You met with Pope John Paul II in October. What was that experience like?
It was amazing to be in the first row of “special guests,” only a few feet from the Pope. Even though the morning was overcast and included a brief downpour, about 20,000 people gathered in St. Peter’s Square to see the Pope and hear his reflections on Psalm 49. After the general audience was over, we were escorted in front of the Pope. After introducing James Buchanan, Rabbi Abie Ingber and Yaffa Eliach, I explained to the Holy Father the nature of our project [creating an exhibit titled A Blessing to One Another: Pope John Paul II and the Jewish People] and said that we wished to honor him by having the exhibit premiere on his 85th birthday, May 18, 2005. It was a very special moment.
What feelings did you take away in terms of his health and awareness?
I was quite surprised at how strong he appeared to be. I had expected an aide to read at least some of his remarks during the audience, but the Holy Father read all of his prepared remarks in six languages. When we spoke with him, his attention was clearly focused on us. I could tell that he understood what I was saying because he nodded approvingly or smiled at those points in our presentation when one would anticipate such a reaction. Of course, the physical toll of the Parkinson’s disease and other ailments were evident by his slightly slumped posture and his limited range of movement.
What feelings did you take away in terms of his presence?
I was struck by his strength of will. It was not easy for him to sit for more than an hour and a half in damp fall weather outside, but he persevered through the general audience. He seemed energized by the crowd. As different language groups were recognized, some would shout out the Holy Father’s name or burst into song. He responded by waving and showing his gratitude for their affirmation.
It can be difficult to see historical context as events are happening, but how do you think history will view him?
I think history will view him as a charismatic and very influential pope, who sought to build bridges of understanding to other churches and other religions while simultaneously erecting clear boundaries around the Catholic Church. I imagine that history will see him as a pope whose formative experiences in Poland—the need for a strong, unified church in the context of political repression; the church’s need for a strong, countercultural stance; a rich piety and distinctive Catholic devotion—such as devotion to Mary—left an indelible imprint on his decisions and achievements as pope.
What sets him apart from the popes who preceded him?
He was the first non-Italian pope to be elected in the last four-and-a-half centuries; the youngest pope in more than a century; the most traveled pope ever, visiting more than 130 countries and traveling more than 750,000 miles; the first pope to engage in commercial book ventures; the first pope to have his life portrayed in a comic book. He has beatified more people and declared more saints than any pope in history. After the time of St. Peter, he has the second longest papacy in history. Consequently, his vision will live on in the men he has appointed to leadership in the church. He has appointed more than half of all the bishops in the world and more than 90 percent of the cardinals, who will choose his successor.
What will be the pope’s legacy?
One of his most important legacies is that he has fostered relationships and dialogue between the religious leaders of the world. He has arguably done more for interreligious relationships than any other person in history. He has also been seen in person by more people than probably any other figure in history.
Another legacy will be a more culturally diverse and global leadership structure in the church. He has made the College of Cardinals and the Curia more international by reducing the percentage of Europeans and increasing the percentage of Asians, Africans, and Latin Americans in prominent positions. This reflects the changing demographics of the worldwide church.
Another legacy will be his clear voice in defense of human dignity and human rights, expressed in many of the 14 encyclicals he wrote during his pontificate.
Another challenge for the next pope will be how to discern if and how the church might need to change [e.g., the issue of married priests] in response to changes within church and society, and how to respond effectively to the post-modern appreciation of relativity in Western nations and the resistance to post-modernism in other parts of the world-church.
Speaking as a theologian, how would you characterize John Paul II?
Pope John Paul II has sought to keep the church faithful to his understanding of Jesus’ message and to the traditions of the church. On the one hand, this has meant an evangelizing outreach to all people and an insistence upon the protection and the promotion of human dignity. He has championed a consistent ethic of respect for life, from conception to death. And he has spoken out loudly in support of political freedom and human rights, world peace and economic rights.
On the other hand, this has meant setting firm parameters to acceptable theological speculation and to what counts as “Catholic.” He has reaffirmed traditional moral teaching concerning artificial contraception, abortion and homosexual activity and denied the permissibility of female ordination. He has established new guidelines, backed up by church law, that seek to regulate more strictly the nature and the work of Catholic seminaries, colleges, universities and hospitals.
On account of this dual nature of his papacy, some people say that he is liberal on social issues but conservative on theological issues. Yet, I think that he would reject both the conservative and the liberal labels. I suspect that he would say that he is trying to be faithful to the demands of the gospel and the demands of his office, as he understands them, and that these demands are not in tension with each other.
What do you see as his defining moments?
I would include his trip to Poland in 1979 and his support for the Solidarity Trade Union, which emboldened his native countrymen and women to work for radical change. The collapse of Communism in Poland caused significant ripple effects, contributing to the fall of the Iron Curtain.
The Pope’s trip to the synagogue of Rome in 1986 was another defining moment. He was the first pope since the time of St. Peter to enter a synagogue. He spoke appreciatively of Jews as Christians’ “elder brothers.” This event was perhaps the most dramatic expression of his desire to build bridges of greater understanding between the Catholic Church and other religions. It was followed by a series of other events, both with regard to Jews and Judaism [e.g. establishing diplomatic relations with Israel] and with regard to Islam [He was the first pope to enter a mosque], etc. He brought together at Assisi leaders of the world religions for a World Day of Prayer for Peace in 1986, 1993 and 2002.
A third defining moment is actually a series of moments. Early in his papacy, Pope John Paul II set into motion the promulgation of church legislation that would draw more sharply and clearly the borders of Catholic faith and practice: a revised Code of Canon Law, the Oath of Fidelity, the Apostolic Constitution on Catholic Colleges and Universities, the Catechism of the Catholic Church.