It took me a while to respect, then later admire John Paul II. At first I really didn’t like him.
Which was kind of strange, because it seemed like everyone else did like him. He was the first Polish Pope, the first non Italian Pope in over 400 years. But I began hearing about his more conservative positions on abortion and homosexuality and the roles of women and I began to get wary of him. As the early 1980s unfolded, he and Joseph Ratzinger began clamping down on dissident theologians and the liberation theologians in South America and my early impressions of this Pope were really not that good.
My attitudes began to change in the mid 1980s when I saw how involved he was in helping the Solidarity movement in Poland against communist rule. I’d watch the news and read the newspapers and see how the Polish people looked to John Paul II for inspiration for their quest for freedom and democracy. In 1986 he also held a prayer conference in Assissi with leaders of most of the major religions and they all prayed together. And when he visited the Bay Area, he made a point of visiting AIDs patients in San Francisco. These little surprises slowly chipped away at my earlier stereotypes of him as a rigid conservative authoritarian.
In the 1990s, as the Pope became more vulnerable, I began to like him more. I read a biography on him by Tad Szulc and learning about his background helped me to understand why he thought the way he did. He came out of World War II in Poland and he lost a lot of Jewish friends to the Holocaust, and the horrors of that war really affected him. So when he visited Synagogues and had dialogue with Jews, when he went out against the two Iraqi wars, when he talked out against the mistreatment of Muslims in the Bosnian Serbian conflict, it made sense to me. In light of the friends that he lost in the Holocaust, it must’ve really anguished him to see what was happening in the genocide in Rwanda.
At first it was tough for me to see the Pope in his deteriorated state, especially when I remembered the robust Pope of his earlier years. But then I read an article in Time where he wanted the world to see him in the state that he was in and to see the dignity in suffering. This was when I really started admiring his courage. The Pope John Paul II of his last years was the Pope I liked the best. He spent the entire year of 2000 apologizing on behalf of the Church for its various sins: he apologized to the Jews for the Church’s history of persecution, he apologized to the Muslims for the crusades, he apologized posthumously to Galileo. This was a noble thing that John Paul II did.
It’s been two years now, and it still seems strange to see Benedict as Pope. I still disagree with John Paul II on the same issues that I disagreed with in the beginning of his Papacy. But I agreed on a lot more of the things that he did. John Paul II was a lot more complex than I originally thought, more nuanced in his thinking. I didn’t really appreciate him until the later years of his Papacy, but I admire him now like I admire my dad. I didn’t always agree with him, but I admire him for his integrity and his wisdom.