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The Pope-Saint: How Pope John Paul II Changed the World

PPJII - David Cloutier, Associate Professor of Theology

When I was 7 years old, the pope came to my hometown. Growing up in a Chicago neighborhood with a huge Polish population, a year after the election of this first Polish pope, my grade school geared up. I can still remember posting large letters in all the school windows that spelled out a greeting to the pope – if I remember correctly, his motorcade was scheduled to drive past our school on the way downtown. I thought this was pretty neat. But then again, big names came to Chicago all the time.

What I didn’t realize as a 7-year-old was that popes were not just big names. They weren’t VIP’s or world leaders who traveled all over the globe. At least, they weren’t before Karol Wojtyla was elevated to the See of Peter. I still have to communicate to my students what a huge deal it was when Pope Paul VI, during Vatican II, went to visit the Orthodox Patriarch and then went on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Before that, popes didn’t leave Rome. But Pope John Paul II shattered that idea – as he did so many others. He was an innovator in service of tradition.

The achievements of John Paul II’s lengthy papacy are too numerous to summarize. For me, as a moral theologian, the pope’s impact was substantial. Three strikingly powerful social encyclicals, including the much-neglected Laborem Exercens, an encyclical on the theological importance of work that should receive far more attention than it does. The first-ever encyclical specifically on moral theology, the complex and still controversial Veritatis Splendor, which came out in 1993, and set the tone for the moral theology discussion I entered a few years later in graduate school. His innovative audiences later collected as “the theology of the body,” providing a positive ethic of sacred sexuality for a tradition often suspicious of it. And the definitive document of the “consistent ethic of life,” Evangelium Vitae, that built a magnificent case for life from conception to natural death, even for the worst of criminals.

But if someone were to ask me to name what makes John Paul a saint, I would probably not name all these documents. Instead, I would turn to some of the boldest gestures of his papacy. His insistence of traveling the world to meet and inspire Catholics by the millions. His canonization of 482 saints –more than had been canonized by any other pope – that were meant to specifically represent the holy men and women of every culture in the expanding world church. His remarkable gestures of solidarity with other Christians, members of other faith traditions, and especially our Jewish brothers and sisters. And finally, his dramatic “apologies” on the eve of the millennium for the church’s failures and sins of the past – a communal “confession” which left the details of theology in the dust in favor of the urgency of trusting in God’s boundless mercy.

As with all saints, John Paul was not without weaknesses. No doubt his charismatic leadership style worked best on the broad stage, but did not always lead to the best management practices. The constant drip-drip of clergy sexual abuse is no doubt the most notorious example. But the point of canonization is not to declare someone perfect. It is to declare them worthy models of holiness. Whenever I look back on the history of the Church and see some of the shameful men who sat in Peter’s Chair, I feel blessed to live in an age where popes shine with holiness. Surely in this way, it is appropriate that John XXIII, that other bold, surprising pope of the 20th century, is being canonized alongside of him. And it is fitting, too, that Pope Francis is presiding over this. The glow of holiness is, in the end, what matters. And it would difficult to argue with the committed holiness of any of these leaders.

When I was 7, this new pope made his way to Chicago. In 2005, when I was 33, I was leading a group of students on a weekend field trip to Christian communities in Chicago when news of the pope’s death broke. After attending Sunday mass at Holy Name Cathedral, we drove to our last stop, the Sunday service at an inter-racial Evangelical Protestant community in the midst of the dire poverty of Chicago’s West Side. The church, led by a former football coach, Wayne Gordon (still called “Coach”), was a beacon of light in that community, and my Catholic students were wowed by the music, clapping, and general exuberance of the worship. But imagine my surprise when “Coach” began his sermon with a lengthy, heartfelt tribute to John Paul II. I knew in past ages, evangelical Protestant communities might have seen the pope as antichrist, and seen Catholics as “barely” true Christians (at best). Now here I was, at this bible-thumping place, and they were offering a stirring eulogy for the holiness of the pope at his passing. That’s my lasting memory and symbol for how this man truly did change the world.

davidDavid Cloutier is an Associate Professor of Theology at Mount St. Mary's University where he teaches courses in moral theology and Catholic social thought. David also serves as editor of the Catholic Moral Theology Blog.

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