Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Universal Vision of Dignity

A priest who was at the Vatican II council 40 years ago recalls, "I remember raising my head and thinking, 'Who is that prophet?'" The speaker who had caught his attention was a Polish prelate named Karol Wojtyla, and his subject was a proposed declaration renouncing the ancient accusation of enduring Jewish guilt for the death of Jesus. "Wojtyla spoke of the church's obligation to change its teaching on the Jews with a passion that could only have come from personal experience," the priest said. "For an unknown bishop from Poland it was amazing. Wojtyla made the difference."

This incident, related in James Carroll's book "Constantine's Sword" -- a study of the church's tortured dealings over the centuries with the Jewish people -- was a precursor to what Carroll regards as "the most momentous act" of the papacy of John Paul II: the day when the pontiff formerly known as Wojtyla stood before the Western Wall in Jerusalem "to offer a prayer that did not invoke the name of Jesus ... to leave a sorrowful kvitel, a written prayer, in a crevice of the wall." The speech at Vatican II was also a sign that this was a man with considerable ability to lead and inspire -- charisma, as it's been called since times long before politicians discovered the term.

He came on the world scene in 1978 as a refreshing new personality: Possessed of a sunny smile, athletic bearing and a friendly manner, he was a media dream. His willingness -- eagerness, really -- to be out among the people extended his appeal well beyond the church, as did his courageous survival of and recovery from an assassination attempt. But John Paul II made it clear early on that he was no public-relations pope, seeking to accommodate the church to modernity. A man of considerable depth and learning -- more so perhaps than the public understood at the time of his election -- he acted and spoke boldly and confidently over his quarter-century as pope, often in ways that were neither popular nor politic.

He could be -- and was -- called conservative in matters of Catholic doctrine, in his determination to maintain such institutions as the male celibate clergy and in his strict adherence to the church's positions on birth control and abortion. He provoked debate and dissent within the church with his stands in these areas, as well as opposition from outside, including from these pages, for policies that affect the temporal realm, especially in matters of population control. The sexual abuse scandal in the U.S. church that troubled his last years as pope was attributed by many, at least in part, to his adherence to the hierarchical chain of command and to a lack of democracy in the church.

But this pope might equally well have been called liberal -- even radical -- in such areas as workers' rights, capital punishment, disarmament and human freedom, and in the message of hope that he carried literally across the globe. He was indisputably a visionary in seeking to lead the church out into the greater world -- traveling, evangelizing and preaching the unity of humankind in places that no pope before him could have hoped to reach.

And certainly no pope ever made a trip like John Paul's journey back to Poland in 1979 -- the most joyous conquest in the long and tragic history of his country. How many divisions has the pope? For John Paul they were many and powerful, all seemingly armed with guitars and flowers as they converged by the hundreds of thousands in Poland to celebrate his presence, sending an unmistakable message of national solidarity to the rulers of Central Europe and helping set in motion the peaceful revolution that was to bring down a Communist empire within a decade.

As the priest who observed him at Vatican II sensed, there was much of the personal in John Paul's fervor on certain matters. The pope who sought a new relationship with Judaism had been a friend of his Jewish neighbors from childhood, in a time and place darkened by anti-Semitism. Brought up in a close, tolerant and deeply religious family, the future pope was made aware of the fragility of life by the loss of his mother when he was 9, of his father when he was 18, and of his older brother, a physician who contracted a fatal disease from one of his patients. In his lifetime, he lived under two cruel, seemingly all-powerful social ideologies with millennial pretensions, worked against them and saw both fall, while the church to which he had committed himself endured. It may be that this personal experience has something to do with a conservatism grounded in preservation of what he thought good in his church and in human life -- but not in fear of change.

"The pope is a thoroughly modern man who nevertheless challenged a lot of the conventional wisdom of self-consciously modern people," his biographer George Weigel said in a magazine interview some years ago. "In a world dominated by the pleasure principle and by personal willfulness, he insists that suffering can be redemptive and that self-giving is far more important to human fulfillment than self-assertion. In an intellectual climate where the human capacity to know anything with certainty is under attack, he has taught that there are universal moral truths and real obligations. To a world that often measures human beings by their utility, he has insisted that every human being has an inviolable dignity and worth."

One who exercises as much power as the pope will never be free of controversy, no matter how exemplary his life; the secular world is not in the habit of conferring sainthood on people. But John Paul II, after his death Saturday at 84, will be seen by most, we think, as a remarkable witness, to use a favorite term of his -- witness to a vision characterized by humaneness, honesty and integrity throughout his reign and his life.

This comment originally appeared as an editorial in the Washington Post.