It's been a long papacy beginning over a quarter-century ago in a humility so genuine and tender (and so non-Italian!) that Charlotte, the saintly spider could have spun her "humble" over the white cap that Karol Wojtyla put on when he became Pope John Paul II. His was the voice of the fall of Communism and much of the moral courage behind it. His was the voice of reconciliation between the Catholic Church and two millennia of excoriated Jews. But for years he's been ill. Today he is in every way incapacitated, beholden to his oldest obsessions and his most reactionary keepers.
What most students of the papacy agree on is that John Paul II has been blindsided by his own life. It's a syndrome that journalists recognize as "professional deformation." You'd leave East Germany or Poland so undone by the experience of the police state there that for a while you'd filter the rest of the world through the lens of that experience. You had to compensate for it, so when you looked at, say, the Catholic liberation movements of Latin America you saw "Red" instead of poverty, spiritual thirst and the first stirrings of empowerment. It's often acknowledge that for John Paul II, time stopped with Poland at the moment of its liberation. Like many children of authoritarian states, he absorbed strong lessons about claiming and enforcing power.
The pope is in fact an unrepentant populist. In the early 'eighties in Paris, he rushed through Mass and the whole hierarchy of notables present there and then rushed straight to the Chapel of Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal, a pilgrimage center where, 150 years earlier, a young novice had a vision of the Virgin. It was the kind of place where he preferred to pray; it was also the most frequented shrine in France (after Lourdes), a place of the people.
Close to a billion Catholics loved that road show. John Paul II spoke to their hearts, and they were spared the rigors of dissent. They were not involved in the politics of the Holy See, or party to the increasing isolation of this Pope and his very protective circle. Lately the pope has been as much a warrior against the consumer capitalism of the West as he was against the Communism of the East; but the truth is that most of his flock has no money with which to consume anything. The author James Carroll says, "The tragedy is that this man who was so steady a witness for justice in Eastern Europe completely missed the cry for justice in Latin America."
The Catholics who didn't love the papal road show were often the priests and bishops who had to hold together the pastoral life of the church (maintaining their parishes, celebrating Masses, raising money, and rendering service and hope) while the pope went looking for saints. He has made 245 official trips as of October, 2003, including those when he could barely speak. More than 470 people have been declared saints on his watch : that's more saints than were named by all previous popes put together. It's no secret that the priesthood is an institution in crisis, that seminaries are losing applicants, and that in much of the world it is Protestant Pentecostals that are responding pastorally to the needs of Christians.
The Vatican has refused to confront issues having to do with women priests, married priests and gay priests with anything but disgust and denial, let alone confront the problem of AIDS or abuse or even condoms. Today with the pope so ill, no one knows who's even doing or refusing to do, let alone making the decisions.
The church is exhausted, waiting for change. Msgr. Lorenzo Albacete (writer and theologian) says that the fatigue is so acute that cardinals he knows are hoping for another John Paul I: "Somebody smiling, somebody calm and private who writes letters to Pinocchio and will give the church some time to relax." James Carroll is thinking more in terms of someone like Mikhail Gorbachev: "...I used to think we needed another John XXIII. Now I think we need a Gorbachev, someone who says the days of the Party are over." Fr. Richard McBrien, a theologian at Notre Dame, hopes for anyone who is not beholden to power groups within the church : in particular to Opus Dei which is now the most politically powerful Catholic group in the world (and said to be the richest).
Albacete says the cardinals he knows were talking "almost as if this were going to be an election for Secretary General of the United Nations rather than for a religious leader. The issue isn't where any of the likely candidates stand on questions of authority or infallibility or church doctrine. They knew that already. What they want to discuss, what they want o hear, is how to prepare the church to respond to today's world : which is, after all, what the 1978 election of a Polish pope seemed to promise.