The Catholic Cult of the Personality: Pope John Paul II (1920-2005)

A man born in the small Polish town of Wadowice on 18th May 1920 was the most recognised and recognisable man on this planet. He was neither a Hollywood star nor an international sporting figure, but he could have been both. He was goalkeeper for his school’s football team and dreamt of becoming a professional actor. Ironically, though, it was through an astute understanding of the global village, notably the increasing ease of international travel and the significance of television, that Karol Joseph Wojtyla became the living iconic figure of global religion. Befitting perhaps for the head of what some believe to be the most idolatrous of the major cults.

No doubt that Pope John Paul II was a charismatic figure. He had pin-up status amongst the Catholic youth, heroically survived an assassination attempt (thanks to the Virgin Mary he would later claim), and who can forget the Pope-mobile or the way he would kiss the ground every time he touched down in whatever land he was visiting? There may be fewer Catholics in Western Europe and the USA today then there were in 1978 when he began his Pontificate, but the total number of Catholics worldwide has risen in the past 27 years from 750 million to just over a billion, working out at about half of the total number of all Christians and one in six of the world’s total population. Of course, this is largely down to the Catholic mission in Africa.

John Paul II has been hailed as the ‘pope of popes’ and the ‘pope of the century’, and was Time magazine’s 1994 Man of the Year. It would, indeed, seem that his life has been historically charged. He is said to have recognised the evil of Stalin and Hitler, not necessarily an obvious thing to do at the time. Having witnessed the atrocities of the Holocaust, he did probably more than any other pope in history to promote Catholic-Jewish relations. He also tried to patch up things with the Orthodox Church and was the first pope to set foot in a mosque. And as recent events remind us, he also faced up to the paedophile priest scandals in the US, admitting that they filled him with sadness and shame.

Some even believe that his divine intervention brought about the end of the communist regime in his native Poland. In fact, there were suspicions in the early 1980s that the Vatican Bank was helping to fund Solidarity. Financial intervention, perhaps?

John Paul II may have been an intellectual, a polyglot, and a humanitarian, as well as the first non-Italian pope for over 450 years, but we cannot say that his was the first post-modern papacy. He was a traditionalist and he held the reigns of the Roman Catholic Church with an iron fist. In 1985 he declared that homosexuality was a moral evil and almost 20 years later, as the Anglican Church in the US ordained its first homosexual bishop (admittedly there was, and still is, some controversy), John Paul II condemned gay marriage as a societal pathology. Contraception also became a huge problem area during his Pontificate, and even with the threat of AIDS he preached against the use of condoms and continued to do so as the illness caused devastation amongst the growing Catholic communities in Africa. Abortion was also seen as evil and part of the ‘culture of death’ along with in-vitro fertilisation and embryology. But let us not forget, he was head of the Roman Catholic Church. What did we expect? Especially after years of what some saw as liberal abandon both in society and the Church itself.

It seems that it is this firmness that made him so popular. And it is perhaps this firmness that held the Catholic Church together during a time that has seen other socio-cultural centres either explode or implode. He was autocratic with the Church, but up close and personal with the people. The question is, though, could it all boil down to something as trite as the cult of the personality? What will be the legacy of John Paul II’s understanding of mass media?

John Paul II died on 2nd April 2005 following complications provoked by Parkinson’s Disease. The Vatican first circulated the announcement of his death by email.