There are those who are already—perhaps prematurely—hailing Pope John Paul II as the greatest pope of this century. Because he reigned for more than 26 years, many of these same people admit that Pope John Paul II is the only pope they have ever known.
I am sad for those people, too young to have known the exhilaration of watching their Church be revolutionized with the gust of fresh air that Pope John XXIII brought to his flock with the Second Vatican Council in 1963.
As a child, I remember the spiritual excitement of suddenly hearing Mass said not in syllabic Latin but in a language I understood, joyfully playing guitars and tambourines—the instruments of our generation—in church, shaking hands with strangers during Mass for the first time, and adorning the altar with brightly decorated burlap banners we made ourselves. Or, watching the nuns slowly shed their scary, burqa-like habits and don a more approachable skirt-and-blouse outfit, and no longer having my mom embarrass me by putting my mucus-laden handkerchief on her head when she forgot to bring her mandatory mantilla ( lace head scarf ) to church.
Pope John XXIII was the architect of the new Catholic Church which was brought into synch with our modern world and we loved him for it. Because he modernized our Church for us, we thought Pope John XXIII was a great pope.
On the other end of the spectrum, one of the legacies of Pope John Paul II is destined to be, as noted by The New York Times, 'that of a man who used the tools of modernity to struggle against the modern world.'
With his passing, many of the wounds which have existed for decades in the Catholic Church are already beginning to re-open. Perhaps, to his credit, it was his personal charisma that kept so much hurt and alienation in his Church repressed; buried just beneath the surface. Is there a meaningful role for women in the infrastructure of the Catholic Church or will they continue to be relegated to their second-class support role? Pope John Paul II never answered the question, but how about the next Pope?
The Church, now without the 'Traveling Pope' as its head, will be forced to deal with other long ignored, yet highly relevant issues. For example the theological basis for continuing to require celibacy of its priests ( initially imposed to allow the Church to maintain control of its wealth ) , has created significant problems; the most important one is that the Catholic Church has seen a 22 percent loss in the total number of priests since John Paul II became pope.
John Paul leaves a Catholic Church that has yet to sufficiently atone for its institutional cover-up of the sexual abuse of the most vulnerable of its flock in America. John Paul never addressed the pedophilia scandal. His lack of leadership and institutionalizing of the problem has forced the Church to spend almost $1 billion in Boston alone ( the hardest hit ) in dealing with the painful scandal.
Not happy with denying women an important role in the church, John Paul II abused his authority by denying a woman's exclusive right to control her own health and reproduction. He constantly preached against the use of life-saving condoms ( especially in places like AIDS-battered Africa ) , going against all scientific data for the sake of 'morality.'
To his last breath he fought the reality of divorce and remarriage in the modern family. He used 'moral values' to stigmatize its heart-broken, gay and lesbian faithful while advocating 'human dignity' for everyone else. Not only did he vehemently fight civil marriage for same-sex couples, but he also fought the GLBT community for basic human rights. While Equality Illinois worked to pass SB 1632 adding sexual and gender orientation to the human-rights act of the state of Illinois, Cardinal George made personal calls to Illinois legislators threatening them with excommunication if they voted for the law. The law passed. The church has started a campaign trying to erode the rights attained by the law.
On April 18, the conclave to elect John Paul's successor begins. John Paul II elevated a large majority of the cardinals that will be voting for his successor, making the election of a modern pope quite unlikely. The Catholic Church has an opportunity to confront the difficult issues of our time and, where appropriate, begin the healing process. Perhaps the Holy Spirit will guide these cardinals in their choice and begin the healing of the Church's wounds. Just like the Jewish people, faith is still waiting for their Messiah, I am still waiting for the true successor of Pope John XXIII.