Pope John Paul II’s Legacy at the Centre Stage of International Arena
Pope John Paul II’s Legacy at the Centre Stage of International Arena
By Shafquat Rabbee : When on October 16, 1978, Pope John Paul II emerged from the plume of white smoke above the roof of the Sistine Chapel and declared his accession to the supreme position of the Catholic Church, very few in the world could imagine that this man would also ascend to the center stage of international politics unparallel to any of his successors.
>From the recent war on Iraq to civil war in Bosnia, from the collapse of Soviet Union to political upheavals in Cuba, from reconciling past differences with Muslims to Jews, the papacy of Pope John Paul II, is simply hard to match with any other pope in the long history of the Catholic Church.
Although the power position of the Pope was never executive, but rather spiritual, Pope John Paul II never seized to assert his influence on matter as intricate as war, communism, human rights etc.
By visiting 118 countries of the world during his 26 year reign as the Pope, John Paul II has made his existence felt throughout the world, even in countries were Christians are bare minorities.
Despite the existance of theological and political differences between different denominations of the Christian church and world religions at large, the Pope’s stance in favour of humanity and justice has given him the voice of a global spiritual leader, on whom majority of the world people could trust.
At the time when the “pre-emtive” war on Iraq was about to start, John Paul II emphatically stated that this war would be a “defeat for humanity which could not be morally or legally justified”. “When war, as in these days in Iraq, threatens the fate of humanity, it is ever more urgent to proclaim, with a strong and decisive voice, that only peace is the road to follow to construct a more just and united society,” John Paul said. “Violence and arms can never resolve the problems of man” he continued.
Throughout the entire duration of the U.S. led attacks on Iraq, Pope John Paul II spoke out almost every day against war and in support of diplomatic efforts for peace. John Paul II sent his personal representative, Cardinal Pio Laghi, who is also a friend of the Bush family, to remonstrate with the U.S. President before the Iraq war began. Pope’s message to Bush was tantamount to saying “God is not on your side if you invade Iraq”.
When the war in Iraq was deemed inevitable, Pope started to sympathize with the anti-war demonstrations that rocked the world capitals. Pope John Paul II said that the anti-war movement shows a “large part of humanity” has rejected war as a means of solving conflicts between nations”. Pope termed the Iraq episode “a difficult moment in history”.
The Pope said the world “once again is listening to the din of arms” and by now, he said, “it should be clear” that except for self-defence against an aggressor, a “large part of humanity” has repudiated war as an instrument of resolving conflicts between nations.
When sex abuse pictures of Iraqi prisoners were being released in the international media from the Abu Ghraib prison of Iraq, the Pope also intervened. During a face to face meet with President George Bush, the Pope referred to the sex scandal at the Abu Ghraib prison and termed the entire issue as “deplorable events,” The Pope told Bush that “in the absence of a commitment to shared human values, neither war nor terrorism will ever be overcome”.
Earlier in his career, Pope John Paul II established many milestones that bridged the gap between international politics and religious authority.
In 1979 John Paul II became the first Pope to set foot in the White House when he was greeted by the then US President Jimmy Carter and his wife Rosalynn. The meeting of the 39th President of the United States with the 264th Roman Pope had broken a 200-year-old tradition which had seen few US politicians publicly courting the Catholic Church.
During that visit to the US, the Pope was welcomed by nearly 7,000 US government and church dignitaries. President Jimmy Carter addressed John Paul II in Polish before he turned to the crowd and said “For those of you who may not speak Polish, that means ‘May God be praised’.”
The following year, in 1980 Pope welcomed Queen Elizabeth of England to the Vatican as she made history after becoming the first British monarch to make a state visit to the Vatican. Pope welcomed Her Majesty and the Duke of Edinburgh, for what was
described as a “warm and relaxed” encounter by the British Press.
The Queen in her speech said, “We support the growing movement of unity between the Christian Churches throughout the world and we pray that your Holiness’s visit to Britain may enable us all to see more clearly those truths which both unite and divide us in a new and constructive light.”
Elezabeth also invited the Pope to her country in two years’ time, but for political and religious sentiment of the British people, the Queen made it clear that the Pope’s proposed visit to England would not be a state visit but one “to the Roman Catholic community in Great Britain where some four million of my people are members of the Roman Catholic Church”.
In 1982 John Paul II went to England and was welcomed by Queen Elizabeth at Buckingham Palace during a historic visit to Great Britain.
Pope’s visit to England placated the long standing hostility among the majority Protestant population of Britain and the Catholic Vatican.
During that visit in 1982, Pope made history by visiting the Canterbury Cathedral as the first pontiff ever to do so. The Pope was greeted by the then Archbishop of Canterbury Robert Runcie and a crowd of wellwishers who cheered as the Pope arrived by helicopter.
Before the Pope’s visit to the Canterbury Cathedral, there was controversy as it became clear that he would not use the ceremonial entrance of the cathedral known as the Great West door located at the front of the cathedral.
Nonetheless, the Pope told the congregation at Canterbury of his happiness at visiting the cathedral, adding that it was a day “which centuries and generations have awaited”. The Vatican and the Canterbury Cathedral had a history of long lasting differences with eachother for centuries.
During that visit to Canterbury, the Pope and Archbishop of Canterbury Cathedral issued a common declaration, which thanked God for “the progress that has been made in the work of reconciliation” between the two churches. Such common declarations were unimaginable only a few decades ago.
Throughout his papacy, Pope John Paul II was extremely vocal against atheism and governmental policy that promotes atheism.
His stance against former Soviet Union, Eastern Europe and Cuba’s state promotion of atheism deserves particular mention in this regard.
During his 1998 trip to Cuba, Pope John Paul II called for reform in Cuba and the release of political prisoners while condemning the US attempts to isolate the country. The Pope was the first ever pontiff to visit the Communist Caribbean island of Cuba, which was declared an atheist state in 1959.
Speaking in Havana, Cuba’s capital, the Pope said freedom of conscience was “the basis and foundation of all other human rights”. “A modern state cannot make atheism or religion one of its political ordinances,” he added.
President Fidel Castro, the communist dictator whom the Vatican blames for decades of persecution of Catholics, urged every able-bodied Cuban to attend the papal mass, “if not out of conviction, at least out of respect”.
During his visit to Cuba, the Pope called for the release of a number of Cuban political prisoners. There were an estimated 500 “prisoners of conscience” in Cuba at that time. The Pope personally handed Fidel Castro a list of names which the Church wanted to be released.
In his farewell speech in Cuba, the Pope condemned the economic embargo imposed on Cuba by the United States, describing it as an “indiscriminate measure that hurt the poor”.
Two weeks following the Pope’s visit, Cuba released more than 300 political prisoners as an act of goodwill, fulfilling the Pope’s demand.
In March 1998, the US announced it was ready to allow the return of direct flights to Cuba to increase the flow of humanitarian aid to the Cuban people.
In October 2000 that the US House of Representatives approved the sale of food and medicines to Cuba. In November 2001 the US exported food to Cuba for the first time in more than 40 years after a request from the Cuban government to help it cope with the aftermath of Hurricane Michelle.
In 2000, Pope John Paul II became the first ever Pope to visit a Muslim Mosque, when he visited the Ummayid Mosque in Damascus, Syria. During that visit, the pontiff drove in his popemobile through the narrow streets of Damascas, and was greeted by Syria’s top Muslim cleric Sheik Ahmad Kuftaro.
Pope John Paul II asked for a joint act of contrition by Muslims and Christians and said, “For all the times that Muslims and Christians have offended one another…we need to seek forgiveness from the Almighty and offer each other forgiveness.”
As required by Muslim custom, John Paul II removed his shoes and put on white slippers before entering the Ummayid mosque, which is also the site of the tomb of St John the Baptist.
In 2001, the Pope visited Egypt’s al-Azhar mosque. Pope’s visits to Muslim places of worship and his support for the Palestinians, Bosnians, and Iraqis, earned him enourmous respect among the Muslims of the world.
For the Jews, the Pope became the first ever pointiff to visit a Synagogue. The Pope, who hailed from Poland and who saw the holocaust from closest distance possible, was always a vocal opponent of anti-semitism.
In short, Pope John Paul II epitomized modern day papacy by making the job of a Pope respected and honored by not only those who are devout Christians but also by those who has gone astray. And for people of other religions, this Pope held the status of a trustworthy partner for interfaith peace making.