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The pontificate of John Paul II and the challenges of the Catholic Church in the 21st century


April 7, 2005
Copyright © 2005 CARIBBEAN BUSINESS. All Rights Reserved.

John Paul II, often called the Pilgrim of Peace, passed away last Saturday, leaving behind a pontificate legacy of 26 years. During this time, he faced major challenges in faith and in the church’s administration, many of which are still present as part of the agenda awaiting the next supreme pontiff. Among these demands are the growth of the Catholic Church, harmony in the ritual, and the increase in priestly vocations.

At last count, in 1998, there were one billion Roman Catholics throughout the world; 10 years earlier, there had been 900 million. In most regions, however, the proportion of the Catholic population has stayed the same or decreased, except in Africa, which has seen the most abundant source of conversions for some time. A closer look at one of the strongest Catholic regions finds a worrisome situation.

In Brazil, the greatest and most influential Catholic nation in Latin America, the proportion of people who call themselves Catholic decreased from 93% in 1950 to 80% in 2000. More importantly, out of this number, around 70% are nominal Catholics who don’t attend mass or practice their faith as the church dictates. In the majority of the regions of the world, as in Brazil, church attendance has decreased in the past two decades.

Mass itself has become heterogeneous. In Africa, ancient animistic practices have filtered into the liturgy despite Rome’s efforts to stop them; while in the developed world, revival practices such as faith-healing and speaking in tongues have emerged. This divergence has reached extreme departures, such as the "rock" ministry of Father Marcelo Rossi in Sao Paulo, who celebrates mass with aerobics.

Simultaneously, the Vatican (the Pope and his advisers) has lost its political hegemony. Traditional papal nations such as Spain and Ireland, for instance, legalized divorce; and Spain is on its way to allowing same-sex marriages. Similarly, Catholics in general act a piacere in matters of faith, practicing religion on their own terms, and at the margin of the traditional structures of prayer and penitence.

This didn’t begin during John Paul II’s papacy–in fact, Karol Józef Wojtyla knew this was taking place when he assumed Peter’s succession in 1978. He also realized much of this dissent stemmed from John XXIII’s efforts to modernize the Church in 1962. The Second Vatican Council initiated by John XXIII and culminated by Paul VI made efforts toward that direction, from the decentralization of the church to the renovation of the liturgy.

John Paul II chose not to continue that route, with the idea that only an unwavering church could propagate evangelical truth. He thus emphasized the sacredness of life and the essentiality of human dignity, which made for a strong shield for moral and social action. His opposition to abortion, euthanasia, and the death penalty and his support for charity and peace, gave Catholics a coherent model to follow that also served as a cohesive factor in the church.

This model also helped John Paul II find common cause and support among other churches, which allowed him to further the ecumenical agenda established by the Second Vatican Council. In this matter he achieved significant advances, although there is still much more to be done. This, in great part, will depend upon the priorities of the next pontiff, who will confront great challenges in the bosom of the church, such as priestly vocations.

Between 1990 and 2000, the number of Catholic priests barely increased from 401,930 to 404,626 throughout the world. The numbers have augmented principally in Africa, Asia, and South America, but have declined in developed countries; in many of these nations, as priests pass away or resign, they haven’t been replaced. In Milwaukee, for instance, it is estimated that half of the parishes will have no priests by 2016, and a similar situation is underway in Boston parishes.

Catholics everywhere openly pose diverse solutions to the aforementioned problem, such as the eradication of celibacy from these positions and the ordainment of women; nevertheless, solutions such as these represent problems themselves for the Holy See, which has been dominated by conservatism during the past several years. Although many clerics discuss them privately, and some even affirm their desirability, these alternatives aren’t present in any official agenda.

John Paul II was, without a doubt, a pope who used his intelligence and power to reinforce the church’s most conservative tendencies. This is why many wonder if the next pontiff will be a continuator, who will maintain the path the church has followed in the last quarter century; a figure of transition, who will retrace the path set forth by the Second Vatican Council; or an authentic reformist, who will push for a renovation in tune with the times.

Perhaps because this last alternative seems improbable, when priests and bishops speak about the changes they await under the next pope, they frequently express a wish for collegiality and subsidiarity. This is a desire for the promise made by the Second Vatican Council that the church become more open and consultative, where the pope, the Roman Curia (the central administrative body of the Church), the bishops, and the laity learn from, and work with, each other.

Whether this wish is fulfilled or not, the fact remains that the Roman Catholic Church faces great challenges in the 21st century, beginning with the preservation of its relevance in a world in which secularism is dominant and misery is omnipresent. In this context, will the church continue to be, with the next pope, a voice of change with a message of hope for humanity? And, more importantly, will it have the power to make itself heard at all levels?

This is yet to be seen. For now, what we are witnessing is the manifestation of grief in the Catholic people around the world for the loss of their shepherd. These demonstrations illustrate the bond of the church with this charismatic, idealistic, and inspiring man–who will be remembered for moving closer to the people than any other pope, for asking for forgiveness for past wrongs committed by members of the church, and for fulfilling his apostolate to the very limit that his strength would allow.

The author is managing editor of CARIBBEAN BUSINESS.

This Caribbean Business article appears courtesy of Casiano Communications.
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