Reshaping a Church With Vitality and Ambition

By FRANK BRUNI

New York Times

April 3, 2005

Over the final stretch of his remarkable life, Pope John Paul II could not really walk, struggled to talk and trembled violently at times, deteriorating before the eyes of the world to a point where he seemed, as his spokesman once said, to be "a soul pulling a body."

But that portrait of physical weakness contradicted a career of astonishing vitality and formidable ambition that redefined the papacy, reshaped the Roman Catholic Church and riveted the attention of admirers and detractors alike.

The scope and significance of John Paul's reign can be measured not only in numbers: more than 26 years as the titular leader of an estimated one billion Roman Catholics worldwide made him either the third- or second-longest-serving pope in history, depending on who did the counting and how.

It can also be measured in his deeds and words, his unwavering convictions and fervent evangelism, his ceaseless travels and repeated intersections with history.

John Paul, the former Cardinal Karol Wojtyla, became the first non-Italian pope in more than 450 years when he was elected by the College of Cardinals on the night of Oct. 16, 1978, and emerged on the central balcony of St. Peter's Basilica to greet the world.

He had come from Poland, and some historians say that by subsequently exhorting fellow Poles and others under the grip of the Soviet Union to reject what he cast as an oppressive ideology, he helped to bring about the collapse of Soviet and European Communism.

He was to some degree unbound by tradition and in some ways he led the church in surprising directions. He was the first pope to enter and pray in a synagogue and a mosque, and in 1998 he publicly apologized for the failure of many Catholics to help Jews during the Holocaust.

He followed that with an even more sweeping apology for a litany of sins that encompassed the church's role in religious bigotry toward, and the historic oppression of, Jews, immigrants, women and other groups. He was in one sense steadfastly determined to repair rifts and build bridges.

But he was also a divisive, polarizing figure, adamantly wedded to traditional church teachings and politically conservative positions on many social issues. He resisted and rejected calls from progressive Catholics for the ordination of women and for an end to the vow of celibacy for priests.

Many of those progressives cited his refusal to budge as one reason that more and more Catholics drifted away from church attendance, and as one explanation for the church's diminished influence in Western Europe and the United States.

But what some Catholics saw as intransigence, others saw as principled, passionate and eloquent idealism.

"He provided at least a credible voice for the church in relation to the secular currents of the time," Russell Shaw, a former press secretary for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, said in a telephone interview in late 2003. "I would not say the secular elites perked up their ears and paid an enormous amount of attention to what he had to say, but he instilled a certain confidence into the ranks of Catholics, who felt it is possible for the church to speak intelligently to the contemporary sophisticated, intellectual, secular world."

Among more than a dozen of his encyclicals, or papal instructions, was "Evangelium Vitae" ("Gospel of Life"), a 1995 document that denounced abortion and euthanasia as "crimes which no human law can claim to legitimize." The year before that, John Paul supervised a campaign by the Vatican against draft proposals favoring abortion rights at a United Nations conference on population control in Cairo.

In 2003, a Vatican document expressly approved by him implored all Roman Catholic lawmakers to oppose legalization of same-sex marriage and to prevent adoptions by gay men and lesbians.

But perhaps no aspect of his papacy enraged American Catholics as intensely as disclosures of widespread child sexual abuse by Catholic priests in the United States and of Catholics bishops' insufficient efforts to address what was happening, and some outright attempts to conceal it.

It was a problem that was long known to the Vatican and had festered for more than a decade before it reached a full-fledged crisis for the church in 2002. John Paul found himself once again apologizing, this time to the victims of the abuse and to the innocent priests whose station in society was tarnished.

"The harm done by some priests and religious to the young and vulnerable fills us all with a deep sense of sadness and shame," the pope told tens of thousands of people at an outdoor Mass in Toronto in July 2002.

"But," he added, speaking in English, "think of the vast majority of dedicated and generous priests and religious whose only wish is to serve and do good."

The pope spoke many languages and went to many countries that no pope had previously visited, venturing from the Vatican more frequently than any of his predecessors. His relentless and far-reaching movements reflected more than the conveniences of modern travel.

They amplified his ceaselessly expressed concern for the poor, his frequent spoken and written meditations on what he saw as an impermissibly broad gap between wealthy and indigent people, and a lack of social justice.

They also spoke to his belief in his role as a sort of global pastor and to his canny grasp of the demographic changes that were confronting not just the Roman Catholic Church but all of Christianity, whose center of gravity was moving to the developing world.

"He has decisively renovated the papacy for the 21st century by giving it this new evangelical, pastoral thrust," George Weigel, his American biographer, said in a telephone interview in late 2003.

In a separate telephone interview around the same time, Mr. Weigel said: "This has been a genuinely epic period in the history of the papacy, in the history of the church. This has been a pope for the world, not just for the church."

Laurie Goodstein contributed reporting for this article.