9 Reasons Pope John Paul II mattered
Pope John Paul II in a file photo
January 14th, 2011
03:14 PM ET

9 Reasons Pope John Paul II mattered

By Dan Gilgoff, CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor

Pope John Paul II is in the news today in a big way, with the Vatican announcing he will be beatified in May - the last step before sainthood.

Most people know that John Paul was hugely important - one of the most consequential popes in history - without exactly knowing why.

Here are 9 reasons:

1. John Paul II turned the role of pontiff into global celebrity. "He was the first pop pope," says Stephen Prothero, a Boston University religion professor and CNN Belief Blog contributor. "Although rather conservative theologically he was the first to marry the papacy to the cult of celebrity."

2. He made people rethink the Catholic Church, updating its image and strengthening its influence with everyday people and world leaders alike, through a vigorous campaign of global engagement. "For the most part popes had been viewed as old Italian guys in white sitting on some gilded baroque throne in Rome," says David Gibson, who has authored multiple books on the papacy. "But in demonstrating a willingness to think and act outside the papal box, John Paul inspired many Catholics and, just as important, he made billions of others look at the Catholic Church in a new way."

"John Paul II embodied in change in so many ways," Gibson says, "that he seemed to signal to the world that the Catholic Church could be as agile as any institution in the modern world."

3. He left Rome. A lot. John Paul II was the first globetrotting pope, drawing huge crowds in corners of the world that no pope had ever visited. "He broke out of the golden cage of the Vatican and its protocols and took the papacy to the world rather than expecting the world to follow the road to Rome," says  Gibson. And people responded. When John Paul II celebrated mass at Grant Park in Chicago - a city no pope had visited before - in 1979, 1.2 million people showed up.

4. He helped end Communism. A year after his election to the papacy, John Paul returned to his native Poland to "strengthen the brethren" there in the face of Soviet rule. His visit, in which he repeatedly told Poles "Don't be Afraid," helped inspire the launch of the Solidarity in Poland, the most powerful anti-communist movement until that time, which in turn triggered similar resistance across the Soviet Union. When Communism collapsed in 1989, many credited John Paul with helping lay the groundwork.

5. He was one of the world's great communicators. Fluent in 8 languages, the John Paul II often addressed audiences in their native tongue. "He spoke everyone else’s language, and his Latin wasn’t so great," says Gibson. And he wasn't shy about using the media to get his message out. 'If it doesn’t happen on TV, it doesn’t happen,” John Paul used to say, according to Gibson.

And he was even more effective in person. "Almost everyone who ever met him describes it exactly the same way, that when he was speaking with you, it was as if you were the only person in the world," says Joseph Zwilling, who directs communications for the Catholic Archdiocese of New York. "He saw in every person a real reflection of the image and likeness of God, and lived that out in a radical way."

Even when he was suffering from Parkinson's late in life, Pope John Paul was unafraid to be seen. "His willingness to appear in public bearing the effects of Parkinson's reminded the world that for the Christian, suffering is nothing to be ashamed of, or hidden away," says James Martin, a Jesuit writer.

6. More than previous popes, he inspired young people, the lifeblood of any religious tradition. John Paul II "logged hundreds of thousands of miles in tours that brought vast crowds of adoring adolescents," says Prothero. Adds Tom McClusky, director of government relations for the conservative Family Research Council in Washington: "He empowered youth throughout the world to make holiness a part of their lives."

7. While revolutionizing the papacy, he strictly adhered to traditional church teaching. "Change is often seen as a dirty word in the church, as though altering the smallest custom or tradition would start a crack in the entire edifice of faith," says Gibson. But John Paul reaffirmed the church's conservative stances on social issues like abortion and contraception, signaling a change of course after what some saw as the more liberal reforms of the Second Vatican Council.

"He ended the dominance of liberation theology... revivified the grandeur of traditional Catholic liturgy, and he reconnected Catholic social teaching to the witness of scripture," says Deal W. Hudson president of Catholic Advocate.

"John Paul II energized the 'evangelical' wing of the Catholic Church, meaning Catholics who embrace church teaching and want to take it to the streets to change the culture, which in the United States you see most clearly on the 'life issues' such as abortion and gay marriage," adds John Allen, Jr. CNN's Vatican analyst. "There’s now a whole generation of younger 'John Paul II' priests and bishops who share that mindset.

8. John Paul reset Catholic relations with other religious traditions. He was the first pope to visit a synagogue and a mosque. "Many Jews think of him as the greatest pope in history," says Allen. "He also managed to pioneer better relations with Islam - two pretty remarkable things to have accomplished at the same time."

He also improved Catholicism's relationship with other Christian traditions. "John Paul II won an unprecedented level of respect for the Catholic Church among evangelical Christians, removing the anti-Catholic tinge of much of their preaching, teaching, and cultural commentary," says Hudson.

9. He de-Italianized the papacy, the first pope born outside of Italy in centuries.

- CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor

Filed under: Catholic Church • Leaders • Pope John Paul II • Vatican

soundoff (465 Responses)
  1. TChiriac


    January 17, 2011 at 5:27 pm |
  2. Paul

    Well, in spite of the vast differences between Catholics and evangelicals, I believe our points of agreement provide us with common ground through which we can share and discuss the gospel in love and with understanding.

    January 17, 2011 at 1:51 pm |
  3. Muneef

    Birds : A Lesson For You And Me
    by Asma bint Shameem

    January 17, 2011 at 1:28 pm |
  4. Amber

    Sainthood, this is laughable. All come short of the glory of God, all is with sin, including the Pope. The catholic church worshipped 'themselves'.

    January 17, 2011 at 12:51 pm |
  5. Bitwd

    This man is such an inspiration.

    January 17, 2011 at 11:58 am |
  6. brad

    Something needs to be clarified: the spread of AIDS is caused by copulation, not church teaching. Even Dawkins in his emotional outbirsts hasn't grasped this.

    January 17, 2011 at 9:27 am |
  7. MARIA

    This is a man who helped cover upfor those priests who abused children! Hardly a saint he knew more than anyone what was going on and DID NOTHING!!!!

    January 17, 2011 at 8:36 am |
  8. Father Leonard Feeney

    "Outside the Church, There is no Salvation."

    January 17, 2011 at 8:00 am |
  9. Muneef


    January 17, 2011 at 6:25 am |
  10. brad

    "Well if God didn't Exist, there'd be NO Agnostics or Atheists.."
    "I'd rather spend my life believing in something and find out there's nothing, then believing in nothing and dying and finding out there was something, and losing EVERYTHING"
    We are gonig to spend FAR more time on the OTHER SIDE OF death than This side.. is your belief in NOTHING so strong, you are willing to RISK where eternity may take you? Eternity is a LONG time be WRONG!

    January 16, 2011 at 9:47 pm |
  11. Muneef

    Woo what a fight glad it is over...

    January 16, 2011 at 9:08 pm |
  12. Joyce

    All scripture is inspired by the Holy Spirit.

    January 16, 2011 at 8:47 pm |
    • Muneef

      Even mankind has a holy spirit within him..;
      There are the words by Holy Spirit.
      There are the words by the Satan.
      Who could have inspired man to write... But then it is up to mans mind and heart to find out which is which...

      January 16, 2011 at 9:15 pm |
  13. Anchalee/Thailand

    I m a protestant but i love john Paul II, I see the glory of God above him, no matter he will promote to be sainthood or not.
    God know his worked in this world well. And he done, he left all good things in the world best as best of one man can do.

    Thanks God for him.

    January 16, 2011 at 8:24 pm |
  14. devin

    Catholic church as agile is about the funniest thing I've heard in a long time. Anyone who thinks he had a significant role in ending communism is Catholic and a misguided historian.

    January 16, 2011 at 7:56 pm |
  15. Jeff

    For those that say that the Catholic Church covered up for abusive priest, what about the Protestant Churches that covered up for their abusive ministers? Pray doesn't work? Prove it. Those that go to church, temples, synagogues, etc are weak minded? I beg to differ. I have a friend who is a commercial pilot and a devout Christian. All faiths have their faults. When will mankind get along?

    January 16, 2011 at 6:21 pm |
  16. CatholicMom

    My posts are not going where they should; so, Deja, you will find that I did answer your January 16th post if you will scan through the whole page! Sorry! It seems lately when the comments climb to over 300 posts this becomes a problem no matter what you are commenting on.

    January 16, 2011 at 5:19 pm |
  17. CatholicMom

    I posted to you but it 'fly' up and landed about 55 or so posts above where it should have gone....

    January 16, 2011 at 5:12 pm |
  18. CatholicMom


    Mary is the one that God chose to bring Jesus Christ to us; there is good reason to believe that through her intercession she will lead us to her Son who is in Heaven seated at the right-hand of the Father…. She asks of us… ‘do whatever He tells you.’ A demon would not ask you to do whatever Jesus asks of us because it would strengthen our ties to Jesus and weaken the demon’s hold on us.

    Think about this….are you a child of God? Yes; God is your Father ….He made you.

    Jesus is the Son of God. You are Jesus’ brother or sister because you are a child of God… called brethren in the Bible.

    Mary is the Mother of Jesus [God!] She is our Mother. Also Jesus gave us Mary as our Mother at the foot of the Cross when He said, ‘Behold your Mother.’

    Is not one of the commandments to honor your Mother? Would Jesus obey His own commandments? Yes…He was Baptized, too!

    One way that He honored Mary was to save her [preserve her] from sin at her conception. We honor Mary but do not worship her since worship is for God alone; we honor her and pet!tion her. We pray “Hail, Mary, full of grace” [which means not just touched by grace but ‘full’ with no room left-over for sin]; the Lord is with thee, Blessed art thou amongst women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death.’ Amen. We are praying the Bible when we say this prayer, all except for the last sentence when we pet!tion her to pray for us.

    Some wish to argue that Mary is only the Mother of Jesus the man God, trying to say she only gave Him His human nature… but no, Jesus has a human and divine nature which the Church calls hypostatic union.
    [google: hypostatic union catholic encyclopedia ]

    If Jesus honors Mary can we go wrong in doing the same? NO! Should we not emulate Jesus in everything?! Yes, in everything!

    Didn’t Jesus Christ found His Church on Peter and we know this to be the Catholic Church? Yes. Did He not promise to bring the Apostles and their successors to all remembrance of what He told them? Did He not say that He would bring them into Truth as we can bear it? Yes. So in that light, I believe that if the Church approves an apparition as true we are to believe it as Truth because the Holy Spirit promised to guide and guard His Church and promised evil would not prevail against it.

    I look to the Church for the Truth…Truth in interpreting the Bible, in following the commandments, and believe the Magesterium in pronouncements on faith and morals as Truth.

    Now for the fun of it…you can believe that anchovy pizza is the best because you heard that perhaps the Pope says it is…. I would have to disagree with him! But on things that matter, and even if it isn’t on faith and morals, I listen because I think the Pope is extremely wise.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FZ2eKC2q4VE view this to see the incorrupt body of a visionary of Fatima.

    The Church has approved some visions. Many people have their own private visions and we can believe them or not if they should tell us about them. It appears that many who had visions of the religious kind have received the phenomenon of incorrupt bodies upon dying. Which I tend to personally think has merit in the Truth of the vision.

    I hope I covered all your questions…at least I tried, Deja!

    January 16, 2011 at 5:07 pm |
  19. lisa

    OK, here's the thing with priest molestation. Everyone seems to think the Pope knows what is going on in all the Dioceses of the world. And while he is responsible for his priests and their behavior, it is difficult to know how much he knew. Firstly, bishops may run their diocese as they see fit meaning that if they wanted to hide things it would be easy to do. They don't HAVE to report everything to the pope. Also, alot of priest abuse happened before John Paul II was pope. HOw much did he know on his watch? I don't think anyone can reliably say until evidence is brought forward. The investigation into sainthood is intense. This is just a first step. If there is anything to disqualify him, it will come out.

    January 16, 2011 at 2:33 pm |
  20. tallulah13

    I have read about the life and death of John Paul 1. There is a very good case made for a natural death. He was not the healthiest of men, and the stress of being elected to the position of such huge responsibility, which he did not want, took it's toll. I'm all for a good conspiracy theory, but I think in this case, somebody is crying murder to sell a few books. (please excuse me if this is a second post. CNN is being REALLY weird.)

    January 16, 2011 at 12:55 pm |
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9
About this blog

The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.