The College of Cardinals elected Karol Wojtyla to become Pope John Paul II the year that my wife and I got married. He has been Pope for my entire adult life. Now we face the imminent prospect of his dying.
His papacy has been at once both conservative and progressive. His writings are staunchly against abortion, birth control, euthanasia, and the death penalty. He drew the Church back from any consideration of non-celibate and female clergy. On the progressive side, he was such a strong champion of human rights that he was influential in the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of Communism. By formally pardoning Galileo and in many other ways he pulled the Church forward toward the acceptance of science and the glimpses of truth that it makes available. He no doubt influenced Archbishop Desmond Tutu and President Nelson Mandela when they chose to use the power of Confession and Forgiveness to achieve a peaceful and stable transition of South Africa to majority rule. He has strengthened Catholicism and Christianity in Africa, Latin America, and Asia, even as they have declined in Western Europe. He pulled the Church forward in its relations with people of other faiths. He was consistently against war.
Even if John Paul II dies in the near future, he will continue to be a potent force in human history for decades to come, and not only because he has appointed nearly all the present Cardinals during his long papacy. His passionate, carefully-reasoned, and well-researched statements in his encyclicals will serve as sea-anchors to stabilize traditional Catholicism and traditional Christianity generally. Those, who like myself, differ with John Paul II's opinions on a variety of subjects must now argue against a formidable intellectual body of work. The challenge will force us to search our traditions, beliefs, and what we can know of God's Will for us as human beings. We cannot help but benefit from rising to the challenge.
Indeed, the world would be not only a poorer place, but a more dangerous place, physically and spiritually, were we to prevail on the cheap, without having to surmount the obstacles that Pope John Paul II leaves before us. He has lived, written and preached an Evangelium Vitae, a Gospel of Life, that will not be silenced by his passing. He has not merely stated one side of a debate. He has established its ground.
Now may God bless and keep his servant John Paul II, in this world and the World to Come.