06 April 2005

The Web

A moral signpost

As the Catholic Church prepares to ponder
the choice of a new leader, the death
of Pope John Paul II leaves room
for reflection on a number of issues that characterise the legacy of this great man, revered by both friend and foe.
John Paul's humanity, humility, charisma and leadership by example have been his lasting traits. A professional communicator, who travelled the globe to spread the word of Christ, John Paul left many individuals, from dignitaries to cheering crowds mesmerised by his unwavering belief in human dignity. It did not matter whether John Paul was meeting Fidel Castro, George Bush or the African woman dying of AIDS, he soldiered on with his mission to put the person at the centre of his beliefs.
Even if criticised for imposing a rigid moral doctrine on issues such as contraception, sex before marriage, same-sex unions, abortion and stem cell research, John Paul's straightforwardness in the face of whoever stood before him was a trait greatly admired by that group of youngsters popularly referred to in the media as the ‘Papa boys'.
The masses of youth present for the numerous World Youth Day gatherings addressed by John Paul might have had differing views to the pontiff on the church's sexual morality but they found in the man an unwavering gentleman who swayed to their music but never allowed his beliefs to be swayed by the signs of the times.
His steadfastness on issues he strongly believed in made the Pope a global moral signpost, especially in an era characterised by relativism and increased secularisation.
John Paul was a major protagonist in the decimation of communism, a fact recognised by the last Soviet leader Gorbachev, who in no uncertain terms said that communism could not have fallen had it not been for John Paul.
The pontiff considered this doctrine anathema to the principles of social justice it tried to propagate since it showed no respect to the dignity of man. Indeed, it was in his eyes the very antithesis of human dignity. Brought up in Poland with hands on experience of the brutality communism came to signify, John Paul fought it tooth and nail.
The fall of the Berlin wall was in so many ways a personal victory for the Pope but those who thought he would now stay put were misled. No sooner had the Wall come down that John Paul did not preach against the unacceptable face of liberal capitalism.
Men and women are not cogs in a capitalist machine and John Paul took this message to leaders in the Western world. He did not change track seeing in the teachings of Christ the inspiration to put the individual at the centre of things.
On the European front, John Paul was in favour of European Union enlargement but the very same freedom he advocated for the peoples of Eastern Europe came to be his greatest worry in later years.
A freer Europe embraced secularisation more than ever leaving out the reference to the continent's Christian heritage in the new Constitution. This decision disappointed John Paul as was his native Poland's decision to relax abortion laws in 1996.
His reforming zeal in the political field contrasted greatly with his conservatism on moral teachings.   He was adamant that women should not be ordained priests and remained vociferous against same sex marriages, which he also described as part of the ‘ideology of evil' hounding the western world.
Wide spread media coverage of John Paul's death has rekindled among the Catholic faithful the feeling that their Church is still relevant to the rest of the world. No other death has been covered in such a way. For all intents and purposes it was a media blitz, a final show by an ailing pontiff who showed courage despite physical infirmity.
Persons of all creeds felt the need to express their appreciation and respect. John Paul showed humility from his first speech when he asked Italians to correct him if he spoke their and immediately his language badly. He asked to be corrected. No leader could have ignited the flock so immediately. Herein lies John Paul's greatness.
He was a man who could engage in dialogue with a sea of people, understanding the times but sticking to his beliefs, appearing alongside a dictator like Pinochet but exerting his moral authority in the backroom, preaching life and embracing it till the very last moment.


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