Reading room > Pope John Paul II – a personal reflection

9 Apr 2005


It was in September 1978 that I came back from seminary to Belfast - young, enthusiastic and ready to change the world. I don't doubt that I have made some little contribution since then. But a mere six weeks after I started working here, Karol Wojtyla was elected pope and took the name John Paul II. So for the past 27 years, our pastoral ministries have overlapped. But there the comparisons stop, for his influence on the world stage has been immense!

He was a man of enormous strengths and talents. He had great personal warmth with an actor's flair for communicating feeling and leadership. He was a philosopher who tackled topics like truth, life, healing, solidarity and hope in a language that both invited dialogue with the secular world and creatively informed theological perspectives. Because of - rather than despite - his obviously deep spiritual life, he was able to engage with the realities of world politics, and - through his stature and integrity - played a huge role in the collapse of communism in his native Eastern Europe. Since 1990, however, many other political forces will have resented the fact that he did not promptly row in behind the Western liberal capitalist camp. Aware of the reality of economic globalisation, he thought it even more important to globalise solidarity. Thus his consistent championing of justice issues and the dignity of human life, and his opposition to perceived Western arrogance won him both admirers and enemies. But I still believe that history will see him as a hugely consistent leadership figure in this time of growing uncertainty, fear and fragmentation.

On an ecclesiastical level, he took over in a church that was still struggling with the changes made in the 1960s by the Second Vatican Council. In a world of theological diversity and a growing loss of the sacred, he aimed for clarity and consistency. He had, I believe, a clear agenda. On the one hand, the Church of the Incarnate Son of God had too deeply incarnated in the affairs and cultures of the world. On the other hand, if the Church was to be salt and light, it had to have a clear identity as distinct from the world. In that sense there were not two Papa Wojtyla figures - one ‘progressive' and one ‘conservative’. Deep dawn he had one radical vision - that of a new civilisation of love, based on human solidarity, dignity and a commitment to search for the truth, however painful that might be. Some will say that his Polish experience made it hard for him to understand the Western emphasis on the primacy of freedom. But he offered clear direction at a time when all religions and specifically his own Church were the focus of much criticism and humiliation. Furthermore, he made huge efforts to reach out to all Christians, to peoples of other faith and of good will.

He cannot be faulted for lacking integrity. To the end of his life he pushed himself hard - and expected others to be able to do the same. Here was a man marinated in the Scriptures, a profoundly evangelical person. This deep sense of mysticism allowed him to have an iconic status in modem world full of  fragile celebrities - and not to be seduced by the system. It was a status that inspired millions of young people. It freed him to have a zest for living but also a desire to live his dying as a precious part of that life. Like his Lord and Master, he sought to live and die in such a way that his actions would speak of the faithful God. I believe that - along with others whose wisdom was born of pain - he will be shown to have made an enormous contribution to the creation of our increasingly post-atheistic age.

Like every human being and organisation, he too was a son of Adam, scarred by the reality of sin. He will have made wrong decisions and will have regretted many things in his life. But while business may judge success by the balance sheet, people of faith still believe that there is a wisdom greater than our creative minds can dream of, and a love that is stronger than all the frailties of the world. And in that context I can continue my work with serenity, in a world that is richer because of how he spoke of both Cross and Resurrection.

Bishop Donal McKeown, Chaplain to the International Alliance.

Bishop Donal McKeown, Chaplain to the International Alliance.