Christian History Home > 2000 > Issue 65 > Globalism: John Paul II
Globalism: John Paul II
In issuing more significant encyclicals and visiting more nations than any other pope, he's shown that Christianity remains a world force.
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In October, 1978, Karol Wojtyla, the Cardinal Archbishop of Krakow, Poland, was elected the first Slav pope in history and the first non-Italian since the sixteenth century. He took the name John Paul II, and many observers believe he will be known in history as "John Paul the Great," much as Christians refer to the fifth and sixth century popes, Leo the Great and Gregory the Great.
Secular writers tend to see his greatness chiefly in the part he played in the end of the empire of Soviet communism. During World War II, when Joseph Stalin was cautioned against incurring the displeasure of Pope Pius XII, Stalin dismissively asked, "How many divisions does the pope have?" John Paul marshaled divisions of the human spirit in Poland and throughout Eastern Europe, encouraging millions of people to declare their determination to "live in the truth." It was in 1980, one year after he visited Poland, that the Solidarity movement became a force—a connection Solidarity leader Lech Walesa commemorated by signing the agreement legalizing the movement with a souvenir pen bearing the pope's picture.
Wojtyla's Slavic heritage is not the only unique element of his background. During the Nazi occupation of Poland, he worked in a quarry and a chemical factory. But by night, he studied philosophy, published poetry, and wrote and performed plays as part of a clandestine cultural resistance organization. It wasn't until after his father's death in 1941 that he began to consider the priesthood as yet another way to resist the degradation and brutality of totalitarian rule.
He entered seminary in 1942, though the political climate made this a risky choice; many of his professors had already been arrested and lost forever to concentration camps. He conducted his studies in secret until Poland was "liberated" by the Russian army and the Krakow seminary could be public once more. Following his ordination, he began to travel throughout Europe, and he also continued his literary pursuits, always making every effort to assert a vision of life different from what the ruling communists sought to impose. His ideas and activism attracted the attention of church leaders, and when the cardinals met to choose a new pope after John Paul I's sudden death in 1978, Wojtyla garnered nearly all of the votes.
"The Church counters the culture of death with the culture of love."
—John Paul II
While his influence in world affairs has been enormous, John Paul is not primarily a political figure. He sees himself first as a priest, philosopher, theologian, bishop, and teacher. Among his titles is Servus servorum Dei (Servant of the servants of God), and as such he sees himself as servant to the more than one billion Roman Catholics in the world, and indeed to the entire human family, all of whom are called to be servants of God and of one another. "Believers have a duty to treat all men and women as brothers and sisters in the one human family," he said in a 1995 address to the ambassador of Great Britain. "Prejudice and enmity have no place in true religion and can never be justified on religious grounds."
The theme of his first sermon as pope was "Be not afraid!" and that theme has been repeated thousands of times throughout the 20 years of his pontificate. The message is that, despite all the perils facing humanity, the human project itself cannot fail because God has become one of us in Jesus Christ, and Christ has already overcome sin, evil, and every threat to human existence. That message is aptly described as "prophetic humanism," a radically Christ-centered word to the world offering both God's judgment and promise of redemption. "The Redeemer of Man, Jesus Christ, is the center of the universe and of history," he wrote in his first encyclical.
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