On Sunday, March 14, Pope John Paul II became, the great St. Peter aside, the pope with the second-longest papacy in all of Christian history. Until now, the second place had been held by Leo XIII, who died in 1903, after having served as pope from 1878 until that time. Ironically, Leo had been elected at the ripe age of 78 in the belief (and hope) that his would probably be a short papacy, after the longest ever in the wake of St. Peter, that of Pius IX. The great “Pio Nono” had served for 31 long, controversial years. A strong-minded man, he had summoned and presided over the First Vatican Council not quite a decade before his death. Indeed, so strong had been his leadership that three of the 20th-century popes took his name, St. Pius X, Pius XI, and Pius XII, interrupted by Benedict XV.
The pope whose long term in office John Paul II just surpassed, Leo XIII, was a much quieter figure than Pius IX, more intellectual and more learned (they are not the same thing), and very wise. A humanist, he is the one who adopted St. Thomas Aquinas as the great model for Catholic thought, on account of his balance of faith and reason, his rich theory of the person and liberty, his grasp of the preeminence of wisdom and charity among the virtues of mind and will, his as it were international range of view–for that is, after all, what natural-law thinking is. Leo XIII was also the father of critical biblical studies among Roman Catholic scholars, a promoter of liturgical reform, and of renewed historical researches into the foundations of Christian thought. He was the pioneer of papal social and economic thinking, issuing his justly famous response to (and correction of) Marx, “Rerum Novarum,” in 1891. Leo XIII also wrote a series of encyclical letters on church and state that were, in effect, a prolonged and profound critique of secular, anti-religious liberalism, while also orienting Catholic thought toward a deeper focus on liberty.
In a word, Leo XIII was until John Paul II the most learned, world-engaging “teaching pope” of modern times, and the author of a set of long and scholarly encyclicals that are still much read and discussed. Few popes before him had written so many documents intended for the whole church around the world, and probably none had written so well or so profoundly. It seemed that the world might never see his like again, particularly when the 20th century turned out to be so thoroughly ripped apart by world wars and singular persecutions–worst of all, of the Jews in World War II, but also of Christians under both Nazism and Communism. More Christians were martyred or simply slain in mass numbers in that century than in any preceding era, and perhaps more than in all previous eras combined.
Nonetheless, the Lord somehow brought Karol Wojtyla out of the teeth of that storm, and in his intensive studies in modern philosophy and distinguished teaching career, Wojtyla gained distinctive intellectual strengths and broader horizons than any of his recent predecessors. His skills in languages and knowledge of several cultures, not to mention his hard face-to-face dealings with Communist adversaries, toughened his mind and deepened his quest for sustained, systematic reflection. He was able to rival Leo XIII, therefore, in the volume and quality of his intellectual output as pope. It will be a few decades before the church as a whole catches up with some of the initiatives he launched and some of the lines of thought he opened up.
As of March 14, he surpassed Leo XIII in the longevity of service in the papacy. The assassination attempt that badly wounded him early in his pontificate: a severe hip injury, which seems to have been badly reset and the source of much discomfort: and the rigors of his 102 world trips have made these unusually arduous years of service. Yet even in these infirmities, the world’s youth have seen evidence of his great good humor, in his banter with them at various World Youth Days. He has undoubtedly been in the physical presence of greater numbers of young people around the world–and indeed greater numbers of all peoples–than any other man in history. Crowds of five million, two million, and one million have attended his outdoor Masses and sermons in all parts of the world.
I once heard the great philosopher Alistair MacIntyre say of one of JP II’s encyclicals on moral thought, “Veritatis Splendor,” that it was the deepest and most subtle philosophical meditation on truth since Kierkegaard. “Centesimus Annus” is the greatest work among all papal letters on the free society, cultural, economic, and political; add his companion encyclicals, “Laborem Exercens” and “Sollicitudo Rei Socialis,” and you have the most distinguished body of reflections on the social and economic order produced by any religious body in any time. His path-breaking discourses on the theology of the human body may be the so far least noted of the bombshells he has left for future generations to unpack.
Those who are inclined to call John Paul II “John Paul the Great” do so because of the extent, range, and depth of his contributions in reshaping the horizons of the world in which we live, not only the political world (which perhaps more than anyone he contributed, with Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, to altering), but also the intellectual world. Although few would have thought it possible, JPII has surpassed Leo XIII not only in length of service, but in the range and depth and importance of his literary endowment.
We are a lucky generation to have had him as our pope.
To close with an un-Christian reflection, allow me to send greetings to a priest friend of mine who is no admirer of Pope John Paul II at all, who told me some years ago that he prayed every day that the pope will go soon to the heavenly destination he has devoutly longed for. My priest friend describes himself as a progressive Catholic, and the church of his romantic dreams he describes as the “Vatican II church.” Every day that John Paul II’s clear memory of Vatican II, at which as a young bishop (then archbishop) he was a leader, replaces those romantic illusions with a more accurate and rigorous reading, my priest friend dies a little.
“Father Dick,” I want to tell him, “It’s okay. You’re not losing an illusion, you’re gaining a more vigorous reality. Buck up! Look at what the world has gained these last 25-plus years! Promise you, he’s not likely to live more than 17 more years, when he reaches 100.”
Then I imagine 100,000 Poles singing in unison: “Stolat! Stolat! May you live 100 years!”
–Michael Novak is the winner of the 1994 Templeton Prize for progress in religion and the George Frederick Jewett Scholar in Religion, Philosophy, and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute. Novak’s own website is www.michaelnovak.net.