After I suggested that St. Bernard of Clairvaux was the most influential saint of his time, I received quite a lot of reader mail and comments suggesting that his influence in his time will be surpassed by Blessed Pope John Paul II in this past century—quite an extraordinary claim, given that he passed just a few years ago and has yet to be even formally declared a saint.
Here’s why readers think John Paul the II merits such a distinction:
■ Downfall of communism: One reader writes: “He brought down the Soviet Union; he brought many people including me … back to the faith. I know what Bernard did but I think JP surpassed him buy a mile. Bernard persuaded people to go on Crusade but he didn’t cause the collapse of Islam whereas JP not only encouraged Solidarity but brought about the collapse of the system that was oppressing people.” To any skeptics out there—this is no exaggeration. For any questions about how influential John Paul II was in bringing an end to communism, perhaps even exceeding the role of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, I recommend the documentary, Nine Days that Changed the World.
■ Extraordinary public witness to faith: Another reader summed it up pretty well in the comments section: “His influence goes well beyond his absolutely compelling personal odyssey from actor/athlete to intellectual, to resistance against fascists, to underground seminarian, to priest, to academic and mystic, to bishop, to Council father, to Pope, and his personal example of forgiving his would-be assassin, and his public decline and suffering in faith.”
■ Post-Vatican II confusion: As compelling as that all is, the (same) reader added, we also have to consider John Paul II’s role in bringing the Church back from the brink of the chaos of the so-called post-Vatican II “spirit”—a “monumental feat in of itself.”
■ Theology of the Body: “And if all that weren’t enough, he articulated a counter ideology to the enlightenment dualism which has led to the moral chaos which is otherwise destroying our culture,” the reader continued. “His Theology of the Body is the light which will guide the church in her mission to counter the cultural darkness of our day.”
■ A universally recognized force for good: John Paul II would have been a “world power” no matter what he ended up doing for a living, wrote another reader. As a priest, bishop, and then a pope, John Paul perhaps went further than he ever could in a secular calling, becoming a “force for good that pretty much everyone recognized,” the reader said—no small feat indeed in our highly secularized world.
I am compelled to agree: John Paul II is an excellent candidate to be considered the most influential saint of his time.
And I’ll mention two more reasons of my own:
■ Transformed the papacy: John Paul II absolutely transformed the papacy, demonstrating that, like the faith it exists to defend and preserve, it’s an institution that is at once both ancient and ever new. John Paul II showed that the papacy is an institution that is not only relevant in the era of globalization and information technology—if not more so than in recent past centuries—but also directly meaningful to the everyday spiritual lives of the faithful. He redefined what a Pope is expected to do and how’s he’s supposed to carry himself in the public eye. And he achieved near-universal popularity and respect on the world stage, while vigorously standing by some of the Church’s most controversial and unpopular teachings (contraception, abortion, chastity).
■ Steps towards communion with Eastern Orthodox: The Vatican and the Russian Patriarch are taking small steps towards improving their relationship, but those could become giant leaps forward toward renewing communion between Catholicism and the Eastern Orthodox. This may be many decades down the road, but if it happens, the first steps were taken during the papacy of John Paul II and so he should be credited having the vision to set that process in motion.
But I’m inclined to give history a chance to render its verdict. My guess is the verdict will be in the affirmative, but only time will tell.
Coming next week…. other saints readers nominated as the most influential of their time.