THE NEXT JOHN PAUL II
By Christopher Walsh
Pope Benedict XVI stunned the Catholic world after announcing he would resign at the end of this month. In fairness, Pope Benedict XVI faced a thankless task after his election in 2005. His papacy existed within the long shadow of his predecessor: the beloved Pope John Paul II. Everything about the former Karol Józef Wojtyła inspired us. He grew up in Poland surviving under both Nazi occupation and Soviet dictatorship. Beyond his role as a faith leader, Pope John Paul II was a charismatic freedom activist, a scholar, a political force, a gifted mediator, and a talented soccer player who inspired Catholics and non-Catholics alike. He traveled throughout the world offering his support for democratic movements from South Africa to Chile. Even in his final years, in which he was debilitated by Parkinson’s disease, Pope John Paul II demonstrated his resolve to overcome adversity. As Pope, he was an enduring symbol of freedom and hope in an era where the threat of nuclear annihilation and international terrorism dominated most public discourse.
With news of Pope Benedict XVI’s impending resignation, the intrigue now shifts to speculation of who will lead the Church in a turbulent 21st-century world. In 1978, Pope John Paul II was an unexpected choice to assume the Vatican’s top spot, but he proved to be an ideal candidate for the time. As the first Polish Pope (and the first non-Italian since 1523), he was able to use his position as a global religious leader to influence democratic change in Soviet-dominated Central and Eastern Europe. No doubt his roots in that region played a part in his ability to inspire people and events there. The next Papal conclave might consider electing a successor that fits the mold of Pope John Paul II. By this, I mean a future Pope from the developing world who can champion peace and prosperity under conditions of greater individual freedom.
Catholicism is expanding in the developing world; the New York Times notes that 57 percent of Catholics now live in Latin America and Africa. Remembering the example of Pope John Paul II, imagine the impact a Latin American Pope might have on freedom in that region, Cuba for example. As the Church’s evangelization efforts continue in Africa, imagine the spotlight an African Pope might place on repressive countries like Ethiopia and Equatorial Guinea. Consider the gravity of an Asian Pope pressing China and North Korea on religious freedom and tolerance. Some interesting candidates highlighted by Foreign Policy include: Ghana’s Cardinal Peter Turkson, Argentina’s Cardinal Leonard Sandri, Nigeria’s Cardinal Francis Arinze, Brazil’s Cardinal Odilo Scherer, and the Philippines’ Cardinal Luis Tagle.
A Pope who advocates for freedom is not a silver bullet against tyranny, but as John Paul II demonstrated, the position can dramatically affect people and political forces. When next we see white smoke rising above Saint Peter’s Cathedral, it will be interesting to learn if we have a Pope who fits the mold of John Paul II.
Christopher Walsh is Program Coordinator for the Freedom Collection.