Today is the feast day of St John Paul II, a man who, even in an age of giants such as Thatcher and Reagan, stood out on the the world stage. He was the first non-Italian Pope in centuries, and if ever there was a larger than life figure, it was him. A youngish man (for a Pope) when he came to the throne, he made an immediate impression with his vigorous personality, and he set a pattern since followed by all his successors, of globe-trotting. This was not because he liked travelling, but because he knew the Church was a global Church, and he knew that by visiting churches locally he could make a great impact. Not everyone approved of his style, and some of his gestures towards other faiths and other Christian churches upset those who had no idea there could even be a Pope like the current one. But in all these things he has one objective, to show the world what a Catholic could be like – and in so doing, he set the benchmark high.
His own background was as dramatic a could be imagined. A Pole by birth, he found his homeland wrecked by totalitarianism, first from the Right in the form of Nazism, and then from the Left in the form of Communism. He distrusted both system because he had experienced them. If his enmity seemed aimed mostly at Communism, that because it was the great enemy for most of his life. Many Poles, and many in the West, counselled caution, and thought the best that could be done was to establish a modus vivendi with Communism; but John Paul II- whilst never reckless (after all it was not his life that was at most risk) also refused to believe the common wisdom that Communism was here to stay. He had lived under its soulless rule and he could not believe that such a system could last; man did not live by bread alone, and the fact that Communism had difficulty even providing that made its eventual fate inevitable in his eyes.
Of course the Soviets hated him, and all the more when the 1980s threw up two other world leaders who refused to believe that ‘containment’ was all that could be hoped for. Naturally, the foreign policy establishment in their own countries distrusted Reagan and Thatcher, whom they dismissed as unsophisticated thinkers unable to grasp the flexible and nuanced diplomacy that was necessary to keep the Cold War from turning hot. Like John Paul II, these were leaders who relied on their instincts and beliefs rather than ‘position papers’ from the diplomats – and like him, they turned out to be right – something for which they have never quite been forgiven by those ‘experts’ whom they showed to be wrong.
If in the heyday of his vigour, St John Paul II set one sort of example to the world, then in his later years he set another – that of the suffering servant. As his health deteriorated it would have been easy enough for him to have gone into seclusion and even to have retired – but he did no such thing. There are prudential arguments that it might have been better had he done so as that might have prevented some of the scandals from spreading – but that depends not only on hindsight, but on the view that any successor would have had more success here, which, given the mind-set of the Church then seems improbable. Be that as it may, by staying where he did and literally suffering in public, St John Paul emphasised that human life is sacred at all its stages, and that illness did not mean any loss of personhood.
St John Paul II was, I think, the greatest leader of my lifetime, and this is a suitable day to pay tribute to him.