Zenon Kiszko's name or the role he played in the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe probably won't make it into any history books. Mr. Kiszko, the Communist Party's No. 2 man in Poland and "speaker" of the nominal parliament, certainly didn't know he was playing such a role in late 1962 and early 1963, but he was.
Mr. Kiszko held veto power over key church appointments. He already had nixed at least six of Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski's nominees to fill the important See of Krakow in southern Poland. In what has to be one of history's most monumental miscalculations, Mr. Kiszko schemed instead to have a young bishop named Karol Wojtyla [voh-TILL-ah] selected as Krakow's archbishop. Party leaders apparently thought the intellectual cleric was someone who wouldn't rock the boat.
And so it was that a committed communist leader ensured the rapid advancement of a priest who would go on to become Pope John Paul II, an unyielding force in the peaceful demise of Soviet-empowered communism.
Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, when cautioned during World War II against displeasing Pope Pius XII, mocked: "How many divisions does the pope have?" None was in sight in 1989, but communism in Eastern Europe was finished, and Pope John Paul II had been in the thick of the nonviolent battle.
Many of the world's estimated 1 billion Roman Catholics last week celebrated his 25th anniversary as pope. For news media worldwide, it was an opportunity to explore his legacy as his health rapidly deteriorated.
Karol Wojtyla was born into a devout Catholic family on May 18, 1920, in Wadowice, near the German border. Physically fit most of his life, he loved the outdoors, especially walking, biking, and skiing. Early on, he devoted himself to intellectual and artistic pursuits, becoming popular among fellow students and colleagues in the theater.
Other attributes throughout his years: a passion for God and holiness of life, rock-solid integrity, single-minded determination to accomplish the task at hand, unmistakable courage, concern for the poor and oppressed.
After Germany invaded and occupied Poland in 1939, the young Mr. Wojtyla left university classrooms and went to work in a quarry and a chemical factory. In 1942 he commenced studies for the priesthood in an underground seminary.
"It is good to resist," he told his countrymen. He clung to this principle throughout the Nazi and Soviet eras, as a priest, seminary professor, bishop, archbishop, and pope. He was by no means passive in resistance. For example, he confronted authorities, demanding building permits for churches and defending church ministry to young people.
On June 2, 1979, he stood in Warsaw's Victory Square. It was his first visit to his homeland as pope. Millions had come to see him as he traveled about. Scholar George Weigel, author of 992-page Witness to Hope, probably the best biography of John Paul II, describes the scene. The church had issued 230,000 tickets for the Mass at the square, but 300,000 people wedged themselves in, and more than twice that many filled surrounding streets. The pope began preaching what Mr. Weigel says may have been the greatest sermon of his life. It was about the sovereign power of God to transform life through redemption in Christ.
The crowd began to chant, "We want God, we want God." The pope boomed forth: "Christ cannot be kept out of the history of man in any part of the globe, at any longitude or latitude of geography. The exclusion of Christ from the history of man is an act against man. Without Christ it is impossible to understand the history of Poland." The crowd chanted, "We want God, we want God in the family, we want God in the schools, we want God in books, we want God."
Poland no longer was a communist country, Mr. Weigel wrote. "Poland was a Catholic nation saddled with a communist state."
But John Paul II will be known for much more than his opposition to totalitarianism. He was a human-rights campaigner, an advocate for the world's needy, and a blistering critic of the West for its secularism, materialism, and abandonment of moral values. He opposed war and dispatched emissaries to try to avoid or stop it. He was a defender of life when the world's dominant societies drifted toward what he called a "culture of death." He clamped down on doctrinal waywardness in academia; he wanted to ensure that Catholic higher education remained Catholic. He censured liberal prelates in Europe who wandered off the path doctrinally, and he sent some unrepentant scholars packing.
He also was a promoter of ecumenism, although ultimately he was unwilling to bridge the gap between Catholicism and Reformational Christianity. And this month he came down loudly and clearly on the side of conservatives in the Episcopal Church's conflict over a gay bishop and same-sex unions.
Many in his flock embrace him as a faithful shepherd, a compassionate pastor. Fluent in at least eight languages, he traveled to more than 100 countries (a papal record) to deliver the church's message and to shore up its members. A would-be assassin's bullet in 1981 and surgical operations didn't slow him down. Advancing age and Parkinson's disease did that. When Vatican insiders early this month suggested to reporters that he was dying, he summoned his reserves for one more trip-to Naples, where he was greeted by tens of thousands. So much for rumors, he seemed to imply impishly.
In 1960 he authored Love and Responsibility, a still significant book on marriage and sexuality. As pope, he wrote numerous scholarly essays and issued important encyclicals.
When still a bishop, he was a behind-the-scenes architect of Vatican II, the wide-ranging church council convened in 1962 by John XXIII and closed by Paul VI in 1965. The council drew up reforms aimed at helping the church come to grips with the modern world, and to lead Catholics into spiritual renewal. There were new freedoms. Contemporary touches enlivened church services, but the Mass remained at the core.
As a result of Vatican II, the Bible for many Catholics became an open book for the first time. This development gave rise in 1967 to the Catholic charismatic renewal movement. For years, it was the most vibrant and significant movement throughout the worldwide church. Through it, millions "rediscovered Jesus" and countless numbers of people discovered Him for the first time. John Paul II took delight in the spiritual transformations taking place, but also took steps to make sure the charismatic renewal remained under Rome's oversight.
Theological liberals in the church saw in Vatican II an opportunity to forward their agendas. But John Paul II, who reportedly had authored two primary Vatican II documents, dismayed the liberals by defining the boundaries of Vatican II and trying to keep people focused on its spiritual priorities. That wasn't good enough for hard-line conservatives who had opposed the reforms in the first place. They wanted to see Vatican II scrapped and the church "restored" to an earlier, traditional mode. The pope adhered to his middle course.
In some matters, John Paul II had to endure disappointment. Like Alexander Solzhenitsyn, he was dismayed to see many Eastern Europeans shed repression-refined values and commitment to the greater good soon after liberty came.
The pope found a church in shambles in 1978: Huge losses of priests and nuns had impaired its ministry. Twenty-five years later, the worldwide shortage of priests persists. Those serving are aging, and seminaries see decreasing enrollments. Catholic schools are trying to cope with the loss of hundreds of thousands of nuns.
The clergy sex-abuse scandal in America and elsewhere hurt: John Paul II, an advocate of sexuality based on biblical standards, was betrayed by hundreds of his own priests. He lamented to visiting priests from the Philippines this month that the transgressions of a relative few have tainted the work of the entire clergy. He issued an apology to victims of abuse, but critics said he should have come down sooner and harder on the abusers and the bishops who shielded them.
His strenuous effort to reach out and end estrangement with the Russian Orthodox Church over church members and property remains a matter of unfinished business. So does the debate between evangelical and Roman Catholic theologians-but overall many Catholic and Protestant conservatives give Karol Wojtyla more pluses than minuses. Although he adheres to traditional Catholic teaching, Catholic scholar Michael Novak and Anglican theologian J.I. Packer see him confronting a post-Christian culture in much the same way that some evangelical Protestant thinkers do.
Catholic philosopher Eduardo Echeverria notes that for both John Paul II and such evangelicals, "Christian spirituality is based on the biblical affirmation that 'Jesus Christ is Lord' (Philippians 2:11) over the whole of life, including culture, and that the whole of life is under God's blessing, judgment, and redeeming purposes." John Paul II's intellectual vigor, compassion, and love for people will be needed by his successor-and by all of us.