Pope John Paul II’s trip to Great Britain in late May 1982 was such a smashing success that The London Times said if there were such a title as First Citizen of the World, John Paul would win it. That designation would be neither the only nor the most relevant way of describing the 263rd successor of St. Peter, but it is a title that would still be firmly in place this month as the 83-year-old Karol Wojtyla marks the 25th anniversary of his election as bishop of Rome.
That election was itself a breaker of precedents—the first Slav pope, the first non-Italian pope since the Netherlander Hadrian VI, in 1552—and ever since his election, John Paul II’s pontificate has been setting records that none of his predecessors could have imagined.
Elsewhere in this issue, John Thavis gathers together some of the statistics that indicate how teeming this papacy has been with memorable events, the issuing of epochal documents and the delivering of hundreds of speeches. In his journeys as universal pastor, John Paul II has traveled more than 700,000 miles, the equivalent of going around the earth 29 times.
Historians will need decades to assess a life and work of such immensity, but ordinary people nearly everywhere have long recognized certain central roles that John Paul II has assumed as pope. Three of the attributes that future scholars will be examining come at once to mind. From the beginning of his pontificate, John Paul II has been a defender of the poor, a preacher of peace and a teacher of the Catholic Christian faith.
In an op-ed piece for The Washington Post on June 10 of this year, U.S. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell began with these words: “Half the human race—3 billion people—still live on less than two dollars a day.” John Paul II has steadily pleaded the case for these impoverished billions, for these citizens of the poor nations in a world controlled by the rich nations. When he visited the slums of Brazil’s northeastern cities in July 1980, the shanty-dwellers greeted him with the refrain: “John Paul is our voice.”
That voice has not been limited to exhortations. In three great social encyclicals, John Paul II expounded in detail the Christian ethical concepts of economic justice and a fully human development for all peoples. The spirit breathing through these documents was felt in a passage of the homily the pope gave on Oct. 2, 1979, at a Mass for 80,000 people in New York City’s Yankee Stadium: “The poor of the United States and of the world are your brothers and sisters in Christ. You must never be content to leave them just the crumbs from the feast. You must take of your substance, and not just of your abundance, in order to help them.”
Earlier that same day, John Paul II, addressing the United Nations General Assembly, repeated the hope expressed in that great hall by Pope Paul VI 14 years earlier: “No more war, war never again!”
That hope has not yet been realized. In every year of John Paul II’s papacy there have been armed conflicts somewhere in the world. The pope, undeterred, has tirelessly called for peaceful resolutions of all these crises, including the latest in Iraq, because, as he said in January of this year in a speech to the diplomats accredited to the Holy See: “War is always a defeat for humanity.”
To be an advocate for the poor and for peace, one need not be a pope. In virtue of his office, however, every occupant of the Chair of Peter must be a teacher and defender of the faith; he has inherited the charge given by Jesus to Simon Peter: “You must give strength to your brothers” (Lk 22:31). All the modern popes, unlike some of their rapscallion predecessors in the ninth century, have taken this commission with utmost seriousness. In the awesome volume of his writings and his speeches, John Paul II has not only guarded but expounded the faith, using the skills of a theologian and of a philosopher who appreciates the resources of reason.
The pope has also been an evangelizer in his actions as well as in his words. He has a gift for immemorial gestures—kissing the soil on his first visit to a country, embracing the handicapped, inserting a prayer scroll into a crevice of Jerusalem’s Western Wall. But he has also brought a message that goes beyond these images.
In all his public appearances, and particularly in the liturgies he has celebrated, John Paul II has manifested a profound piety, that spirit of personal devotion to the Father which, as the French Jesuit theologian Léonce de Grandmaison (1868-1927) said, is the center and heart of true religion, although not the whole of it. In his very person, and never more than now, when he is so burdened with the infirmities of old age, John Paul II has made his own one of his favorite sentences from St. Augustine: “Vobis sum episcopus, vobiscum christianus—I am a bishop for you, I am a Christian with you.”