By any standard, the life of Pope John Paul II was extraordinary. Born in a small town in a country that had been the plaything of dynasts for centuries before his birth, and which became the target of history’s bloodiest tyrants during his adult years, Karol Wojtyla became the first non-Italian pope in nearly five centuries and the first Slav ever to occupy the Chair of Peter. Blessed with a remarkable intellect, a facility for languages, great charm and charisma, and a steely resolve, he used his gifts to the fullest, in a life spent defending Christian Truth against the various ideologies that would, as he told hundreds of thousands of Poles gathered in Warsaw’s Victory Square in 1979, “exclude Christ from history.”
In many ways, the most dramatic days of this long pontificate came early, just eight months after Cardinal Wojtyla became pope, when he returned to his homeland for nine days. To adapt a title from a book devoted to the ideology John Paul II helped to vanquish, these were nine days that shook the world. Up to one third of all Poles saw John Paul II in person on that trip, and they came to believe that they were not alone. And once they realized that, communism’s days were numbered, both in Poland and throughout Eastern Europe. The communists knew how formidable their enemy was: The week before the Holy Father’s death, the Italian paper Corriere della Sera uncovered documents in East German archives proving that the 1981 attempt on John Paul’s life was orchestrated by the KGB.
John Paul II knew that communism was not the only ideology that would keep Christ out of history: The materialism and secularism of the West were a threat to Christian morality. As he told Poles hoping to join the European Union in 1991, “Giving in to desire, to sex, to consumption: that is the Europeanism that some supporters of our entry into Europe think we should accept. . . . What is their criterion? Freedom. But which freedom? The freedom to take the life of an unborn child? Brothers and sisters, I protest against this concept of Europe held by the West.” Nor was the Pope swayed by the popularity of Western materialism. As he told the Italian parliament in 2002, “if there is no ultimate truth to guide and orientate political action, then a democracy without values can easily become open or thinly disguised totalitarianism.”
The Pope’s preaching against soulless materialism and freedom divorced from truth did not cease after his rich baritone had become, at times, a barely audible mumble. The many in the West who place a merely utilitarian value on human life were clearly discomfited by the sight of a Pope hobbled by Parkinson’s disease and arthritis. But John Paul taught, by word and example, that human life has intrinsic worth and that suffering is an inextricable part of the human condition. As the Pope understood, the only way to eliminate suffering from human life is to eliminate humans who are suffering.
It is doubtful that many of the millions of ordinary people around the world who are mourning John Paul II have ever read one of his encyclicals or apostolic letters, or even heard the entirety of one of his sermons. What attracted them to him was his transparent sincerity and goodness, his obviously deep faith, and the powerful example of a life lived in service to something other than self. In myriad ways—from kissing the ground on first visiting any country, to forgiving his would-be assassin, to embracing all manner of people in countless public appearances—John Paul II effectively communicated to millions the love that Saint Paul upholds as the highest virtue. This Pope was, in effect, parish priest to the world.
To be sure, many of us can think of things we might have done differently. And there is no doubt that John Paul II did not accomplish all that he set out to do, either within the Church or without. But against the panoply of his remarkable life, those critics taking to the airwaves after his death either to attack him or to promote their pet schemes to improve the Catholic Church came across as cranks and obsessives, as pygmies trying vainly to bring down a giant.