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teachers' guide: john paul II: the millennial pope
the pope (seated)

About This Guide

"John Paul II: The Millennial Pope" is as much a film about leadership as it is the story of the Pope and the Catholic Church. What does it mean to be a leader? How does one become a leader? Is it a chosen or predetermined path? Through the story of Pope John Paul II, we get a birds-eye view of the many factors that combine to create leaders. While the Pope is distinctly a religious leader, we can learn a great deal about what it takes to lead in any circumstances through the Pope's story. As the film unfolds we see how environment, experience, perception and education converge to create the Pope's unique and individual perception of the world. This perception drives him and remains a key determinant in the development of his leadership style and his beliefs.

This educator guide provides pre-viewing suggestions and questions, background information and classroom activities. The FRONTLINE program is presented in eight distinct sections. The background section of this guide mirrors these same areas: Landscape, The Jews, Solidarity, Liberation Theology, Women, Culture of Death, Faith and Legacy.


Help students prepare for this film by discussing the role and responsibilities of the Pope. Find out how they think of John Paul II and what they know about him. Use the following questions to begin your discussion:

What do you know about the Pope? What is his job?

Pope John Paul II has had a huge impact in the world. His appeal has spread well beyond the religious boundary of his leadership responsibilities.

What is it that draws so many to him?

How are the Pope's responsibilities different from those of secular leaders?

Given a religious leader's mandate to lead based on divine teachings, how can constituents question their leaders?

Expand to a general discussion about leaders by sharing the following with students:

Leaders, like all people, are shaped and influenced by their personal experiences. Being a leader requires the ability to represent, balance and choose between both the positions of their constituents and the needs of their institution. Leaders can act unilaterally or engage in ongoing dialogue with their constituents, trying to negotiate a middle ground. Whatever their style of leadership, they must be responsive to the needs and desires of constituents, while also remaining true to the mission of the institution.

When leaders are faced with decisions about controversial issues they may be required to "put themselves in others' shoes." Leaders must also take into account the political ramifications of their taking an unpopular stand on an issue. The decisions of religious and political leaders may impact their constituents differently. An elected leader has different goals than an appointed leader.

Continue by asking the following questions:

Is it possible for leaders to "put themselves in othersí shoes?" Why or why not? Give some examples of leaders you know who are successful at doing this.

What are the most important attributes for a successful leader?

How are the roles of religious, political and organizational leaders similar and different? What are the differences between elected and appointed leaders? How do civic leaders fit in?

Give an example of a decision a leader made which put the needs of the institution before the needs of constituents.

As you and your students watch the film, take note of the various experiences that had an effect on the person Karol Wojtyla would become. Consider which experiences would strengthen his leadership abilities and which would challenge them. Identify his responsibilities, his strengths, challenges and the life experiences that influenced his development as a leader.



The enormous changes that have swept Catholicism and defined the modern Roman Catholic Church in the late 20th century have been largely shaped by the spirit, determination and leadership of one man, Karol Wojtyla, (Voy-tee-wah) Pope John Paul II.

John Paul II, born on May 18, 1920 to an administrative officer in the Polish army and a former schoolteacher, was elected to the Papacy in 1978. He was the first non-Italian elected as Pope since the fifteenth century and at 58 years of age, the youngest in this century. While these facts are impressive, they pale in comparison to what this world leader would accomplish in his tenure as Pope.

In 1938, Wojtyla, then a teenager, was singled out for what would prove to be a life-long journey, climbing the upward ladder as priest, Archbishop, and ultimately as Pope - the religious leader of the Catholic Church and nearly a billion souls worldwide. In that year, Wojtyla was a young student, poet and an actor of considerable promise at a secondary school in the small, working-class town of Wadowice. He was the school's most talented orator, and thus honored with the task of welcoming a special guest - Krakow's Archbishop Adam Sapieha - in a formal address. Sapieha was impressed by the teen, and in what may have been sheer destiny recalled the youth's charismatic gift years later when their paths were to cross a second time.

Karol Wojtyla lived a relatively unextraordinary life. As a teen and young adult, Wojtyla was an aspiring actor, poet and a devout Catholic. As a young man during the war, he worked in a quarry and, in a symbol of defiance against the German invasion of his beloved Poland, helped to organize an underground theater troupe celebrating Polish history and culture. Though Wojtyla would later lament his failure to directly protest the Nazi genocide and help save its victims, these experiences provided him with an understanding of everyday life and human struggle that later enhanced his leadership abilities and effectiveness as a "Pope of the people."

In 1942, as World War II tore through Europe and ravaged Poland, Wojtyla abandoned his acting and immersed himself in the illicit life of an underground seminarian. Deeply scarred by grief spurred by the early passing of his mother and later by the sufferings of war, the young man grew increasingly devout and willed for himself the insulated life of a solitary monk. However, his appeals to Sapieh, still Archbishop, to enter the monastery were repeatedly denied. The Archbishop firmly believed that the young man's talents were needed in the service of Poland's faithful, shattered by the devastation of war.

In 1946, as Communism took hold of his war-shattered country, Wojtyla was ordained into the priesthood. It was during this first assignment as parish priest that Father Karol Wojtyla took his first steps into a leadership role that would define him throughout his lifetime.

The Jews

In a Poland rife with anti-Semitism, the young priest sought atonement for the damage rendered by his personal silence and that of his countrymen during the Nazi genocide. New York University Professor Arthur Hertzberg observes: "The proof of it is that immediately after the war, as a young priest and then soon a young bishop, he was remarkable, in a Polish church with a still living vehement anti-Semitic tradition, for befriending Jews. He helped get kids out of convents and monasteries where their parents had hidden them and then they never came back - helped get them back to their Jewish families. He did a number of things which gave him among the Polish Jews who survived, the reputation of a friendly human being."

Indeed, in his years as Pope, John Paul has achieved more in building ties and understanding between Catholics and Jews than any other leader in Catholic Church history. From the earliest days of his Papacy, he has taken bold steps to cleanse the Church's long-held tradition of anti-Semitism. Within a year of taking office, John Paul traveled to Auschwitz, signaling to the Christian world the need to confront and atone for sins of the past. This was only the first of a series of dramatic gestures of reconciliation towards the Jews. In 1986, the Pope made his historic visit to the Rome Synagogue. From the pulpit, John Paul addressed the Jewish congregants as "our elder brothers" and denounced Christianity's doctrines of anti-Semitism.

With this single act Pope John Paul set an example which he urged all Christians to follow: to begin the process of "unlearning whatever anti-Semitism had been breathed" into them. The synagogue visit, observed Professor Hertzberg, marked the beginning of John Paul's "journey to wanting to make an end of the age-old quarrel with Jews - not merely the Holocaust," Hertzberg continued, "but the whole of the Church tradition of anti-Semitism." The Pope's message, stated over and again to the Christian masses, added Polish journalist Konstantyn Gebert, was that "anti-Semitism is a sin." In word and deed, he has repeated to his flock that "one cannot be an anti-Semite and a Christian at the same time. One has to choose."


Perhaps it was sheer remorse for his failure to act during WWII that cemented the Pope's inner resolve to stand firm in the face of Communism. The Pope was a young parish priest when Russia tightened its reins on Poland. But he had already learned the cost of silence in the face of vile oppression. Thus, while a relatively lone and inexperienced priest, young Wojtyla developed a political acumen soon revealed as brilliantly subtle diplomacy. It was a diplomatic style that Wojtyla would use most skillfully to challenge the Communist grip on Eastern Europe in the course of the next four decades.

In the 1950s, despite strict Communist prohibitions, he sought to cultivate a notion of independence in the youth of his parish - all of whom had been raised in a Poland devoid of peace and liberty. To compensate, Wojtyla nurtured a sense of freedom in the youngsters, taking them camping and hiking through the Polish countryside. "Some of the future leaders of Solidarity were on those camping trips," where, according to the recollections of the students themselves, he "taught them openness, honesty and intellectual toughness" in a world bereft of such ideals.

It was also during these years of early Communist rule that Wojtyla grappled with how best to approach his relationship with the regime. Mistaking his subtle calm for a willingness to concede to the wishes of the state, the government preferred to negotiate with Wojtyla, who appeared to them less confrontational than his Church superiors did. But, says Norman Davies, author and Cambridge University professor; "It only shows how little the Communists understood the real nature of Polish traditions or of the man that Wojtyla could be -- warm, friendly, accommodating on the surface, but iron determination under the surface."

He believed that only the Church could provide spiritual nourishment in Poland's repressive environment and negotiated successfully to preserve and build on its structures despite the Communists' opposition to religious life. Yet, Wojtyla was no collaborator. He was fiercely opposed to Communism and the constraints it placed on his people's everyday lives and freedoms. Over the years, as parish priest and later as Archbishop and Pope, Wojtyla moved diplomatically, yet relentlessly, often relying on the power of his personality and convictions, to defeat Communist oppression throughout all of Eastern Europe.

On June 2, 1979, one year after being named to the papacy, John Paul II returned to Poland. Despite Communist prohibitions against religious worship and public assembly, the Pope led Mass for a million people in Warsaw's Victory Square, inspiring the crowd with calls for religious freedom for all. The Pope's aim in Victory Square and in countless other pronouncements and deeds until the fall of Communism was to inspire the masses to believe in their intrinsic power to return Poland to democracy. With the simple words, "Don't be afraid," he gave them faith that they were not alone, the courage to stand firm, and the strength to press for change. Said one observer of that historic speech, "He suddenly turned up amongst these people and said, "Look, don't be afraid." And suddenly people stopped being afraid. It was like the beginning of the end of the Roman Empire. It was like the pinprick that burst the bubble. And that gave the strength for Solidarity and for the destruction of the whole Communist system."

The struggle, however, was not easy. Years of workers' strikes, protests and demonstrations fueled by Vatican funds and the Pope's personal challenge to the Communist system would follow before the government's downfall. And when martial law was imposed--in an attempt to quell the mounting rebellion--the Pope openly confronted the government and reassured the people that he stood with them in their struggle. The Pope has since been credited for his personal stand and powerful convictions so boldly demonstrated before millions of persecuted people that advanced the cause of freedom in Eastern Europe. There is "absolutely no doubt in my mind," says former Polish Senator Andrzj Szczypiorski, "that his pontificate was responsible for the downfall of Communist rule worldwide. Because Poland in a way set the pace. It was the little stone that started the avalanche."

Liberation Theology

In some areas, the Pope did not receive the support and accolades that he experienced in Eastern Europe. Liberation Theology would be one arena in which his position would cause conflict, debate and heartache for many in the Church. The 1980s found Latin America rife with violent civil wars between right wing regimes and Marxist revolutionaries. Many of the region's Catholic parishes came to believe that the Church had supported the wealthy and powerful for too long. Now, they believed that the Church had to realign itself on the side of the poor. This meant alignment with the Marxists who spoke for the poor in the name of social change. To the Pope, this was an impossible alliance. Given his opposition to Communism he would neither listen to nor entertain discussion on this topic. He advised his priests to find common ground with the current regimes of their host countries and to abandon their notions of "liberation theology", as they referred to their philosophical approach. In the face of what became vehement disagreement with his own clergymen, the Pope went so far as to close down certain Church organizations. Additionally, he sent new staff into the region who would carry out the will of the Church as he defined it.

The Pope was neither hesitant to act on his beliefs nor to use his power in the name of the church. Like many strong leaders, the Pope would have his detractors who viewed his actions as narrow minded and short sighted. Some saw this as a deficiency in his leadership skills. His criticizers believed that the Pope's individual understanding of the issue prevented him having what they felt would be a more appropriate institutional one. Whatever the "truth," John Paul failed to take a supportive role of his constituency in Latin America in contrast to the support he gave to his constituency in Poland when they fought to topple their existing government. Author Robert Stone summarized: "He's the Pope and they're not, and that's the whole story. The Pope knew that at the end of the day people wanted from the Church not political and social instruction but the Ten Commandments, sin and how to be against it, and what they traditionally had turned to religion for."


The topic of women has become another area in which the Pope's positions place him in conflict with many of his constituents. Why, one might ask, does the Pope cling to his traditional notions of womanhood? To the Pope, the issue is not a mere notion; rather, it is one area in which the popular desire for change exemplifies his fears of modernity threatening to transform the purity and clarity of Catholicism itself.

Belief in the Virgin Mary has always been at the heart of the Pope's religious devotion. As a result of this unwavering faith, Pope John Paul II has refused to adapt or accept changes in the role of women in the Church as it relates to contraception, abortion and ordination to the priesthood. To alter this part of the doctrine of the Church would be, in the Pope's mind, akin to diminishing the Virgin Mary herself. New York University professor and author Tony Judt, explains: "He deeply believes, in a way that I think is simply difficult for the modern sensibility to grasp, in the reality of the Virgin Mary. This makes him peculiarly sensitive to what he thinks of as the crossing over of roles--part of what he thinks of as the pollution in our culture. Women can, essentially, by virtue of being women, only really do one thing that men can't do, and that is produce children and hence his obsession with that. Because that is the distinctively female aspect of human behavior that he, as Pope, can address: women must be true to themselves, and in being true to themselves, they can be, in however small a way, true to Mary."

Culture of Death

Perhaps his 1995 encyclical, the Gospel of Life, best expresses his vehement and unshakable commitment to affirm life in all circumstances. In his view, society has lost any sense of the sacredness of life and the value of the individual. So deep is the Pope's opposition to abortion, euthanasia and capital punishment, for example, that he refers to them as manifestations of the modern world's "culture of death." In his own words: "True compassion leads to sharing another's pain; it does not kill the person whose suffering we cannot bear."


At the center of the Pope's agenda is faith. Monsignor Lorenzo Albacete, professor of theology in the Archdiocese of New York, describes the Pope this way: "John Paul II is not a man with faith, his identity is faith. What defines a human being is faith. It is a judgment, a position, a stand that you take with respect to everything. If you fail to take that stand then at best you are superficial, you have no depth." To develop this faith, Albecete continues, "What does it is experience, not an intellectual argument. You must be given an experience of having been touched by grace. And the only one he (the Pontiff) can assure you is through him."

Consequently, the Pope delivers his message personally throughout the world instead of leading from afar in Rome. In fact, he is the most traveled Pope in our history and the impact of his presence is often palpable. Monsignor Albacete offers: "I have seen what a glimpse of this man can mean, and, just the Pope-mobile coming by --you could barely just see this little figure, you know, 'There he is, there he is!" and whole life changes and hope is possible." It is clearly part of this Pope's personal mission to help humanity recapture what he believes is a lost sense of faith. He understands that he cannot create faith in others. However, he knows that his presence can bring people to the threshold where they may choose for themselves.


What will be the legacy of this Pope? What attributes and accomplishments will history assign to him? Is he destroying the Church by making it irrelevant to the modern era, as Robert Stone says, or is he saving it from its most destructive century and most challenging millennium? Is the Church stronger and better prepared for the next millennium because of him, or, more fragile, divided and confused? While to many his views seem of another time and place, there is no doubt about this Pope's belief and trust in the path he has chosen for the Church. He has acted as a man on a sacred mission. With extraordinary confidence, he has shown little need or desire for others to agree with or approve of his actions.

Perhaps Roberto Suro, journalist for the Washington Post framed the question best: "At the end of the day, when you look at this extraordinary life and you see all that he's accomplished, all the lives he's touched, the nations whose history he's changed, the way he's become such a powerful figure in our culture, in all of modern culture--among believers and not-- taking all of that into account, you're left with one very disturbing and difficult question. On the one hand, the Pope can seem this lonely, pessimistic figure - a man who only sees the dark side of modernity, a man obsessed with the evils of the 20th century, a man convinced that humankind has lost its way--a man so dark, so despairing, that he loses his audiences. That would make him a tragic figure, certainly. On the other hand, you have to ask, is he a prophet? Did he come here with a message? Did he see something that many of us are missing? In that case, the tragedy is ours."

However you answer the question, one thing is apparent. This Pope forced the world into a debate about faith vs. modernity that might never have occurred with any other church leader. While he initiated the debate on his terms, the value of the dialogue can surely benefit us all.


Anti-Semitism - hostility or hatred of Jews as a religious or racial minority group, often accompanied by social, economic and political discrimination.

Auschwitz-Birkenau - the largest of the Nazi death camps--located in Poland some 30 kilometers from Wojtyla's birthplace--where millions of Jews were exterminated during World War II.

Communism - the political system in place in Eastern Europe, the former Soviet Union and elsewhere around the globe for many decades in the 20th century, under which millions of people were deprived of political, personal and economic freedoms.

Doctrines - teachings based on theological foundations.

Holocaust - the systematic destruction of over six million European Jews by the Nazis just prior to, and during, World War II.

Liberation Theology - a theological philosophy rooted in religious practice as well as the struggle for human freedom, justice and social change.

Martial Law - the military rules and regulations imposed over and above civilian authority during times of public unrest or war.

Marxist - defines the followers of the political theory espoused by Karl Marx, one of the founding fathers of Communism.

Papacy - the period of time during which a given Pope heads the Roman Catholic Church.

Pope - the highest spiritual and religious leader of the Roman Catholic Church.

Solidarity - the labor movement that steered Poland's struggle against Communism and brought democracy to Poland during the 1980s.

Post-Viewing Discussion Questions

Identify the Pope's leadership skills. What are the traits or qualities that lead some to admire and respect him?

What personal and public experiences shaped the Pope's Catholicism and world view?

What are the Pope's greatest challenges as a world leader?

What is the job of an institutional leader? How do they shape or change the institutions they lead? Do they shape history or does history shape them?


Catholic World News

The Holy See

The Anatomy of Prejudices, Elisabeth Young-Bruehl, Harvard University Press, 1998.


Activity One: Debate Teams

Goals and Objectives

Leaders must be able to clarify and articulate their positions on a range of subjects and be able to respond to questions or the arguments of their detractors. Debate offers students a way of developing their thinking, research and speaking skills. The point of debate is not to pick the "right" position, but to pick or be assigned any position and defend it, as if it were the "right" position, or the one they believe to be "right." This often confuses students. However, thoughtful argumentation builds essential critical thinking skills. This film offers many wonderful opportunities to engage in debate over complex subjects.


Choose any of the topics below and create debate teams to represent each side of the issue. Students can view the related section of the film to help them prepare. They can also do additional research.

Topic: The Jews

Professor Eamon Duffy states in the film: "The obvious fact (is) that Catholics have been, in their millions, anti-Semitic and that Catholicism has been responsible for many of the atrocities against the Jews and for the whole anti-Semitic tradition. He knows that and he's anxious to acknowledge that, but for him, there is an important theological difference between what millions of Catholics have done, the sins they've committed against the Jews, and what the Church has done. The Church is the spotless bride of Christ and does not commit sins; the institution staffed by sinful individuals does commit sins. "

Debate question: Who is responsible for the actions of individuals - institutions or the people that lead them?

Topic: Liberation Theology

The Pope, and consequently the Church, actively supported the people of Poland and Eastern Europe in an effort to effect changes in their countries. In Latin America, however, he insisted that the parishes in that region not support the majority of the people there in their efforts for change.

Debate topic: Explore the arguments for each side - the Pope's, representing the Catholic Church, or that of Monsignor Romero and other clergy of Latin American who believed the Church's position was wrong.

Topic: Women

The Pope has opposed any changes in Catholic doctrine about women concerning abortion and ordination to the priesthood.

Debate question: Should the Catholic Church maintain or alter its doctrine in these areas?

Topic: Faith

The Pope sees science as a pathway in which many have traveled away from faith. Yet, "To the Pope," says Monsignor Albacete, "science and the wonder it evokes in us is not an obstacle to belief but a privileged path to it. John Paul IIurges us to look beyond our intellectual ideas because reason, which limits man to the visible world, will kill faith."

Debate question: Does the nature of science encourage or discourage the development of faith and spirituality?

Topic: Legacy

Journalist Robert Suro says: " On the one hand, the Pope can seem this lonely, pessimistic figure - a man who only sees the dark side of modernity, a man obsessed with the evils of the 20th century, a man convinced that humankind has lost its way - a man so dark, so despairing, that he loses his audiences. That would make him a tragic figure, certainly. On the other hand, you have to ask, is he a prophet? Did he come here with a message? Did he see something that many of us are missing? In that case, the tragedy is ours."

Debate question: Is the Pope a tragic figure or a prophet?

Activity Two: A Look at Leaders

Goals and Objectives

Many traits and attributes can bring a person into a leadership position. Students can learn more about leadership and compare world leaders to leaders in their own lives and community, thus gaining greater understanding of the impact of choices they make in choosing leaders and helping them make more informed choices.


Students should think of someone in their own school or community who they think is a good leader. Brainstorm all of the qualities, skills and abilities that the leader has.

Now generate a list of world leaders.

Ask students individually or in groups to research one of the world leaders focusing on the person's experiences, skills, qualities, and challenges. They should research keeping in mind the question: "What makes this person a good leader?"

Have students share their research.

Ask the group to compare and contrast the contributing factors to making someone a good leader. Notice any trends or patterns that emerge. (It will help to discuss and keep a running list as each person or group presents their leader to identify the elements of strong and weak leaders.) Help students notice and differentiate between strong, weak, effective, ineffective, good and bad. Observe and discuss which of these they seem to value most. Did leadership traits or qualities change depending on the job or role of the leader?

Ask students to consider how they currently make choices about leaders. What factors do they consider important? What is the role of charisma and character, and how does it influence their choice of a leader? Has this activity changed the way in which they may make future choices? In what ways?


Engage students in a discussion about the requirements of the democratic process. What are the responsibilities of leaders? What are the responsibilities of those who are "led?"

Topics for further discussion:

What are the Christian sources of anti-Semitism/anti-Judaism. Compare and contrast the Christian and Nazi versions of these. How might have Christian anti-Judaism conditioned its constituency for Nazi's anti-Semitism?

How does the Pope's personal bent combine with historical and institutional factors on the role of women?

How does the role of women in the Catholic Church vary in different parts of the Pope's constituency? What is the impact of the Pope's decisions about women on women who live in different countries around the world?

What historical and institutional factors have contributed to patriarchy in the Catholic Church?

Women are having a remarkable impact on church theology resulting from their rising numbers and influence in church academic circles. How will this shape and influence church doctrine?

What is Liberation Theology? What are the social and political roots of Liberation Theology? What are its scriptural and pedagogical underpinnings? Does it relate to Marxism?

How do changing ideas about "faith" relate to and impact the current issue in the United States surrounding the teaching of evolution versus creation theories in the public schools?

Does having faith require suffering on the part of the individual? How are faith and spirituality the same or different? How important is the experience of suffering to faith?

The Pope, by the nature of his position, is seen as a moral authority. What might be the arguments against this view?

In what ways have the positions of the Pope strengthened or hindered life among Catholics?


This guide was created by educational consultant Simone Bloom Nathan, Ed.M, and Jim Bracciale and Erin Martin of FRONTLINE. The writers are Janice Ditchek and Caren Keller Niss with input from the Outreach Advisory Board: high school social studies teacher Dan Beaupre, Father Robert Bullock, Jay Corrin, Chair, Social Sciences, College of General Studies, Boston University and Tom Rendon of Iowa Public Television.

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