John Paul II — The Man, The Pope, The One They Loved But Did Not Follow

John Paul II. “Papa”, a man and a pope. Who was he? Perhaps he was whoever the media and people wanted him to be. To the world he was one man, to the church, another, to the Polish and American churches still another. Perhaps a look at his names and what he was as “Paul”, as “John” and why so often each was in contrast, even opposition to the other.

As Paul: the man seen from outside the Church.

  • He was a missionary visiting and traveling worldwide.
  • He was a man of dialogue, reaching out to the Jewish community seeking reconciliation, to the Eastern Church, seeking communion.
  • He was a man who asked forgiveness for the Church’s past actions, judgments and sins.
  • He welcomed scientists, artists, musicians, writers, Nobel Prize winners to the Vatican open to many cultures’ expressions of wisdom and beauty.
  • He drew young people to him like a magnet, stirring them to devotion and telling them there were the future of hope, and a remedy for his own aches and growing older pains.
  • He was more than all else a prophetic voice crying out in a wasteland—–against greed, consumerism and lifestyles based on the abuse of natural resources that created a huge gulf between rich and poor nations, peoples, and oftentimes, religions.

    –against strident nationalism that ran over others’ rights and dignity.

    –against nations like the United States acting alone without recourse to consultation, or in defiance of the United Nations, disregarding the consequences of their actions worldwide.

    –against the first war in Iraq, against the war in Afghanistan, against the second war in Iraq, against every war, against war as a viable response in today’s world/politics and life.

    –against first strikes/war that reversed the human community back to the age of barbarity.

    –against using violence/war/brutal attacks as a reaction and so against nuclear proliferation that endangers all humanity.

    –against blaming others, especially those of other religions for the evil in the world, with each country needing to look to itself and take responsibility for its share of injustice, evil, sin and death.

    –against the death penalty, euthanasia, as well as against abortion.

Leaders called him ‘the greatest moral leader of our time” but dismissed his words, insultingly ignored him as naïve or lumped him with the rest of people with such statements as “I don’t care what anyone thinks…” Leaders attempted to use him as a “media” ploy, to be seen with him in photo-opportunities as validation for their decisions and actions when more often than not those decisions were in direct opposition to John Paul II’s beliefs, pleadings and teachings.

Even Catholics flocked to his audiences, imitated his prayers and spirituality but would not be open to changing their minds on ethical decisions or judgments, picking and choosing as they wished, from the more individual aspects of the spectrum of human rights and what was just, and then ignoring all the others, that would convict them as in need of conversion. Bishops used him for their agendas but did not even bother to teach any of his stands or calls to conversion, to stop violence, the death penalty, to not go to war and used him instead to push issues of sexuality, marriage, and issues related to birth/gender and abortion—worthy causes, but in the light of the plight of the world, or the teachings of Jesus in the Scriptures, not the issues that we will be judged on if we are Catholics/Christians.

Was he a great man? Most assuredly. Was he a great leader? If a great leader actually has people follow him and believe in his words, share his passion for justice and non-violence, than sadly, John Paul II failed miserably as a leader—even his own people didn’t follow him in the majority of his ethical exhortations and hopes for humanity.

In his Church, he could be looked at differently, as ‘John’ perhaps, rather than as ‘Paul’…in-house Church, especially in the United States Church…

–he sought to centralize more and more of the universal church, ignoring collegiality, cultural and linguistic differences, insisting on ‘sameness’ in liturgy, teaching, ministry and theology. What was found primarily in the history of Europe and in Rome was dominant and definitive rather than balancing that history with the histories of the rest of the world and inculturation.

–he had little or no dialogue in-house Church, not with those distressed at Church disciplines enforced selectively, or with women, or with those blamed publicly for being who they are and what they did (though again it was one or two issues, ‘bedroom morality’ as it has been called, not equally in relation to other issues of importance).

–he never asked forgiveness for what the Church has done in the last 25-30 years, or for the behaviors, actions, decisions, lying, secrecy, sins and failures of the men he appointed (especially in the US).

–he did not welcome the laity in general into ministry, teaching, theology—forgetting that 98% of the church is the Body of Christ too, or women, or those who had left ordained ministry, nor did he welcome new ways of doing ministry. Instead he appointed bishops more attuned to orthodoxy (recent versions of that in the last 100-150 years) rather than those who were known for compassion, integrity and service to the Church.

–he condemned new/young/imaginative theologies and theologians who sought to express mysteries in new concepts, languages and in dialogue with other religions and cultures. And on certain issues he just demanded that everyone stop any discussion at all.

–he appointed leaders (world-wide) not on the basis of where they stood on ethical issues regarding the poor, those in need of basic justice/human rights, the common good, economic and political issues, nuclear proliferation, pre-emptive strikes, war, the death penalty, their knowledge and ability to relate to people, to other religions, or even their preaching of the Scriptures, but he appointed many who were one or two issue obsessed (specifically the issues of abortion/gender/marriage and pre-birth) rather than protection and encouragement of life from pre-womb to the tomb for all the peoples of the church and the world. And so, those bishops and many people in the church felt perfectly free to ignore the more foundational and basic life issues, not even announcing them, teaching them or preaching about them in parishes and dioceses.

The cult of the man and his personality enchanted people but it has not led the majority (not even many) in the church or the world to actually follow and obey him in regards to those things that were closest to his heart; those things that he begged people to stop, lamented, prayed about and repeated to leaders and nations and people to desist, resist and to turn aside from, looking to God and religion, and all peoples to solve their differences together.

What the Church needs now is glaringly apparent. The conclave and the pomp of the old ways (from the 11th-13 centuries primarily) is a return to a time in history when the church and a good deal of society was degenerate, depraved and ruled by a few while the many literally starved, and cowered in fear at their leaders’ decisions and its effects on their lives. Those who will elect the next pope have been primarily appointed by this pope (63 of them) and the secrecy at the top, with less than 100 people making the decision of who will rule as pope (sadly very descriptive words) while over a billion of the people of God are told to pray does not bode well for the power of the Spirit—does the Spirit only work in bishops/cardinals and not in the Body of Christ? Why in this day and age, is there not dialogue, consultation, openness, even solicitation from within the Church and those outside who are interested in who might be chosen as the next pope and what is needed in such a huge organization/church? What the Church needs now is

–Someone open to the people of God, the 98% of the Church that is not clerical or religiously institutional.

–Someone to listen to this Church in each country dealing with unique problems/situations.

–Someone to heal, ask forgiveness now, and do reconciliation and repenting by changing structures and be open to accountability in finances, appointments and the behavior of those in leadership positions.

–Someone to reach out to those who have been shoved aside: the victims of sexual abuse; those who have left the Church and have been treated badly because of marriage, ministry, gender, or those publicly labeled ‘sinner’, or evil, rather than remembering that we are all ‘sinners”.

–Someone who will concentrate on adults and education, on Scriptures and the preaching of the Good News to the Poor; focus on real issues of justice, war, non-violence, peace-making and human rights rather than rubrics, liturgics and correct language translations.

–LASTLY and most importantly a Shepherd/Leader who is compassionate not judgmental. Calling nations/leaders and peoples to conversion, but teaching by witness and modeling of life and by giving theologians and people and the Spirit time to find new words and concepts for the mysteries of our faith

–in Asia, for inter-religious dialogue, ways of prayer/contemplation

–in Africa for multi-cultural richness and history

–in South America for inter-cultural and redemption of colonial theologies

–among all the poor and the indigenous of the world for their wisdom of the earth/creation and how to survive

–in Europe and the United States for how to serve the universal Church, putting its resources at the service of the other local churches, especially the service of justice for the least of our brothers and sisters.

A SHEPHERD calls people out, but then goes around behind the flock and watches, careful and sure that everyone stays together in community with diversity and plurality of gifts and persons. The way is one, holy, catholic (meaning universally diverse) and apostolic and it is time for the Spirit to be allowed loose so that imaginative and life-giving ways can emerge. We need less of the cult of an individual person and more someone who can seek to bring together many….perhaps even the wild idea of a ‘pope’ for each continent (and not necessarily a bishop or a man) with one of those the Shepherd who would stand for/signify and be the one that draws/keeps the Church together in Christ. It is an ‘interim’….why not dream/hope wildly for something so full of grace in a time that needs more than one person to symbolize the reality of the communion of the Trinity and the People of God? Why not? And why not now?

Megan McKenna
Writer, theologian, storyteller, missionary

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