He is not all things to all people. No man can be. But Pope John Paul II supremely defines pastoral leadership to many Catholics and non-Catholics alike. The first-ever Polish pope was determined early on to make a difference not only in his church but in the lives of ordinary people everywhere. His pontificate assumed an aggressive role to inspire dramatic changes not just in his homeland but throughout the world and continues to fulfill its calling.
The strong, forceful words of the holy father have helped fuel wholesale societal revolutions that toppled Communist regimes and encouraged fledgling democracies to build on their solidarity. His messages of hope and perseverance to those who triumphed through such transitions were based on personal experiences. He had lived through oppressive rule and knew first-hand how damaging it could be to the human spirit.
In his many journeys outside of Italy, the once athletic pontiff is always a huge hit with the young. Teenagers, who are more apt to eschew authority figures than not, wildly flock to catch a glimpse of the traveling pope as he speaks in capacity-filled stadiums or prays at crowded outdoor masses. There is something profoundly different about this pope that has touched even rebellious youth, that has spurred adolescents to scream for his attention as though he were a rock star, that seems to make a remarkable and lasting impression on those who come to see him.
He appears to have a similar effect on the very powerful of the world, whether they lead by dictatorship or democracy. They all pay him respectful homage and listen to the wisdom he imparts. His influence on characters from Fidel Castro to Bill Clinton is unknown, but his convictions and clout are undisputed. Even those who take issue with his absolutist stands on everything from papal infallibility to abortion, and the ordination of women priests marvel at a man who sticks by his principles no matter how controversial.
Today he is old and stooped and unsteady with Parkinson's disease. In the twilight of his life, Pope John Paul has not softened his stands on disputed church dogma, but there are more pressing concerns close to his heart. His spiritual journeys are increasingly taking him on pilgrimages of repentance and reconciliation. He has begged forgiveness for past sins committed in the name of the Catholic faith and, in doing so, sought to reconcile Vatican relations with other religions. His intentions are good, but true reconciliation will undoubtedly take much longer to achieve.
For many, John Paul's official act of contrition didn't go far enough. But even those who criticize the Pope's confessions still seek his blessing. On his personal travels to the Holy Land last week, Muslims, Jews, and Christians all competed for his thoughtful regard. Whichever group the pontiff agreed to personally meet could trumpet the visit as a vindication of its geopolitical positions.
Knowing full well the precarious situation he was inviting by his very presence in the region, the Pope took great pains to show sensitivity to the divergent faiths without handing over his political allegiance. Instead, in a halting voice, he prayed for peace and justice in the Holy Land, for an end to prejudice, and for a beginning of more inter-religious dialogue.
When he walked in the footsteps of Jesus through Jordan and Jerusalem, this unique pope was on yet another of his extraordinary pastoral missions far from the gilded confines of the Vatican. He came once again to sow hope among the oppressed and battle-weary, and breathe new life into their smoldering spiritual caldrons. Whether one agrees with the philosophies of John Paul II, it is impossible not to admire his strength of character in an age when men of principle are especially hard to find and even more difficult to witness tirelessly living their beliefs through frequent journeys of the soul.
Marilou Johanek is a Blade editorial writer.