To Find the Pope’s Legacy, Look South
Tony Blair, the media-friendly Prime Minister of England, famously referred to Diana, Princess of Wales, as “the people’s princess.”
For all her human faults, Diana was a natural performer. She knew how to work a crowd and she knew how to work a camera crew. Watching John Paul II over the years, we’ve seen a man who has been just as much a natural in front of the media spotlights as Diana.
John Paul II’s natural gifts as a communicator complemented his many other astounding gifts.
His positive use of the modern media was professional, and his ability to turn his final illness into a sign of contradiction was inspiring to all those who suffer. He wore his disease like a badge of courage, and he walked shoulder to shoulder with all those who also carry the cross of sickness, infirmity, old age and disability.
Throughout his ministry John Paul displayed the common touch. From his days with university students and ordinary parishioners in Poland to his worldwide travels, he was grounded in the joys and sorrows of ordinary people from every race, language, culture and age range.
Yet Pope John Paul II was often portrayed as a reactionary theocrat — a medieval monarch who wanted to turn back the clock morally and theologically. One commentator snidely remarked that John Paul II may have brought down the Kremlin, but he himself ended up ruling with Brezhnevian power from his own little walled city in Rome.
Was John Paul cut off from the real mind of the faithful? Was he isolated in a walled city theologically, morally and culturally? Was he unsympathetic and ignorant of “where real people are?”
This perception only seems true if you are a member of the Euro-American intelligentsia. If your agenda is feminism, homosexualism and watered-down Marxism, then you might feel that Pope John Paul was cut off from the real world and unsympathetic.
If you were pushing for married priests, relaxation of the marriage discipline, and an introduction of New Age religion, then you would indeed feel that John Paul was out of touch. In other words, if you didn’t quite buy the teachings of the Church, you probably have shared the conviction that this was not a People’s Pope, but an Autocratic Antique.
But let’s not paddle about in the subjective shallows of personal opinion and private perspective. Statistics on trends in world religion prove that John Paul II was a truly global pope, and that he was intimately in touch with the real concerns of the faithful worldwide.
In his book, The Next Christendom, the Coming of Global Christianity, Philip Jenkins pointed out that in the second half of the 20th century, a seismic revolution took place in the Christian Church. Christianity’s center shifted from Europe and the United States to Africa, Asia and Latin America.
Even now, European and American Christians are outnumbered by their brothers and sisters in those lands, and by 2050, Southern Christians will swamp the declining and elderly Christian populations of Europe and the United States.
By the middle of this century, most of the world’s Christians will live in Africa. Latin America will be second and Europe will come third. Asia will be next and North America a distant fifth.
The statistics of this new Christendom are important, but the characteristics are even more fascinating. What are these new Christians like? Put simply, Christians from the South and East are “neo-orthodox.”
On one hand, their religion is the supernaturalist “old-time religion” — both morally and doctrinally. On the other hand, it is anything but staid or old fashioned. Instead the Africans, Asians and Latin Americans express their faith in their own vibrant cultural vocabulary, in an up-to-date and relevant style.
Economically, this Christian population is poor, young and hungry. This means their politics are practical not ideological. They simply want chances in the world and will espouse those politics that help them get ahead.
Many Western Christians have been ignorant or uncaring about these changes.
Not the Vatican.
At the time of the Second Vatican Council, Africa’s first cardinal was appointed. Since then, the numbers of cardinals from the Third World has continued to rise. Now, 40% of the cardinals eligible to vote for John Paul II’s successor will be from Third World countries. This shows that the Catholic Church has been well aware of the shift of power away from old Europe, and has seen fit to ensure that this majority shift is represented in the corridors of power.
Those Catholics who have a narrow secular agenda liked to paint John Paul II as an out-of-touch reactionary. Nothing could be farther from the truth. John Paul II well understood the Euro-American intelligentsia, but he also understood that, in the global view, their bleatings were simply the cries of lost sheep — not the authentic voice of the majority of his flock.
John Paul II’s pontificate is best understood by realizing that from the beginning (along with the resurrection of the Church in Eastern Europe), his eye was toward the youthful, burgeoning church of the Third World.
When John Paul II upheld conservative moral values and traditional Catholic beliefs, he was simply affirming the faith of the majority of Catholics worldwide. All of his encyclicals, his teaching and his pastoral letters can be seen as laying a foundation for the blossoming of this great new Christendom of the 21st century — a Christendom, as Kenyan scholar John Mbiti said, is based not in Rome, Athens, Canterbury or New York, but in Kinshasa, Buenos Aires, Seoul and Manila.
John Paul II’s global vision made him the most democratic of popes. He who was portrayed as a backward-looking autocrat was in fact a forward-looking prophet who had his ear tuned to the Holy Spirit while he kept his finger on the pulse of the people.
Dwight Longenecker’s latest book, Adventures in Orthodoxy is “a Chestertonian romp
through the Apostle’s Creed.”
- April 3-9, 2005