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The legacies of John Paul II and John XXIII

First Published      Last Updated Apr 28 2014 09:21 am

One was a man who shook the very foundations of the Roman Catholic Church by ushering in revolutionary reforms through the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s. The other was a charismatic globe-trotter who stared down communism and taught the world lasting lessons of how to die.

On Sunday, Pope Francis will canonize two predecessors, John XXIII and John Paul II, elevating the two most influential popes of the 20th century to the pantheon of Catholic life and worship.

Though the canonizations are not without controversy, few would question the long-term impact of John (who reigned from 1958-1963) and John Paul (who reigned from 1978-2005). Religion News Service asked experts, biographers and theologians to assess the two men. Some responses have been edited for length and clarity:


Communism • The former Karol Wojtyla knew all too well the burdens of living under communism in his native Poland. As pope, he worked alongside Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher to rally the world against repressive regimes and watched as the Soviet empire unraveled across Eastern Europe.

"John Paul II was the pivotal figure in communism's European demise. Communism would have eventually collapsed of its own implausibility. But if you ask why it collapsed when it did (1989, not 1999, 2009, 2019, whenever) and how it did (largely without mass violence), you have to give full marks to the revolution of conscience ignited by John Paul II in his nine-day visit to Poland in June 1979. That revolution of conscience was one of the chief dynamics that led, over 10 difficult years, to the revolution of 1989 in Central and Eastern Europe."

— George Weigel, distinguished senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and author of "Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II"

Culture of Life • John Paul was a tireless crusader against abortion, euthanasia, capital punishment and later, embryonic stem cell research. His papacy mirrored the rise of the modern anti-abortion movement, and his prolonged public struggle with Parkinson's disease captivated the world's attention on the end of life.

"Because of John Paul II, the sacredness of the human person and centrality of the human person became a very strong new evangelization theme throughout the world. The centrality of sacredness of human life brought about changes in a number of lives and cultures, including the fall of Soviet communism. He reminds us that the culture is the most important thing in the formation of individuals and society itself. He reminded us that the conflict is a spiritual and a moral one between culture of death and the lives each of us live.

"One of the most important examples he gave is the way in which he died, in how he taught us how to die. There were people who were saying, 'He's too old' or 'He should retire.' But he showed us that there's no such thing as a life not worth living. There's dignity in living and dying in the world. He gave us a living encyclical in which his life ended and passed into eternal life."

— The Rev. William F. Maestri, a priest at St. Louis Cathedral in New Orleans and former director of communications for the Archdiocese of New Orleans

Jews and Judaism • In 1986, John Paul became the first pope to make an official visit to a synagogue, in Rome. In 2000, he traveled to Israel, where he prayed at the sacred Western Wall. He referred to Jews as our "elder brethren" in faith and repeatedly condemned anti-Semitism.

"When he was elected to the papacy in 1978, Karol Wojtyla brought with him a unique set of experiences for a Catholic prelate: He had many childhood Jewish friends but had also known the grief of losing most of them during the Nazis' occupation of his native Poland.

"One of his first acts as John Paul II was to declare that the Catholic Church should be committed to friendship and dialogue with the Jewish people. By numerous writings and addresses, by visits with many Jewish communities, and most iconically by his prayer at Jerusalem's Western Wall in 2000, John Paul became the implementer and definer of the new relationship with Jews made possible by the Second Vatican Council."

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