What Historians Are Saying About the Pope: Excerpts



HNN, 4-06-05

What Historians Are Saying About the Pope: Excerpts

By Bonnie Goodman

Ms. Goodman is a graduate student at Concordia University and an HNN intern.


• Pope John Paul II, the 264th Pope, was elected on October 16, 1978. He was the first-ever Slavic pope and the first non-Italian Pope in 455 years, and was installed when he was 58 years old, on October 22 (Sunday), 1978.
• When Pope John Paul II died on April 2, 2005, he was 84 years old, the third-longest reigning Pope, his pontifcate lasted 26 years, 5 months, and 17 days, or a total of 9,665 days.
• Historians rank John Paul as either the third or fourth longest-serving pope, depending on how many years they credit to St. Peter 2,000 years ago. (Knight Ridder News Service)
• Pope John Paul II appointed nearly all of the church’s top leaders, modernized and clarified the entire code of church laws, and supervised a complete revision of the catechism, the official summary of Catholic doctrine. (Knight Ridder News Service)
• In 1986, Pope John Paul II became the first pope to visit a synagogue.
• In 2001. Pope John Paul II made the first pontifical visit to a mosque in Damascus, Syria and tried to improve relations with Islamic leaders.
• Pope John Paul II ‘s 104 apostolic voyages outside Italy brought him to 129 different countries, and covered more than 725,000 miles.


Note: All material on this page except that which is in italics was copied from media accounts.

The Pope’s Legacy

Mary Segers, an expert in religion and politics who heads the political science department at Rutgers University in Newark

• “His legacy is tremendous.” She also noted his quest for social justice in developing countries. “He has constantly reminded the more affluent nations about that.” “He kind of modernized the papacy, he modernized the dress . . . [and] used modern media and communication to the hilt.”

Sister Edwarda Barry, historian at Georgian Court University in Lakewood, an institution founded and sponsored by the Catholic order, the Sister of Mercy

• “It has changed the church in making it more open and making it more involved in social affairs and society in general. I think there is more outreach, much more [of an] attempt to dialogue with people of other faiths, to bring peace.”

George Weigel, papal biographer

• ” The cardinals didn‘t have geopolitics in mind when they chose John Paul. Rather, they found him an attractive candidate because he was one of the world‘s most effective bishops — “an energetic, brilliant, holy and compelling personality.”
• The pope gave more attention to Africa “than any other world leader, or five world leaders,” during a quarter-century when “much of the Western political leadership was resigned to simply letting Africa fall off the edge of history. He refused to believe this.”

Eamon Duffy, church historian, writing in the Tablet, the international Catholic weekly newspaper

• “The tireless journeys which have made him the best-known face on the planet seem to some the self-immolation of a man consumed with evangelistic zeal and pastoral concern for all mankind – Peter strengthening his brethren.”
• “To others, they have distorted a healthy church order by the cult of celebrity, focusing the church round a consummate populist, reviving an essentially 19th-century ultramontane understanding of the pope as absolute, and in the process infantilizing the laity and marginalizing the bishops.”

Clodovis Boff, theologian and historian

• “He was a pope who fought for democratic liberties in Latin America. When he came to power there were many dictatorships still and he helped precipitate the re-democratization of Brazil” and most of the region.

Bob Bast, University of Tennessee assistant professor of history and director of the Marco Institute for Medieval and Renaissance Studies at UT

• “In a TV era, where his strengths or weaknesses would be magnified around the world, he’s got a great many more strengths than weaknesses.”
• “More than any other pope he has tried to heal the wounds caused by centuries of Christian anti-Semitism.”
• “He is a fascinating mixture of what appear to me to be traditional, even sometimes medieval influences, and extremely modern ones, and I think the world will be very interested to see which of these two faces the Catholic church presents in the next pontificate.”

Philip Jenkins, historian whose book The Next Christendom tracks the southward population shift

• Catholic baptisms in the Philippines now exceed those of France, Italy, Poland and Spain combined and that baptisms in Nigeria outnumber the total in any single European nation.
• Jenkins thinks the pope‘s main accomplishment was to consolidate Second Vatican Council reforms without either reverting to the church of the 1950s or following the path European and American liberals wanted by loosening moral tenets and taking a softer line on doctrine. The developing world‘s leverage undergirded that policy, he says.”A lot of Europeans and Americans got this wrong and saw the pope as mindlessly reactionary, whereas he focused on the Southern Hemisphere,” Jenkins says, citing the 2000 Vatican declaration “Dominus Iesus” that proclaimed the uniqueness of salvation through Jesus.

R. Scott Appleby, historian at the University of Notre Dame

• “The pope’s stance on the world stage ensured that his would be seen as “one of the greatest pontificates.” But, he added, the strength and focused vision that made the pope prophetic on some matters made him unwilling to embrace positive developments among his own faithful, such as the rise of the laity’s involvement and activism in the church. “There will be, I think, a harsher or more critical judgment on his internal governance of the church.”

Garry Wills, historian and author of Why I Am a Catholic among many other books

• “I think he will be seen as a failure. In many ways he undermined, gradually at first, … the reforms of the Vatican Council.”

On the Pope’s Involvement in the Fall of Communism and Relation with U.S. Presidents

Allan J. Lichtman, a presidential historian at American University in Washington

• It is only natural that U.S. presidents wanted to been seen with the globe-trotting pope from Poland. “He was a very charismatic, significant world figure with tens of millions of followers in the United States and hundreds of millions of followers worldwide.”
• Lichtman also said the magnetic appeal of John Paul II to U.S. presidents coincided with a lessening of anti-Catholic sentiment in the United States. “When Reagan established formal diplomatic relations with the Vatican, it was very controversial,” noting that Reagan sought the Rev. Billy Graham’s help in trying to smooth things over with evangelical leaders.

Timothy Garton Ash, an Oxford University historian

• “Without the pope, there probably would have been no peaceful end of communism as we saw it in 1989. Without the pope, there would have been no Solidarity movement; without Solidarity, there would have been no Gorbachev; without Gorbachev, there would have been no 1989. The pope was crucial at every stage.”

James Guth, a specialist in religion and politics at Furman University in Greenville, S.C.

• “Every American president, whether Republican or Democrat, could find elements of John Paul II’s agenda to agree with.Conservative Republicans identified with his role in the downfall of the Soviet communism, his concern for moral issues like abortion and euthanasia that have become part of the Republican party platform. At the same time, Democrats recognized the pope’s travels throughout the Third World, his identification with the poor of the world.”

Gordon Bishop, national award-winning author, historian and syndicated columnist. He is the recipient of 8 Congressional Commendations, 12 National and 15 State Journalism Awards, including New Jersey’s first “Journalist-of-the-Year” — 1986/New Jersey Press Association

• “Pope John Paul will go down in history as one of the world’s greatest leaders and humanitarians. He was a brilliant communicator, speaking a dozen languages to audiences of a half-million at major cities throughout the world. He was the author of nine best-selling books from 1994 until his final publication, Memory & Identity, due out next month. A prolific writer, speaker and historian, Pope John Paul took 104 international trips to 129 counties, more than any other Pope. His visits to the United Nations, Yankee Stadium, Newark, NJ and other major venues gave him the stature beyond “Super Star!” He was perhaps the most recognized name and face in the world.
• “The Pope met four times with another victim of an attempted assassination that same year – President Ronald Reagan. They got together twice in the Vatican and twice in the United States. The Pope and the President had a lot in common. They both were actors and gifted communicators. They were both Christians. And they worked hand-in-hand to bring down Communism and to liberate the oppressed people ruled by dictators. And they did it ‘without firing a single shot,’ as British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher noted. They stood up to the ‘Evil Empire’ – and won! Poland was liberated by the Polish Pope and the Solidarity workers union, whose leader, Lech Walesa, was given the Nobel Peace Prize. The Berlin Wall was torn down in Germany by freedom-fighting citizens. Reagan demanded that Soviet Leader Miguel Gorbachev ‘tear down this wall.’ And it fell. John Paul told Reagan in one of their meetings that “communism will fail in our time.”
• “Although the Pope was always opposed to war, John Paul did meet with President George W. Bush three times in Italy and the Vatican in 2001, 2002, and 2003. Bush declared war on Iraq after that country violated 17 United Nations’ resolutions in 13 years over the development and use of weapons of mass destruction.”

Jaroslav Pelikan, professor emeritus of history at Yale, is the author of the five-volume history The Christian Tradition, amomng other books

• “On June 3, 1979, a few months after Cardinal Karol Wojtyla became the first Slavic pope, he set out as the vision of his pontificate ”that this Polish pope, this Slav pope, should at this precise moment manifest the spiritual unity of Christian Europe,” even though ”there are two great traditions, that of the West and that of the East,” with roots in Old Rome and ”in the New Rome, at Constantinople.””
•”He spoke these words at a time when all the Slavic peoples, whether Orthodox or Catholic (or Protestant) were subject to the atheist tyranny of Marxism-Leninism, and one of his principal contributions to the realization of that vision was, in his native Poland but with ripple effects throughout the Soviet empire, to help set in motion powerful impulses of the mind and spirit — and of the Spirit –that would bring down the walls and topple the regimes.”
• “The relative importance of that contribution in comparison with Mikhail Gorbachev’s glasnost and Ronald Reagan’s defiance will continue to be debated by historians. But he did manage, by a curious form of divine irony, to answer the question attributed long before to Stalin: ‘How many divisions does the pope command?’ The spiritual rebirth of all the churches of Slavic Europe, which is going on even as we speak, is a major consequence of that revolution.”

Relations with the Jews

Sister Margherita Marchione is a member of the Religious Teachers Filippini and holds a Ph.D from Columbia University in History, was a Fulbright scholar, and is author of more than 50 books

• “No Pope throughout history did more than Pope John Paul II to create closer relations with the Jewish community, to oppose anti-Semitism, and to make certain that the evils of the Holocaust never occur again.”
• “Pope John Paul II visited the Chief Rabbi at the Synagogue in Rome in 1986 and declared that ‘the Jews are our dearly beloved brothers,’ and indeed ‘our elder brothers in faith.’ He requested forgiveness for past sins by Christians against Jews. He established full diplomatic relations between the Holy See and the State of Israel. Relations between the Catholic Church and Jewish people are presently marked by mutual respect and understanding.”
• “‘Peace’ was the clear message John Paul II gave on March 25, 2000, the last day of his stay in Jerusalem: ‘The honor given to the “Just Gentiles” by the state of Israel at Yad Vashem for having acted heroically to save Jews, sometimes to the point of giving their own lives, is a recognition that not even in the darkest hour is every light extinguished. That is why the Psalms and the entire Bible, though well aware of the human capacity for evil, also proclaims that evil will not have the last word.”

James Carroll, a Catholic and author of Constantine’s Sword: The Church and the Jews: A History, among other books

• “Despite [his] broad conservatism, he has … initiated the single most important change in the history of Christian religion, which is the reconciliation between Christians and Jews.”

On Mourning the Pope

Elena Aga Rossi, Rome historian

• “Already we can see a great mobilization of people unlike anything I’ve ever seen. I remember other funerals of other popes, but nothing like this. This is quite different.” She said the crowds already filling St. Peter’s Square are noteworthy because they represent all classes and all parts of the world. “I wouldn’t have imagined so many people all speaking about the pope. Nobody is talking about anything else. All other talk has stopped. This is quite exceptional.”

Father Paul Robicoht, a church historian, told CBS Early Show co-anchor Harry Smith

• “To walk through the piazza is an extraordinary experience because the whole world is down here. I would say half the people there are young.” “There are groups of young people singing, praying, leading chants. They’re still chanting his name. So there is a great sense of spirit and of energy in the piazza.”

On Choosing the Next Pope

Christopher Bellitto, assistant professor of history at Kean University and a church historian

• “It was Paul the Sixth, elected in 1963, who realized it is a brave new world and so we need a brave new college of cardinals.” So he began to appoint cardinals from countries that had never had cardinals before. And it is John Paul II who has turned that up to the tenth degree.”
• “About a quarter of the College of Cardinals are Curial cardinals, that is, they spend most of their time permanently appointed to some office in the Vatican,” he adds. “But many more of them are non-Italians, and that again dates back to Paul the Sixth. So saying someone’s a Curial cardinal is not the same thing as saying someone is Italian.”
• “History says that the opposite of what people are expecting is true. Whereas people are expecting a John Paul III or a John Paul II Jr., history says that the opposite will happen: There could be a reaction against the thrust of John Paul II’s papacy.”
• “Although the overwhelming majority of cardinals owe their red hats to John Paul II, they may be looking for a change. There is an expression in Rome that goes, ‘There is nothing deader than a dead pope.'”

James Hitchcock, a historian and church expert at Saint Louis University

• “Most cardinals don’t think a really long papacy will be a good idea, but with modern medicine if they elect a man who is 70, he could live until he was 95.”

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