These have been 27 years that have changed the course of history.
The Pope, who battered down the rigid rules of Vatican protocol and the far thicker walls of ideology, who had the courage to ask pardon for the errors of the Church, has spent his dying hours surrounded by the affection of millions all around the world, even of those who do not share his faith or his religion.
Only Pope Pius IX (1846–878) had more years in which to make his mark on the Church as a whole.
The cardinals who in 1978 chose a Polish cardinal as the first non-Italian Pope in 400 years, chose a man who had had his character steeled under two totalitarian regimes: the Nazi one and the Soviet one, the two ideologies which dominated the 20th century, and which equally proved to incarnate the power of man to destroy mankind, to turn man into a slave and to annihilate human beings.
Karol Wojtyla, the future Pope John Paul II, endured the black night of Nazism by choosing, in wartime, and the occupation of his country, to enter the clandestine seminary of Cardinal Adam Sapieha, one of the principal figures of Polish resistance. This experience of ‘cultural resistance’ well prepared him to face the Communist darkness, which overshadowed his country for long years.
History will look upon his pontificate as a continuous action in favour of human rights, a war against anything which undermined freedom of conscience and of religion. It was this war which led to the overthrow of the Communist hegemony over Europe and the collapse of the Berlin Wall.
These last 20 years which the Pope spent fighting the degenerative Parkinson’s Disease, did not weaken his indomitable spirit, even in these last years, where he somehow found the courage to argue, futilely, against war, any war, and also against the consumer atheism and the materialism of the West, whose temptations he saw as even more insidious than those inspired by Marxism.
The heritage the Pope leaves to his successor is an extraordinary one: without his principles and his far-sightedness, the collapse of the regimes of the East would have probably been far more bloodier, just as they were in the former Yugoslavia.
History will also record his unprecedented gestures, especially in his dialogue with other religions, such as when, in 1985 at Casablanca, he told young Muslims: “We all worship the same God.”
So too his meetings with the highest authorities of the Hindu, Sikh or Buddhist religions. But none was so historic as his asking for pardon for the Church’s historic anti-Semitism and his pilgrimage to Yad Vashem and the Wailing Wall.
As the Italian philosopher Massimo Cacciari has said, he is the only world leader who had a strategic plan for the future. It is precisely for this reason that it is difficult to categorise the Pope according to the old schema Right-Left, or the other post Vatican II schema Traditionalist: Reformist.
It is true that on certain issues, such as sexual ethics or birth control his position was certain conservative, but on many social themes his position was very progressive, echoing the positions of Good Pope John: against war and its barbarism, against the profit motive as an end in itself, in favour of a social market economy, revaluation, as in Pope John, of certain true elements in Marxism, although naturally without the political consequences he fought against as priest, then as bishop and then as cardinal, in Poland.
It is said, as the Italians say, “ad ogni morte di Papa”, every time a Pope dies: it will be a difficult heritage for his successor to shoulder. The heritage Pope John Paul II leaves is a profound and extremely rich one.