A Look at Pope John Paul II's Legacy

Pope John Paul II leaves the papacy and the Roman Catholic Church two very different institutions from what they were when he was elected pope in 1978.

John Paul II seemed to be a new kind of pontiff almost from the instant he was elected the 264th leader of the Roman Catholic Church.

At 58, Cardinal Karol Josef Wojtyla of Krakow, Poland, was a relatively young and vigorous pope and was the first non-Italian to assume the papacy in 455 years.

He took the name John Paul, following the lead of his predecessor, Pope John Paul I, who died after just 33 days as pontiff, and showed that he was not afraid to show his warmth for his faithful. He was often seen wading into crowds of worshippers like a talk show host.


"He was someone who was very comfortable on the stage, someone who could communicate to young people," said the Rev. Thomas Reese, author of "Inside the Vatican." "And we saw that at these world youth days. He was there like a superstar, a rock star, with all these kids just loving him."

The Traveling Pope

The pope went on the road almost immediately after his election -- and his travels became a trademark of his papacy. In the 2,000-year history of the church, no other pope traveled as far. Fluent in eight languages, John Paul II visited more than 100 countries on every continent but Antarctica, making a point of seeing not only world leaders, but those in hospitals, slums and prisons.

The pope's travels and ability to talk plainly to the people who came to see him gave him a connection with his audience and a popularity his predecessors may have lacked.

"Paul VI had made a number of trips to other countries, [but] he just never had that charisma ... and those number of people [who came to see him]," said ABC News Vatican correspondent Bill Blakemore, who covered Pope John Paul II during his entire 26-year papacy. "John Paul, when he traveled, pulled out these enormous crowds believed to be the largest crowds ever yet assembled on Earth."

Mixing Religion With Political Activism

John Paul often stunned political leaders by setting diplomacy aside and speaking out on controversial issues.

His activism was rooted in the experience of his youth in southern Poland, where, as he began his priesthood, Jews were sent by the thousands to death camps and Catholics participated in their persecution. During World War II, he was active in an underground Christian democratic group that helped Jews escape the Nazis.

In March 2000, he apologized for mistakes committed in the name of the church over the past two millenniums, including the Inquisition, the Crusades and the persecution of Jews. In January 1998, he made a historic visit to Communist Cuba where his appeals for freedom of speech, human rights and the release of political prisoners were the first noncommunist public speeches since 1959.

His trip, the first to Cuba of any pope, revitalized the Catholic religion on the island nation after almost 40 years of repression, prompting President Fidel Castro to lift the ban on Christmas celebrations.

The peaceful revolution John Paul sparked in Cuba was much like the ones he supported in Eastern Europe and his native Poland. As a cardinal, he secretly aided the anti-communist struggle by smuggling money and supplies to the Catholic underground in what was then Czechoslovakia.

"John Paul II had a bigger impact on the fall of communism than anyone else at the end of the 20th century," Reese said.

New Direction for Papacy

John Paul's activist role in the international political arena took the papacy in a new direction.

When he became pope, the Soviet Union was still locked in a Cold War with the West. Poland lay behind the Iron Curtain with the rest of Eastern Europe under communist dictatorship. By the time his papacy would end, the Communist regime of Soviet Union would be a memory and the Solidarity movement would have long ousted the Communist regime in Poland.

"He brought out these enormous crowds, 1 [million] and 2 million at a time. And what happened was that they suddenly discovered each other," Blakemore said. "They discovered themselves. They looked around at these enormous crowds and said, 'My goodness, we have power.' He was talking about the importance of individual freedom and national freedom in front of these crowds, and that's when solidarity, the Solidarity Movement, was born."

Pope John Paul II tried to force political change elsewhere, admonishing dictators like Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines and Baby Doc Duvalier in Haiti. He was not always successful but stood firm on issues such as violence, aggression and war. He disagreed with both Presidents Bush on their wars against Iraq.

"The Persian Gulf War in 1991, he opposed," said the Rev. Richard McBrien, professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame. "And then the war in Iraq launched in 2003 and still on, he also opposed that on moral grounds. He opposed the notion of pre-emptive war."

Mixed Feelings From American Catholics

Pope John Paul II also did more than any of his predecessors to reach out to people of other faiths. He became the first pontiff to visit a mosque in Syria in 2001. He attempted to mend centuries of tension between Western Catholicism and Eastern Orthodox Christians.

John Paul traveled to Israel in 2000 and embraced then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak. On that same trip, he went to Palestinian Bethlehem to pray at the traditional birthplace of Jesus and called for peace between Israel and the Palestinians. At a refugee camp, he said Palestinians had a right to rule themselves.

"He demonstrated during that trip again what we've seen before, which is at the center of his teaching was one idea: the inviolable dignity of every human on Earth," Blakemore said.

But for all his efforts at conflict resolution and diplomacy, the pope was not always popular. His unyielding conservatism on many social issues left many Catholics -- especially American Catholics -- with mixed feelings.

Ultimately, Pope John Paul II reshaped the Roman Catholic Church in a way that reflected his most intimate beliefs and his most personal experiences.