The impact of John Paul II on the last quarter of the 20th century and more was and continues to be monumental. He came to the papal throne in 1978 and almost immediately began to do, say and write more than any previous pontiff in church history.
John Paul II easily became the most-traveled pope. He published more papal encyclicals than any who had previously occupied the chief chair in the Vatican. He wrote more books and appointed more cardinals. The Times (London) thought him the most influential political figure of his generation. His was a life of superlatives.
But the late pontiff once said: “They try to understand me from the outside, but I can only be understood from the inside” (John Cornwell, The Pope in Winter, 2004, p. xiii).
Ultimately, only God can see on the inside and judge the worthiness of our lives. He is “the Judge of all” (Hebrews 12:23 Hebrews 12:23To the general assembly and church of the firstborn, which are written in heaven, and to God the Judge of all, and to the spirits of just men made perfect,
American King James Version×). Still the outward life of John Paul II is well worth careful analysis and examination.
The pope’s Polish origins
The pope’s philosophy of life and the nature of his papal reign were forged in Poland—a Roman Catholic country with a complex history severely troubled by Germany on the west and Russia on the east. Both nations occupied Poland during his lifetime.
As noted British historian Paul Johnson commented on the pontiff: “He had spent his manhood largely under the tyranny of the two vilest anti-life systems the world has ever seen: Nazism and Communism, together responsible for the unnatural deaths of over 120 million people in Europe and Asia. He had seen at close quarters the appalling consequences which inexorably follow when authority is directed by [a] philosophy contemptuous of life” (The Wall Street Journal, April 4).
John Paul II later encouraged his fellow Poles to reject Russian communism, eventually helping to bring down the infamous Iron Curtain between east and west—and perhaps even helping to topple dictatorships beyond the borders of Europe.
The Pope in Winter put it eloquently: “A line of malevolent dictators—Marcos in the Philippines, Baby Doc in Haiti, Pinochet in Chile, Jaruzelski in Poland, Stroessner in Paraguay—fell from power after he had kissed the soil of their countries” (p. xiv).
Unflinching in purpose and promise
In May 1985 I traveled to Utrecht in the Netherlands to cover the papal visit to a country that historically had deeply resented the activities of the Roman Catholic Church. The pope knew in advance that his visit there might well reignite the embers of bitter historical antagonisms.
The Netherlands is about 40 percent Catholic, yet even many among this sizable group wanted women to be ordained, an end to church teaching on banning artificial birth control and a much more liberal attitude toward premarital sex, abortion and homosexuality—all of which John Paul II was vehemently against.
The pope came under heavy pressure in Holland, but he didn’t flinch in the face of demands to alter Catholic doctrines, a pattern that was to continue throughout his papal reign—bringing him periodic criticism from many liberals of his faith.
For many decades the Catholic Church had been quiescent in Europe. The church had become a follower, not a leader of nations. But the papal reign of John Paul II was to change all that. The pontiff had a plan from the start and the Netherlands proved to be only one link in a long “Eurochain” of events. The pope was definitely on the offensive.
Why a traveling pope?
In the early 1980s several Catholic writers produced a book titled The Pope From Poland. The authors said that even when the pope occupies his Vatican apartments “he is thinking of his next journey” (p. 250). He did not undertake these arduous trips solely for pastoral purposes or merely to increase his knowledge of the universal church. He always had long-range goals and purposes in mind.
The pope pursued a vigorous Ostpolitik (the opening of relations with the eastern bloc) in Eastern Europe—contrary to the wishes of the former Soviet Union. It involved negotiating a complex web of relationships between the Catholic Church and the governments of these eastern nations.
John Paul II presented “a vision of a wider Europe, culturally and spiritually united” (p. 250, emphasis added throughout article). The difference between John Paul II and many of his predecessors in the Vatican was that he led instead of following.
The Pope From Poland observed: “Under John Paul II, it was the Vatican which acted and governments had to respond as best they could. John Paul II’s Ostpolitik was brisk and potentially destabilizing … John Paul II appeared to be playing poker” (pp. 251-252). Indeed, later events proved just how destabilizing it was. It took 10 years from his first trip to Poland in 1979 for the Iron Curtain to come tumbling down.
Calling for European and world unity
Some readers may remember the pope calling for a Europe extending from the Atlantic to the Ural mountain range in Russia. European unity was a continuous theme throughout the early years of his pontificate.
On a visit to Spain in 1982 the pontiff called for the unity of the whole of Europe. Then while speaking to top state officials in The Hague on May 13, 1985, he said, “The Holy See has always sought to encourage this coming together of
The Times sent one of its correspondents to Brussels to cover the pope’s visit there on May 20, 1985, where he spoke to the leaders of the three main institutions of the EEC (now the European Union). Two sentences of his speech sum up what he said: “The borders set by treaties cannot limit the communication of men and nations. Europeans cannot submit themselves to the division of their continent.”
Rather early in his pontificate John Paul II had stated: “The Pope has come to speak to the whole church, to Europe and the world, to speak about the nations and peoples so often forgotten … He has come to gather all these nations and peoples together with his own” (The Pope From Poland, p. 143).
Incredible words! Like Caiaphas, the first-century Jewish high priest who somewhat uncomprehendingly prophesied of Christ’s death on behalf of the whole nation of Judah (John 11:49-51 John 11:49-51  And one of them, named Caiaphas, being the high priest that same year, said to them, You know nothing at all,
 Nor consider that it is expedient for us, that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation perish not.
 And this spoke he not of himself: but being high priest that year, he prophesied that Jesus should die for that nation;
American King James Version×), the pope may not have fully grasped the eventual prophetic impact of his own words—especially when one understands key passages in the biblical book of Revelation in the light of what he said. (To understand further, please request or download our free booklets How to Understand Prophecy and The Book of Revelation Unveiled.)
Champion of the third world church
John Paul II possessed a massive global vision, extending far beyond the continent of Europe. As media commentator Michael Medved said, “He made the Catholic Church relevant again.” He greatly expanded Catholic numbers and influence in the developing world—most of all in Latin America, but to a large extent in Africa and Asia as well. Non-Italian appointments to key church positions increased considerably.
His was a forward-looking pontificate in understanding that the numbers and doctrinal conservatism he favored had to come, not from an increasingly secular and doctrinally liberal Europe or even the United States, but primarily from third world countries. The Times stated, “European and American Christians are outnumbered by their brothers and sisters in Africa, Asia and Latin America” (April 2).
Despite considerable pressure from the Vatican, the European Union would not even allow the word “God” into the new constitution (now in the process of ratification by the 25 members of the EU).
After John Paul II
What will happen to the Roman Catholic Church after praise and mourning for the pope diminishes with the passage of time?
In the short term the universal church may well be headed for intensified troubles. A feature article in USA Today highlighted the nature of the problem: “U.S. Catholics had a conflicted yet close relationship with the last pope. But how will they react to a new man who might be less charismatic or less tolerant of their disobedience? A pope with John Paul’s iron theological fist without his velvet glove?” (April 6).
American members of the Roman church have frequently been characterized as “cafeteria Catholics,” with selective obedience as their hallmark. For instance, according to the Alan Guttmacher Institute, “American women who say they’re Catholic have abortions at a slightly higher rate than all U.S. women” (ibid.).
And in an ominous article titled “The Next Pope Faces the Challenge of Holding [the] Catholic Church Together,” the writer quotes the words of John Cornwell, author of The Pope in Winter: “His successor will inherit a dysfunctional Church fraught with problems … A progressive pope, a papal Mikhail Gorbachev, could find himself presiding over a sudden and disastrous schism as conservatives refuse to accept the authenticity of progressive reforms” (Financial Times, April 2-3).
Long-term prophetic events
But in the long run, crucial events concerning the Roman Catholic Church will find their prophetic fulfillment. There are prophecies in the book of Revelation about a “Beast” power led by a supremely charismatic political leader.
He will be allied to a powerful religious figure God’s Word calls the False Prophet, who will work miracles by lying wonders and cause many people to proclaim allegiance to this new geopolitical power based in the heart of Europe.
On the surface it may even appear as a positive force for good, but in reality it will produce a great deal of evil in the world. All who have the courage to oppose it, including true Christians, will be ruthlessly persecuted and oppressed—even to the point of martyrdom.
John Paul II lived in momentous times. But even more momentous times lie ahead! GN