Karol Jozef Wojtyla abhorred stillness. It meant stagnation and denial. The man with a ruddy face who kept on waving in benediction and forgiveness, was always on the move, selling salvation in return for nothing but an affirmation in the ways of God. How many tarmacs he kissed-129 countries, 800,000 air miles. And how many millions kissed his ring. He was the jet-setting spiritual superman with rock-star appeal who could not afford to remain still in the frescoed chapels of the Vatican. The godless ideology was promising an alternative Eden. Science was altering the sacred laws of creation. The market was dividing mankind. And theologies with revolutionary pretences were shaking Peter's rock. The sanctity of life was at stake and he, the one who survived fascism, communism and the assassin's bullet, had the mandate to mediate between the sins of man and the wrath of God. He did, till illness confined him to his apostolic apartment above St Peter's Square. He suffered, in grace, in dignity, and when darkness fell behind the window through which the world saw one of history's most audacious liberators withering away, when bells tolled in St Peter's Basilica on a solemn Saturday night, it was the end of an epic in faith and fearlessness. Pope John Paul II was the great transformational force of Christ's second millennium.
His reign of 26 years as the Vicar of Christ changed the terms of engagement between the Church and the State-the former could redeem the latter. And that would be the abiding legacy of John Paul. One year after his election, in 1979, he visited Poland and spoke at Krakow, his hometown: "It is necessary to have the courage to walk in a direction that no one has walked so far." He would, and an entire nation would follow, then more, resulting in the fall of the Berlin Wall and the liberation of Eastern Europe from communism. (Mikhail Gorbachev didn't send tanks; he withdrew, paving the way for the collapse of his own empire.) It was John Paul's evangelical fury against false prophets that began it-the beginning of the end of communism in Eastern Europe. For his visit to Poland would accelerate the formation of Solidarity, the first organised popular power against the tyranny of ideology. Eastern Europe owes its liberation to John Paul. Wasn't "Be not afraid" his most famous sermon?
It was a combat waiting for its moment. Communism, after all, aspired to be Christianity by other means-faith without the cross but with the hammer. And both promised heaven on earth. This pope called the bluff, and gods with feet of clay and bloody hands fell by the wayside. But it didn't mean that the alternative to communism warmed the papal heart. He was almost like Kazantzakis' Jesus as he surveyed freedom's day after from the balcony of St Peter's: "I hate, I despise your festivities. I am nauseous from the stench of the fatted cows you slaughter for me. Take away from me the tumult of your psalms and your lutes ...." He saw God getting ejected from the marketplace. He was the compassionate social democrat at God's service, a pope in pink. He dreaded godless liberation with the same rigour with which he raged against the godless tyranny of communism. Strangely, the pope who opposed the savagery of ideology didn't support the Gulf War or the liberation of Iraq.
This social dynamism is matched by his theological conservatism. He couldn't compromise on God, who, the growing militia of spiritual feminists complained, was a male chauvinist. He didn't tolerate dissent within the Church. No to the theology of liberation in which Marx collaborated with Jesus. No to abortion and contraception. No to same-sex marriage. No to women priests. And he turned the Vatican into an overworking saints-production unit: such speedy canonisations. He was a pope of reconciliation as well: he apologised for the sins of the Church, ranging from anti-Semitism to the ordeal of Galileo. He might have been, as a pope-watcher said, God's own politician. Karol Wojtyla, hiker, skier, playwright, poet, philosopher, freedom fighter, only wanted to reinstate God in a mad bad world, to uphold the "culture of life", and blame him not if George W. Bush too wants the same. The poignancy of it was visible for a few seconds as Karol Wojtyla raised his hand for a final wave of benediction. History has already returned the favour.