Autocrat who leaves a complex legacy

PUBLISHED : Monday, 04 April, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 04 April, 2005, 12:00am

The global outpouring of grief that has greeted the death of Pope John Paul II says much about the immense international stature of a man who has had a profound influence on the world.

Many thousands of his followers gathered in St Peter's Square to mourn the loss of their spiritual leader, who died early yesterday at the age of 84. Their grief was shared by about 1 billion members of the Catholic faith worldwide. It was perhaps felt most keenly in his native Poland, where he has long been a source of great national pride.

But a sense of loss is also felt by members of all faiths - and non-believers. Pope John Paul, who served for 26 years, was a world leader. He stood resolutely for peace, reconciliation, human dignity and freedom.

The Pope was a staunch defender of traditional Catholic values and his conservative views means he leaves a rather controversial legacy within the Church. But he strongly believed in reaching out to other religions and resolving disputes through dialogue.

John Paul provided the world with a powerful source of moral guidance. His vehement opposition to the war in Iraq is a notable example. He also dedicated himself to defending the poor, especially in developing nations, warning of the dangers of unchecked capitalism.

It seems strange now to recall that his election in 1978 was a surprise. He became the first non-Italian pope in more than 450 years. At the time, he was regarded as an outsider who would struggle to assert his authority. But he quickly made his mark.

He will perhaps be best remembered for providing the inspiration that led to the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe, beginning in his homeland, Poland. He was a crucial source of moral support for the people at a turning point in Europe's history.

John Paul went to great lengths to further dialogue between different religions. His visit to the Middle East in 2000 did not bring peace to the region, but it left a lasting impression among both Palestinians and Israelis. He was the first pontiff to attend a synagogue and a mosque.

Wish unfulfilled

Sadly, he did not fulfil his wish to visit Hong Kong or the mainland. Differences between Beijing and the Vatican could not be resolved, despite several attempts. The key areas of dispute remain the Vatican's ties with Taiwan and the Pope's desire to appoint bishops on the mainland. These will not be easy to overcome. It is hoped that momentum will pick up after a new pope is elected.

The papal role has been transformed by John Paul. He made the best use of the mass media to project his powerful personality. And modern air transport enabled him to visit more than 100 countries. Huge outdoor masses became a feature of his trips abroad. He was the first pope to become a media personality.

But his support for democracy and human rights contrasts with John Paul's conservative - and quite autocratic - approach to the Church. He centralised power and did not tolerate dissent. More importantly, his conservative approach to key social and moral issues have split the Catholic Church and arguably contributed to its decline in the west.

John Paul strongly opposed contraception, abortion, homosexuality and divorce. He stood by the traditional requirements that priests should be male - and celibate.

Conservative approach

This approach provided Catholics with clear directions. There were few, if any, grey areas.

But it is difficult to reconcile these beliefs with modern values, especially in the west.

The conservative approach understandably angered and alienated many members of the Catholic faith. John Paul's opposition to the use of condoms became very difficult to justify in the light of the Aids epidemic. And many Catholics have simply ignored his ban on artificial means of birth control.

Attendances at Mass have fallen in the west. It is also becoming more difficult to persuade people to become priests. This is largely due to changes in society. But the conservative approach of John Paul has probably contributed to the trend.

There is unlikely to be a radical change when the new pope is elected. It would be difficult for his successor to change gear, at least in the short term. And the overwhelming majority of the cardinals who will pick him have been appointed by John Paul. His successor is therefore likely to have similar views. But these issues must be faced.

Meanwhile, the Catholic Church has grown in strength in the developing world during John Paul's papacy. This could result in a global shift in the balance of power inside the Vatican.

There are suggestions the next pope may come from Latin America or Africa. The election comes at a critical time and will determine the direction of the Church.

The new pope will need many of the qualities John Paul demonstrated. But he will be a difficult act to follow. He was dynamic, determined and dignified. The great courage he showed during the latter stages of his illness set an example to us all.

Pope John Paul had a huge presence on the world stage. His pursuit of peace and freedom, and his love of humanity mean that his honoured place in history is assured. His death leaves a vacuum that the new pope will find very difficult to fill.