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Millions Gather in Vatican City to Honor Pope John Paul II

April 8, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT
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RAY SUAREZ: Now three perspectives on today’s ceremonies and the life and legacy of John Paul II. Chester Gillis is a professor and chair of the Department of Theology at Georgetown University; he is author of “Roman Catholicism in America.”

John-Peter Pham is an assistant professor of justice studies at James Madison University and author of “Heirs of the Fisherman, Behind the Scenes of Papal Death and Succession.”

And Timothy Garton Ash is director of the European Studies Center at St. Antony’s College at Oxford University and author of “The Polish Revolution: Solidarity.”

Professor Pham, when Paul VI died, it was said to be the largest papal funeral ever, and about 100,000 people were there. Now we’re talking about a funeral throng in the millions. What happened?

JOHN-PETER PHAM: Well, a number of things happened. Certainly our world has changed a great deal. Travel is much easier; communications have rendered distances far closer. And part of it also is testimony to the late Pope John Paul II.

While Paul VI was very much, in many senses, the first truly modern pope, the first to travel abroad in two centuries, the first to travel outside Europe, in many respects Pope John Paul II building on those foundations, expanded them in horizons that were unimaginable just two decades ago.

So it’s a tribute to what he has accomplished as well.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor Gillis, how do you mark the change in this pontificate by what we saw today in St. Peter’s Square?

CHESTER GILLIS: Well, it was such an extraordinary outpouring of affection and from such a wide base, not only Catholics but world leaders, ordinary people, non-Catholics, people watching around the world in countries that even are not traditionally Catholic.

The kind of reach this pope had and the effect that he had on the populous is remarkable and unprecedented, I would say, in the public character of the papacy.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor Garton Ash, you’ve written how this pope was important not only to Catholics but non-Catholics. Explain that to me.

TIMOTHY GARTON ASH: I would say, you know, we talk about world leaders, President Bush or Prime Minister Blair. I would say that Pope John Paul II was the first true world leader.

He was the first man in history who not only aspired to speak for every individual human being on Earth, but who also reached most of them through the modern mass media. So there’s never been anything like this papacy in world history.

RAY SUAREZ: But in a way that’s qualitatively different from some of the other known people of the age, different from Princess Diana? How so?

TIMOTHY GARTON ASH: Absolutely, without thought. Princess Diana, good Lord, heaven’s above, I mean, she was a national figure and like an international pop star. But this was like a pope who spoke for not just 1 billion Catholics but for the God-given human rights of everyone on every continent.

And he went to all those continents and he demanded those human rights from the dictators, from the regimes, capitalist, communist, or fascist. No one has ever done that in history. I have no doubt that we’ve just witnessed today the funeral of the greatest man of our time.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor Gillis, one of the greatest men of our time?

CHESTER GILLIS: I would have to say certainly one of the greatest men of our time. I think it might be a little bit early to completely solidify his legacy. I think we’ll have to give history a little time for it to settle.

I know there are many who are calling for him immediately to be a saint and I anticipate he probably will be a saint; it may be fast-tracked by the church. And clearly he’s one of the greatest leaders of the 20th and 21st century.

What his legacy will be, though, in five years or 10 years or 20 years we’ll have to see. But clearly it’s remarkable and it is something that will leave its mark on history. I think Professor Garton Ash is absolutely correct.

RAY SUAREZ: But Professor Garton Ash also gave as examples calls for respect for human rights, asserting and alleging the dignity and rights of every human being. But did that message stick? Did it have more than an impact but an actual effect?

CHESTER GILLIS: Well, in some places it did. I mean, with the demise of communism, I think he contributed to that clearly.

But on his moral teachings was everyone in accord with his moral teachings? Did he change the character of Western Europe, for example, which is highly secularized? No, he didn’t.

From his point of view I suppose he might say, like Mother Teresa “God did not call me to be successful. God called me to be faithful.” And he was faithful to the message of Jesus Christ right until the end.

But the efficacy of that, as far as widespread adherence to it is another thing. Statistics indicate in many places people did not follow his teachings completely.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor Pham, how do you gauge that tension between celebrity and impact?

JOHN-PETER PHAM: I agree with both my colleagues. John Paul II leaves behind a tremendous legacy, but as Professor Gillis has pointed out, the church has always, in her wisdom, required time to fully assess, to fully digest and absorb a legacy.

While it’s completely understandable in the emotion, the outpouring, which we witnessed today very spontaneous and sincere a desire to elevate Pope John Paul to the status of greatness, indeed of sanctity, in the Catholic church, we believe sanctity, official canonization is really a declaration that someone is already enjoying the beatific vision, is with God.

And if one believes that John Paul is already with God, he doesn’t need our Earthly acclaim. Rather, I think he would, in his love for the church and for the pilgrim people of God, desire that nothing be done in undue haste and that time and history be allowed to unfold in their own pace.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor Pham, you’ve written about the Catholic church over very long time horizons. Is the pope a different figure, in some ways a more important figure now that he doesn’t have a country to run than when he did?

JOHN-PETER PHAM: I think very much so. One of the great graces, if you will, that the papacy has received over the years is the destitution of its temporal holdings, which for centuries made the pope a little more than a petty prince-ling in Italy, another person biting at the heels of the great powers.

Instead, with the loss of those temporal dominions, the papacy first under Leo XIII and many of his successors, solely acquired the position that it has today, of a moral institution that is capable of speaking for the weak, the oppressed, the marginalized, those who do not have a voice at the tables of power.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor Garton Ash, no longer a temporal governor but someone that you’ve said has tremendous power and influence in Eastern Europe, for instance?

TIMOTHY GARTON ASH: Well, for someone who only had spiritual authority, the political impact was enormous.

I think that there’s no question that without this pope no solidarity movement in Poland, and without the solidarity movement in Poland, no Gorbachev in the form we saw him emerge in 1985; no velvet revolutions in 1989.

So I think there is a direct connection between this pope, the end of communism, the end of the Cold War. What we saw today was actually a kind of celebration of European unity.

This is the first time in history that people from every corner of the continent when they heard the pope died could just take their passport out of the drawer, Google a cheap airfare and fly to Rome. That was an extraordinary event and it was partly a testament to his legacy.

On the other hand, he also leaves a Europe which is more secular than it has ever been before. I mean, Europe now is the most secular continent on Earth. So I think there is a deep irony in this pope’s legacy.

This is, in a sense, the first time Christian Rome has been at the heart of a united Europe. But it may also be the last time because the mass of the believers are increasingly outside Europe.

RAY SUAREZ: Does that paradox, Professor Gillis, also extend out to the rest of the Western world? To Australia, Canada, the United States?

CHESTER GILLIS: It does reflect to the developed world very much. The United States is much more church-attending and faithful in a sense than Western Europe. It’s not nearly as secularized.

And American Catholics go to church at a much higher rate than European Catholics do. The question is: will European Catholics move toward the European model or will they stay independent of that and stay faithful to it? And it’s a great tension.

While American Catholics, for example, revere this pope and admired him and I think really loved him and I think rightfully so, they didn’t necessarily listen to him.

And today was a wonderful event. But tomorrow people will go back to their ordinary lives and in some places, like Western Europe, the churches will be empty.

Just as the professor has just said, they came out for this event but for a lot of reasons, because they thought he was a saint, but he unified Europe and all, not necessarily because they all agreed with his teachings and his policies.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor Pham, take us forward, as Professor Gillis suggests, to the work that awaits the conclave and the church that is now left behind by this pope. Has Pope John Paul II grown the job, transformed it in a way that’s going to make it tough on whoever takes the job next?

JOHN-PETER PHAM: Well, inevitably any pope will be compared against his predecessor. But one has to realize the genius, if you will, of the human institution of the papacy is that it has reinvented itself in each of Peter’s successors.

And inevitably the next pope will leave his own mark on the papacy. He will build upon the legacy of Pope John Paul II, just as pope John Paul has built upon the legacy of John Paul I and, of course, Paul VI and John XXIII.

The next pope, ultimately, will be a true pontiff in the original sense of the word. His calling, the Roman term pontifex, bridge-builder, is really the vocation of the next successor of Peter.

To build bridges within the Catholic church between those who feel themselves marginalized with the Catholic church and those outside.

Bridges between the developed world and the developing world; between the global South and richer countries. And so in a sense, the word “pontiff,” the title Roman pontiff will take on an even greater meaning not just as a mere ceremonial title but in a way a job requirement for Pope John Paul’s successor.

RAY SUAREZ: But can a very spiritual person, a scholar, a prayerful but retiring person adequately take over from the job from a man who’s made it into a media, high-impact, international job?

JOHN-PETER PHAM: Well, I think there are different styles of papacy. And I think it’s an error to try to take what we know and demand that the next era of the church be exactly the same.

And as Christians believe that the spirit blows where he will, with confidence that in the unfolding of history, ultimately the church’s call is to respond to the needs of the time.

The Second Vatican Council in the Pastoral Constitution of the Church, Gaudium et Spes, says that the joys and the hopes, the anxieties of mankind, all those together are the joys and hopes and anxieties and concerns of the church. And that will change with each passing day.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor Garton Ash, you spoke of a now secular Europe. Which way for the church in Europe now with the next pope?

TIMOTHY GARTON ASH: Well, I think there are two very interesting questions here: One is whether the next pope may indeed not be a European given that the majority of Catholics are now outside Europe. And I myself feel that that would be a logical and a bold step for the Catholic church to take.

The second point is that for Europe, an absolutely crucial question is the relationship with Islam, because we will have a growing number of Muslims inside Europe.

And here, someone else talked of building bridges. One thing Pope John Paul II did magnificently was to start building bridges to the other great world religions, notably to Judaism but also to Islam and the presence of the rabbis and the imams at the funeral was very striking and very moving.

And I think for us in Europe, the question of how the Catholic Church reaches out, particularly in the dialogue with Islam will be of crucial importance to the stability and in fact the future peace of our societies.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor Garton Ash, Professors Pham and Gillis, thank you all.