John Paul II, Saint
As pope, John Paul II continued to implement the decisions of Vatican II and placed special emphasis on Marian devotion. He traveled widely, increasing the international character of the papacy. In the first decade alone of his pontificate he visited 50 countries, in spite of the physical setback caused by his being shot in St. Peter's Square on May 13, 1981, by a Turkish gunman. The Bulgarian secret service was subsequently implicated in the assassination attempt, which some have suggested was ordered by the Soviet Union, but nothing was conclusively proved.
Despite his increasing age and frailty, John Paul II continued to travel until nearly the end of the papacy, visiting 129 nations during 104 trips abroad. In 1998, for example, he visited Cuba; in 1999 he visited Romania and Georgia, becoming the first pope to visit predominantly Orthodox countries; in 2000 he visited the Holy Land; in 2001 he retraced St. Paul's missionary journeys in Greece, Syria, and Malta and visited Ukraine; and in 2002 he visited Azerbaijan, Bulgaria, Canada, Guatemala, and Mexico. He also expanded international representation in the College of Cardinals and Roman Curia.
John Paul pursued ecumenism (primarily with the Anglican Communion and Orthodox churches), although he was unsuccessful in arranging a visit to Russia, and took various steps to improve relations with Jews, including Vatican recognition of Israel and acknowledgment of Catholic failures in responding to the Holocaust. Conservative on doctrine and issues relating to women, he was also strongly critical of liberation theology and of those who called themselves Catholics yet continually questioned the church's teachings. In a 1995 encyclical he reasserted the church's condemnation of abortion, euthanasia, and capital punishment. However, he also considered it the church's responsibility to grapple with social questions and was an outspoken commentator on world events. John Paul issued two encyclicals (1981, 1991) on economic issues in which he praised free-market economies but criticized the inadequacies and injustices of both capitalism and Communism. He expressed his opposition to the imposition (1981) of martial law in Poland and used the resources of the church behind the scenes to support Solidarity prior to the collapse of Communism in his native country, actions that also helped bring about the eventual collapse of Communism generally in E Europe and the Soviet Union. His 1998 encyclical, Fides et Ratio, condemned both atheism and faith unsupported by reason and affirmed the place of reason and philosophy in religion.
A charismatic, forceful, and multilingual man whose own faith was marked by deep piety and mysticism, John Paul II humanized the papacy and managed to connect personally with the many thousands that gathered whenever he visited a foreign land. The days of his last illness, his lying in state, and his funeral drew millions to Rome and Vatican City, where large, often emotionally demonstrative crowds affirmed one last time how greatly he had altered the nature of the papacy and the world's expectations of a pope. He was succeeded by Benedict XVI. John Paul II was canonized in 2014 by Pope Francis.
See biographies by T. Szulc (1995), G. Weigel (1999), G. O'Connor (2005), and J. Cornwell (2005).
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2022, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.
See more Encyclopedia articles on: Roman Catholic Popes and Antipopes