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Ad Multos Annos

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On September 28, 1978, Pope John Paul I died of a heart attack, after a papacy that lasted just 33 days. Although not the shortest papacy in history – that distinction goes to Stephen II or Urban VII depending on whether one counts Stephen as a valid pope – it was certainly the shortest in centuries. Most of the cardinals had barely returned home when they were recalled to Rome for another papal conclave which began on October 14.

Two days later, 26 years ago today, they elected Karol Wotyla, Archbishop of Krakow, to the See of Peter. Calling himself John Paul II he surprised and delighted the assembled Romans by addressing them in Italian for his first blessing. He was the first non-Italian pope since the Dutchman Adrian VI and the first slavic pope ever. If 26 years seems like a long time, it is. The papacy is the world’s oldest elective office, in existence for nearly 2000 years, held officially by some 264 men (although there is some dispute and confusion over given various anti-popes and lacunae in the historical record). Catholics reckon St. Peter to have been the first pope and for his reign to have lasted 34 or 37 years depending on the actual date of his martyrdom (protestant Christians generally do not accept Peter as the first pope).

The longest serving pope other than Peter was Pius IX whose papacy lasted 31 years. Next in line, as the third longest serving pope is John Paul II, a milestone he reached last March. expectations of the Pope’s death have swirled about for at least a decade as his health has failed, but so far he shows no sign of succumbing to rumor, and it cannot be ruled out that he might surpass Pius IX should he live to June 9, 2010.

By any standard, this papacy has been remarkable and not just for its length. The Pope survived an assassin’s bullet in 1981, something he shared with Ronald Reagan, institutionalized many of the Vatican II reforms, finished the revision of the Code of Canon Law, promulgated the first new Catechism since Trent in 1568 (I personally own an actual copy of that Catechism which was published in 1572), canonized more saints than any other pope in history, traveled to more countries more times than most can count, internationalized the College of Cardinals to a degree never before seen, and published prodigiously.

If this papacy is marred, it is by the failure of the Pope and the bishops to recognize and deal with the sexual-abuse crisis here in the United States. This failure will no doubt continue to reverberate into the next pontificate.

Yet these achievements – and they alone would make for an extremely successful papacy – will pale in comparison to the role of Pope John Paul II in bringing down the great evil of the 20th century – communism. To be sure, small outposts of the evil still exist in Cuba and North Korea, and one large one in China. But John Paul II was instrumental in destroying the moral underpinnings of communism. He, Ronald Reagan, and Margaret Thatcher were the three principal architects of the end of the Cold War in the 80s. From the Pope’s nurturing and support of the Solidarity movement in Poland, to his trips as Supreme Pontiff behind the Iron Curtain, to his rejection of communism as inevitable, the Pope undermined the monolithic image of Marxism. The full story of this amazing achievement is told in Carl Bernstein’s excellent book His Holiness.

While we’re at it, George Weigel’s biography Witness to Hope is also highly recommended. Twenty-six years and counting.

Ad multos annos!

Written by martinipundit

October 16, 2004 at 11:01 pm

Posted in Church, General, History

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