He was an unlikely man to head the billion-strong Catholic Church – the first Pole, the first non-Italian Pope in over 400 years, – and yet his papacy left an indelible mark on Catholics and non-Catholics worldwide.
Pope John-Paul II, who passed away Saturday April 2, experienced all the horrors of the 20th century first hand. He was 19 when the Germans invaded his country. He then endured decades of oppressive totalitarian rule, that he would take a leading role in destroying.
His unlikely accession to the papacy in 1978 marked the beginning of a period of profound change throughout the world. He was a man of peace, who believed strongly in human dignity and human freedom. His message was clear, ecumenical, and non- demagogic – man’s spirit is precious, and wherever it is oppressed that is wrong.
He was less successful in establishing his social views. A strict conservative, he clung to the ancient Catholic tradition of allowing only men to enter the priesthood; he opposed any form of artificial birth control; and he side-stepped Latin American prelates who pleaded for help in opposing murderous right wing regimes.
Above all he led from the front and by example. He was the first Pope to pray in a synagogue and in a mosque. He visited over 100 countries. He reached out to those of different faiths, and even those of no faith, in an effort to remind the world that we are ultimately all one people.
Although he was by no means alone in dismantling the moribund Communist system that had dominated Eastern and Central Europe since 1945, it’s hard to imagine it happening so quickly and completely without him. He gave voice to the voiceless and the strength of will to the oppressed to express their disapproval of their oppressors. His influence rolls on to this day in Latin America, In Africa and in the democratic regimes taking shape in Central Asia. Some day it may even reach China.
It’s always difficult to connect concrete examples of events directly caused by abstract ideas, but, if anything, John Paul II was instrumental in healing Europe’s open wound inflicted in 1914. During his reign the European Union expanded to include 25 countries. The majority of those nations, including his native Poland, were former Soviet satellites. The reopening of Eastern Europe to Western businesses, including the insurance industry, that marked these countries return to democracy, would not have happened so soon and so completely without him.
A reminder of just how drastic changes in society can be, and what the consequences are for those who insure it, came from Standard Life’s CEO Sandie Crombie, speaking at the European Insurance Forum in Vienna last October. In 1910 Standard sold policies around the world. In the aftermath of World War I it considerably reduced its scope. Now, as Crombie noted, Europe and large portions of the rest of the world are open for business again.
If anything, John Paul II’s papacy should remind everyone that true moral vision can have as profound an effect on the world as military might. Stalin once cynically asked, “How many divisions does the Pope have?” The Soviet dictator got his answer some 40 odd years later in 1989: “More than enough to destroy your pernicious system, hopefully forever.”
For all that he was and for all that he gave us – despite the inevitable disagreements we may have with a number of his views – we should thank him. John Paul II achieved what all men hope for and few realize; he left the world a better place than he found it.
Was this article valuable?
Here are more articles you may enjoy.