Pope John Paul II spent more than a quarter century making many Catholic women, gays and pro-choicers very angry. Yet, despite his strong stands against women's ordination, same-sex unions and abortion, John Paul was a hard man to dislike. The Pope, who died Saturday, left behind a legacy of love, mercy, peace and human dignity. Few will forget the day in 1983 when John Paul held the hand of and forgave Mehmet Ali Agca, the man who shot the Pope in the stomach in St. Peter's Square on May 13, 1981. John Paul's actions that day enfleshed Jesus' dying words: "Father, forgive them for they know not what they do."
The Pope's courageous stand against communism inspired his native Poland and likely played a role in the collapse of Soviet communism. His opposition to capital punishment, including his unsuccessful 2001 appeal to Gov. Mike Easley to spare the life of death row inmate John Hardy Rose, demonstrated the Pope's "consistent" pro-life stance.
The Pope also spoke out early and often against the U.S. attack on Iraq, calling the war a "defeat for humanity." It was the Pope who coined the term "culture of death" to describe humanity's reliance on weapons of war, which he said devalues the dignity of the human person and disrespects the sanctity of God's creation.
The Pope also railed against "unbridled capitalism," frequently lamenting the world's growing chasm between the haves and the have-nots. Despite his passionate advocacy of love, peace and justice, the Pope also leaves behind a U.S. and European Church deeply mired in crisis. The priest shortage, the recent allegations of child sexual abuse by priests, and a steady decline in church attendance are some of the major problems facing the Church in the West.
It's important to note that the Catholic Church in North Carolina has a few different problems. Rather than declining numbers in the pews, virtually all North Carolina congregations are bursting at the seams. The state is facing a double migration of U.S. Catholics from the North and Latino Catholics from Mexico and Central and South America.
In the Triangle, there are several churches with memberships of more than 10,000 parishioners. Cary's St. Michael, the Diocese of Raleigh's largest congregation, had 16,595 registered members as of June 30, 2004. Raleigh churches St. Raphael (13,215) and St. Francis (12,945) are also among the largest. These staggering figures, for a denomination that held missionary status in the state just two decades ago, are probably low when you factor in non-registered parishioners. These mega churches, which lack a depth of community on many levels, are necessary because of the lack of priests.
The Diocese of Raleigh is also looking at another transition. Raleigh Bishop F. Joseph Gossman, a liberal, is eligible for retirement this year, although he will stay on longer until the new pope appoints his replacement.
It appears likely, though not certain, that Gossman's replacement will be more traditionalist than reformer. This is because the majority of bishops appointed by John Paul, the pool from which Gossman's replacement might come, have been decidedly more conservative.
The College of Cardinals may also select a conservative to replace John Paul, although some hope exists among liberals that the next pope might come from the Third World, which would be an interesting wildcard appointment.
While a majority of U.S. Catholics supported John Paul's opposition to abortion and same-sex unions, it's clear that his stance against artificial birth control, women's ordination and capital punishment were not as well supported. His late entry into the priest pedophile crisis left many U.S. Catholics disappointed.
To be fair, John Paul, a man who spoke eight languages fluently, grew up in a Polish culture far removed from the excesses of the West today. His sometimes harsh authoritarianism, illustrated by his declaration banning even discussion of women's ordination, was out of step with the modern world. His understanding of human sexuality reflected more his own strict self-discipline as a celibate male than the reality of the lived life of the laity.
John Paul, often specifically through his frequent spokesman, German hard-liner Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, also kept a tight leash on Catholic theologians who openly criticized the Church.
To his credit, John Paul made great strides in ecumenism and interfaith dialogue, frequently meeting with Protestant leaders and leaders of other faiths. His desire to please everyone led to his breaking new ground--an offer of apology to Jews and a visit to the Western Wall, as well as hosting a visit to the Vatican from the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.
The Pope had a duty to keep Catholicism moored to its 2,000-year-old traditions while at the same time addressing the pressing moral issues of this day. Many wished he had veered a lot more toward reforms that would have ameliorated major problems such as the priest shortage and the secondary role of women in the church.
The problems in the church today cannot all be placed in the lap of John Paul. Religious vocations were already in decline when he came on the scene in 1978, and John Paul was placed at the helm of a billion-member church that was still in the throes of an uneasy transition from the sweeping changes introduced in the 1960s with Vatican II.
With no increase in religious vocations on the horizon in the U.S. church, the next pope faces a major challenge. How will a sacramental church, which places its highest spiritual value in the Eucharist, be able to meet the growing demand for more priests--the only ones allowed to consecrate bread and wine? Will women be given the nod for ordination as they have in most Protestant denominations? Will married men be welcomed as priests?
In North Carolina, the church faces the challenge of being a welcoming community for thousands of Latino immigrants, most of whom are undocumented. Will a predominantly white, middle-class Catholic Church be truly willing to share power with their poorer sisters and brothers of color while defending their right to flee poverty for a better life in the United States?
Pope John Paul tried to bring a Gospel message of good news for the poor to a Western consumer culture that for the most part has rejected Christian values. The problems faced by John Paul were not novel. And the problems are not going to go away anytime soon.