by Colleen Carroll Campbell
How do you summarize the legacy of a towering figure like Pope John Paul II, a man whose charismatic leadership precipitated the collapse of communism, thawed centuries of hostility between the Catholic Church and other religions and led him to log enough miles during his 26-year pontificate to circumnavigate the globe 30 times? Summarizing the late pope’s influence on my own life is only slightly less daunting, given that when he died in 2005, John Paul was the only pope I had ever known.
Like most Catholics of my generation, I grew up seeing John Paul as a sort of permanent fixture on the world stage. He seemed to be everywhere: boldly defending religious freedom in the heart of communist Poland, generously forgiving his would-be assassin in that bleak Roman prison cell, jovially greeting the pulsing throngs of teens and young adults who cheered him at World Youth Day gatherings from Denver to Manila. His dramatic witness to the Gospel impressed me from afar, but it was only after I saw that witness in person that I began to take a closer look at the man and his message.
In 1999, during John Paul’s visit to St. Louis, I was serving as the youngest member of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch editorial board and fielding questions from my puzzled baby boomer colleagues who wanted to know why my peers were flocking to see this frail, palsied, septuagenarian. Youth is the time to rebel against authorities, not embrace them, they said. Why are young Catholics so crazy about the pope?
Their questions intrigued me. Even more intriguing was the evident power of John Paul’s message as he delivered it in a downtown arena packed to the rafters that January night. Throngs of young Catholics wept and cheered as the pope exhorted them to embrace self-sacrifice, sexual purity and service to the Gospel. Watching his youth ministry in action planted the seeds for my book, The New Faithful: Why Young Adults Are Embracing Christian Orthodoxy (Loyola, 2002), a study of the religious commitments of young Christians that I undertook with the help of a Phillips Journalism Fellowship and a year-long sabbatical from my newspaper job.
The conversion stories I chronicled in The New Faithful varied, as did the denominational affiliations of my interviewees. But one theme emerged again and again among these twenty- and thirty-something Americans: their hunger for a bold, authentic proclamation of Gospel values in our secular age and their identification of John Paul as a leader who embodied that holy boldness.
The widespread admiration for John Paul and his writings that I encountered while researching The New Faithful nudged me to examine those writings myself. When I did, I discovered that this poet, actor and philosopher had another interest, one often overlooked by feminist critics of the Catholic Church’s all-male priesthood. He was a staunch defender of the dignity of women.
In his landmark 1988 Apostolic Letter “On the Dignity and Vocation of Women”, John Paul made the biblical case for women’s equality with men while also defending the reality and richness of differences between the sexes. He identified women as crucial agents of culture change in our technocratic age, thanks to the person-centered focus he saw as particularly pronounced among women. His 1995 “Letter to Women” served as an extended thank-you note to women in all walks of life, one that acknowledged the reality of sexism and called for women’s full integration “into social, political and economic life”. John Paul even included a special reflection on women in his 1995 encyclical “The Gospel of Life”, in which he called for a “new feminism” that “rejects the temptation of imitating models of ‘male domination’ in order to acknowledge and affirm the true genius of women in every aspect of the life of society, and overcome all discrimination, violence and exploitation”.
Reading such writings and watching the actions of the man behind them, I gradually grew in esteem for the late pope. My admiration only deepened at the end of John Paul’s life, when I saw him heroically embrace the suffering of severe Parkinson’s as his share in the cross of Christ. Pope John Paul was not without his blind spots and his papacy was not perfect. Even so, his luminous witness to Christ made him a beacon in a dark world. And his new designation as “Blessed John Paul” is fitting, for that’s exactly what he was for me and millions like me: a blessing.
Colleen Carroll Campbell is host of EWTN’s “Faith & Culture” series and a member of the Voices editorial board. She lives in St. Louis with her husband and children. Her web site is colleen-campbell.com. This column originally appeared in The Washington Post, April 29, 2011 (“Pope John Paul II: staunch defender of the dignity of women”).
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