John Paul II - The Pontifical Years (1978-2005)

Pope John Paul II

At approximately 5:15 p.m. on Monday 16 October 1978, the Cardinal Dean of the Sacred College of Cardinals stood before Karol Cardinal Wojtyła as he sat at his place in the Sistine Chapel and asked:  “Do you accept your canonical election as Supreme Pontiff?” Receiving an affirmative response he then inquired: “By what name do you wish to be called?” At the moment of this simple exchange Karol Cardinal Wojtyła became the 263rd Successor of St. Peter with all the authority which Christ gave the Apostle, to teach, to sanctify and to govern His Church. In a few moments he would be revealed to the world as Pope John Paul II from the balcony of St. Peter's, creating that now historic excitement over the first Polish Pope and the first non-Italian in 450 years. 

The Early Days

While acceptance of his election makes a man the Pope the ceremonial recognition comes with the solemn inauguration, which took place on Sunday October 22nd in St. Peter's Square. From the very beginning the most startling characteristics of this pontificate began to emerge – a visit to the parish church of Castel Gandolfo (Oct. 25), where the summer residence of the Pope is located, pilgrimages to the Marian Shrine at Mentorella (Oct 29) and to the tomb of St. Francis of Assisi (Nov. 5), a pastoral visit to a parish of his diocese (Dec. 5), followed by pastoral journeys to Mexico (with a stop in the Bahamas) in January 1979, to his native Poland in June and to Ireland and the United Sates in October. 

Mission of Evangelization

Few could have imagined the lengths to which Pope John Paul would go to bring the Gospel of Jesus Christ to every people and nation on the face of the earth. In the course of his pontificate Pope John Paul II traveled a distance of 725,000 miles on 104 foreign trips, as well as made even more numerous pastoral visits to the dioceses of Italy. Thus, Pope St. John Paul II was seen and heard in one form or another by most of the human race. 

His Magisterium

The most significant documents of the Magisterium of St. Pope John Paul II are represented by three which have ongoing daily significance for the life of the Church. In 1983, just 4 years into his pontificate, the Pope promulgated a new “Code of Canon Law” (Codex Iuris Canonici). This was the culmination of a revision of the 1917 Code which began under Pope Paul VI. A similar project for the Eastern Catholic Churches would conclude in 1990 with the “Code of Canons for the Eastern Churches.” 

Finally, in 1992 the Pope  promulgated the “Catechism of the Catholic Church,” a project he began after the Extraordinary Synod of 1985 on the Implementation of the Second Vatican Council. It would be the first universal catechism for the Church since the Roman Catechism of 1566. In the Apostolic Constitution which promulgated the Catechism, the Pope called it “a sure norm for teaching the faith and thus a valid and legitimate instrument for ecclesial communion.” (Apostolic Constitution, Fidei depositum). 

A Pope of many Writings

Pope St. John Paul II, of course, issued a great many other documents in his 26 year pontificate. Chief among these were his fourteen encyclicals (or circular) letters. Like the two letters of St. Peter in Scripture, encyclicals are intended to circular and teach the whole Church. 

In writing these important teaching documents, second in authority only to doctrinal constitutions, the Pope followed a clear pattern aimed at a renewal of the faith in its major areas. He issued, for example, three encyclicals on the Persons of the Holy Trinity, taking each of the Persons in turn. His very first encyclical (1979) was “Redeemer of Man” (in Latin, Redemptor hominis), on the mystery of Jesus Christ. The following year, 1980, he published on the Father who is “Rich in Mercy” (Dives in misericordia) and in 1986 on the Holy Spirit who is “Lord and Giver of Life” (Dominum et vivificantem). 

He would return to the centrality of the Persons of the Trinity in the faith of the Church as part of his preparation of the Church for the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000. This was announced in his Apostolic Letter “Toward the Third Millennium” (Tertio Millenio Adveniente) of 1994. In that document, the years 1997, 1998 and 1999 were dedicated respectively to the Son, the Holy Spirit and the Father, to be followed by the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000, commemorating the Incarnation and our Redemption.      

The Pope also wrote an encyclical on the special place in the plan of redemption of “Mary, Mother of the Redeemer” (Mater Redemptoris). He took up, as well, many issues facing the Church and the world. Among these was “Splendor of Truth” (Veritatis splendor, 1993) on the nature of authentic moral theology, written in the context of present day errors in moral theology, and “The Gospel of Life” (Evangelium vitae, 1995) on the defense of human life, especially under attack by abortion and euthanasia, doctrinally defining both as grave evils.

In the arena of human work he wrote on its moral dimension in Laborem exercens (1981), on the defects of communism and capitalism in “On Social Concerns” (Sollicitudo rei socialis, 1987), and in 1991, the centenary year of Leo XIII’s Rerum novarum, he issued an encyclical commemorating that first papal social encyclical.  

The continuing importance of striving for the reunion of Christians was taught in “That they may be one” (Ut unum sint, 1995), while the need for evangelization outside Christianity was indirectly addressed in his encyclical commemorating Saints Cyril and Methodius as “Apostles to the Slavs” (Slavorum apostoli, 1985), and directly in “Mission of the Redeemer” (Redemptoris missio, 1991). In his final two encyclicals he tackled the question of faith in relationship to reason in “Faith and Reason” (Fides et ratio, 1998). Finally, in a fitting summation to his pontificate, in 2003 “The Church of the Eucharist” (Ecclesia de Eucharistia) highlighted the centrality of the Eucharist in the faith and life of the Catholic Church. 

In addition to his major documents, there were his many homilies given in Rome, and on his pastoral visits throughout Italy and around the world. His weekly Wednesday General Audience talks often followed a theme which continued for many weeks. Most notable was his treatment of the creation accounts in Genesis, the letter to the Ephesians and the encyclical Humanae vitae (On Human Life), over the course of which he laid out a theology of man and woman, and of the body as a gift to be offered in marriage, or in virginity or celibacy.  

Other Papal Documents

In apostolic letters, exhortations and other documents, Pope St. John Paul II addressed numerous other matters in addition to those of his encyclicals. These included “The Mystery and Worship of the Holy Eucharist” (Dominicae cenae), an instruction on serious abuses of the Holy Eucharist which need to be corrected (Inaestimabile donum), and a letter on the role of St. Joseph as “Custodian of the Redeemer” (Redemptor custos), which was an important step forward in the theology of St. Joseph. He also wrote on the “Dignity of Women” (Mulieris dignitatem), the restriction of Priestly Ordination to men (Ordinatio sacerdotalis), as well as established a means to facilitate the return to the Church of the followers of Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre and the celebration of the Mass according to the Missal of 1962 (Ecclesia dei). He also wrote “On Combating Abortion and Euthanasia,” on keeping Sunday holy (Apostolos suos), on the great Father St. Augustine, on the patron of priests St. John Vianney, the veneration of holy images, and on Ecclesiastical Universities among other documents.

Drawing from the collegial advice of the Synods of Bishops the Pope also published apostolic exhortations on topics as varied as “The Role of the Christian Family in the Modern World” (Familiaris consortio), the importance of the Sacrament of Reconciliation (Reconciliatio et paenitentia), the “Vocation and Mission of the Laity” (Christifidelis laici), the formation of priests (Pastores dabo vobis) and the “Consecrated Life” (Vita consecrata). 

Taken together, in both quality and quantity, the writings and addresses of Pope John Paul II amount to a prodigious contribution to the Magisterium. 

Reforms and Programs

The Holy Father has also made significant structural changes to the governance of the Holy See. He has, for instance, made economic reforms in the way the Holy See operates. Due partly to allegations of financial irregularities and partly to a series of deficit budgets, he created a special Prefecture for Economic Affairs, placing American Cardinal Edmund Szoka in charge of this temporal aspect of the Pope's ministry. He has enacted Curial reform, continuing a process begun by Pope Paul VI, among other reasons to make the operation of the Curia and its interaction with the bishops more collegial. The Pope, of course, continued the practice of Synods of Bishops, making them regularly biannual events. To these he has added Regional Synods, of Africa and Asia, Europe and Oceania and the Americas, so that the bishops of entire continents can mutually consider their common pastoral concerns. In his own diocese he has conducted a diocesan Synod, engaging his priests, religious and laity in providing advice on the unique concerns of the Roman diocese. 

In order to foster studies on important issues Pope John Paul II has undertaken a number of special programs. In 1981 he established the Pontifical Council for the Family to oversee his initiatives to build up marriage and family life in our day, and, the Pope John Paul II Family Institute as a faculty of the Pontifical Lateran University. This latter now has a branch campus in Washington, DC to grant graduate decrees with theological specialization on marriage and family. To his concern for the loss of respect in our day for human sexuality, marriage and family life, and life in general, can be added the Pontifical Academy of Life to bring together experts from many disciplines, so that the Holy See is kept abreast of the current state of knowledge on life issues. In a similar vein, the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences founded by Pope John Paul II brings to bear the knowledge of experts in the social sciences. He has also continued to be active in promoting pure research in the life and physical sciences, through the oldest international scientific academy in the world, the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. And through the papal observatory, both in Italy and its new facility in Arizona, he has fostered research in astronomy, even as his predecessors, like Gregory XIII (after whom our present Gregorian calendar is named), have done. All these ventures manifest his and the Church's love for the truth and her mission to foster all that is true wherever it is found (Phil. 4:8). 

A discussion of what Pope John Paul II has done could hardly leave out some more personal initiatives of his pontificate. His great love for Jesus Christ present in the Blessed Sacrament and his personal sense that the Pope needs the persistent prayer of others to support his mission led him to begin Exposition and Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament at the Major Basilicas of Rome during their open hours. For this purpose he established a community of women religious connected to St. Peter's to pray before the Blessed Sacrament on his and the Church's behalf. He has also fostered contemplative communities in the Roman diocese, calling on them to devote their prayer especially for the Petrine ministry. Seeing this as a need for the entire Church he has been unswerving in his support for parish Exposition and Adoration and for contemplative communities. 

Prayer and Crosses

It would be hard to dissociate the Pope's own love of prayer, especially Eucharistic prayer, from the personal sacrifices and the Cross of suffering which he has endured during his papacy. In both matters he has followed closely the pattern laid down by He whose Vicar he is. On May 13, 1981 he was the victim of the well-known assassination attempt of Ali Agca, which left him near death. Following his release that summer he had to return to the hospital owing to a viral infection. Other physical ailments and treatments he has endured include removal of a benign tumor and colic resection (1992), a dislocated shoulder (1993), a broken femur (1994), an appendectomy (1996), and in recent years hand tremors (due to a yet unrevealed condition). None of these, contrary to hysterical press reports, have diminished his mental sharpness or his zeal for his ministry, according to those who have dealt personally with him. 

Another special feature of his pontificate has been the several Holy Years which he has called. With their roots in the Old Testament call for sabbatical and jubilee years, Holy Years are year-long celebrations during which the Church pays special attention to a particular theme, calls the faithful and the world to deeper repentance and opens wide the treasuries of sacramental and extra-sacramental graces to those who undertake pilgrimages and other works related to the Holy Year. The nineteen hundred and fiftieth year of the Redemption was the object of the 1983 Holy Year. In 1988 the Church celebrated the two thousandth anniversary of the birth of the Blessed Virgin Mary. 

The Great Jubilee

However, as significant as these Holy Years were their scope cannot compare to the efforts called for by the Holy Father to celebrate the Jubilee of the Year 2000, the two thousandth anniversary of the Incarnation and Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ. Consisting of a preparatory period of three years (1997-1999), dedicated in turn to Jesus, the Holy Spirit and the Father, following by a year-long Jubilee of the Incarnation, with a special celebration of the Holy Trinity and the Eucharist, it is without doubt the most ambitious Jubilee/Holy Year celebration ever attempted. Pope John Paul II clearly has great hopes that it will bring about spiritual renewal, not only in the Catholic Church but in the world, and set the human race and the Church on the path of truth and love as we enter the Third Millennium of the Christian era. Toward this end he has called Catholics especially to renew their knowledge of and fidelity to the teachings of the Church, being especially dedicated to living the teachings of the Second Vatican Council. He has called all Christians to a common celebration of the Jubilee and renewed attention to the need for Christian unity if the message of Christ is to have an impact upon the world. And he has called all religions and people of good will to work for the common good of the human race, as we enter the new century and millennium. 

The Jubilee is not, of course, the first efforts of the Pope at contact and dialogue with other Christians and other religions. Following the ecumenical decree of the Vatican Council, and the example of his predecessor Pope Paul VI, he has been very solicitous for theological dialogue and personal contact with the Eastern Churches not in union with Rome. He has met with the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople (Greek Orthodox Church) on several occasions, and places great hope in the eventual healing of this most significant of rifts in the Church's fabric. In other areas he has approved statements of theological agreement with several so-called "Nestorian" Churches, which separated from the Catholic Church over the Christological definitions of the Council of Chalcedon (451). This has not yet lead to re-union, but has overcome the long-standing division over terms and the distrust that the polemics of the early centuries created. This Pope has spoken to and fostered ecumenical contacts with the major Protestant denominations. He was the first Pope since the first century to address Jews in their own synagogues, the first to address Moslems in an Islamic country, Hindus in their homeland and Buddhists in theirs. And he called all the world religions to pray for peace at Assisi, an event which will be re-created in connection with the Jubilee. In all these efforts he has combined a great respect for the consciences of those with whom the Church is dialoguing with an unwavering zeal for the centrality of Jesus Christ and the teachings of the Catholic Church. 

His Efforts for Peace

The Pope's efforts for peace among believers has only been rivaled by his efforts for peace within and between nations. From the beginning of his pontificate his work for human rights within nations (especially the right to worship God) and for peace between nations has been unflagging. One of his early successes was to mediate a territorial dispute between Chile and Argentina (1979). Among the more notable victories of human rights which he helped achieve was the rise of the Solidarity movement in Poland, which eventually lead to the downfall of communism in that country and contributed to its fall throughout the Soviet empire. He himself would place the glory elsewhere, however, with the Blessed Virgin Mary under her title of Our Lady of Fátima. When his miraculous escape from an assassin's bullets occurred on the anniversary of the first apparition at Fátima (May 13, 1917), he showed his gratitude by going to Fátima on May 13, 1982 to give thanks and to consecrate the world and Russia to the Immaculate Heart of Mary, as the Blessed Virgin had requested in 1917. To fully satisfy the requests of Mary he invited the bishops of the Catholic Church, as well as those Orthodox bishops who wished to participate, to collegially renew the consecration he (and earlier Pope's had made) on March 25, 1984. It was in the wake of this collegial consecration that the Soviet bloc began to crumble and the peoples of the East were released from the 70 year old shackles on their religious freedom. Now they must avoid the shackles of materialism which enslaves the so-called "free" nations of the West. 

There are many other notable events which can be offered as an indication of the interest of the Holy See to protect the rights of all. These would include relations with the Palestinian authority, as well as final diplomatic relations with the State of Israel, sending members of the Pontifical Academy of Scientists to the nuclear powers to warn of the costs of nuclear war which scientific studies were uncovering, opposing the culture of death as promoted by some Western nations at the UN Population Conference in Cairo and the UN Women's Conference in Beijing, corresponding with the Presidents of both Iraq and the United States trying to head off the Gulf War, and supporting all peaceful attempts to gain human rights, such as by the "velvet revolution" in the Philippines which overthrew the Marcos dictatorship. 

By necessity this is only a brief account of the many Christian and human activities of the Holy See to spread the truth of the Gospel, the truth about man, and the civilization of love. The final chapter, what the Jubilee and the waning days of this pontificate will bring, has yet to be written. However, given the character of the first twenty years, the final decade or so will no doubt be equally fruitful!