all over the world to visit and minister to people everywhere, making 104 pilgrimages to 129 countries - on every continent except Antarctica.
John Paul II promoted the renewal of devotion to the Virgin Mary. He tried to make peace with other religions, especially the Jews. He tirelessly gave his life to God's service. Now his life is over; his work is done. His successor will assume the mantle and the burden. And the work left undone.
Meanwhile, may John Paul II rest in peace in God's Hands. And may Perpetual Light shine upon him.
Update: On Sunday May 1, 2011, Pope Benedict XVI beatified the late Pope John Paul II before a crowd of 1.5 million.
Beatification is the first major milestone on the path to possible sainthood, one of the Catholic Church's highest honors.
This is the first time a pope has beatified his immediate predecessor. It was also the fastest beatification on record, coming just six years after John Paul died and beating out the beatification of Mother Teresa by a few days.
He is now designated as Blessed John Paul II. His coffin has been removed from the below-altar papal crypt in St. Peter's Basilica and will be placed in a new crypt near Michelangelo's Pietà statue.
Update II: Popes John XXIII and John Paul II were canonized in April 2014 by Pope Francis in an unprecedented ceremony witnessed by 800,000 people gathered in St. Peter's Square in Vatican City.