The reign of Pope John Paul II

The reign of Pope John Paul II was more than a quarter century, the third-longest in history. This remarkable reign led many Catholic leaders to push for him to be granted the honorific title of “John Paul the Great.” Only two or three pontiffs out of 264 popes have ever been given such an honor, and none in more than 1,000 years, which gives a sense of the popular views of John Paul’s impact. His influence was felt both within the Catholic Church and outside the church, particularly in international politics and in interfaith relations. This source guide offers background and sources for assessing John Paul’s pontificate.

Biographical information

His life

• The Vatican’s official Web site has an exhaustive index (in English and several other languages) that contains links to John Paul’s biography and to other information about his reign.

• For a detailed chronology of major events and important dates in the pope’s life, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has a site with helpful links.

• The PBS program Frontline has an extensive gallery of information about John Paul.

• CNN has a detailed interactive Web site with useful information and summaries

Leading biographies

• Witness to Hope (HarperCollins, 1999) by George Weigel, is the closest thing to an “authorized” biography that the pope ever granted.

• Pope John Paul II: The Biography (Simon & Schuster, 1995) by Tad Szulc is particularly good on the pope’s Polish roots and his early travels to his then-communist homeland as pontiff.

• Man of the Century: The Life and Times of Pope John Paul II (Henry Holt & Company, 1997) by Jonathan Kwitny, is considered a wide-ranging overview. It includes critiques as well as compliments.

• His Holiness: John Paul II and the History of Our Time (Penguin Books, reprint edition, 1997) by Carl Bernstein and Marco Politi combines the talents of one of the Watergate reporters and one of Italy’s leading Vatican experts. The biography drew much attention for its claim of a secret alliance between the pope and the Reagan administration to win the Cold War.

His writings and his reign

A pope leaves his legacy in his writings as much as his personality. One Italian newspaper estimated on John Paul’s 25th anniversary that he had produced more than 18 million words – 22 times the length of the King James Bible – in more than 15,000 documents and speeches.

• Find a list of John Paul’s 14 encyclicals, which are the most authoritative documents a pontiff can issue, plus a list of other selected documents.

• For a list of all the pope’s speeches and writings, generally organized by year, try the Vatican web site’s on the pope. (See links on the left.)

• John Paul was unparalleled at “making saints,” as the phrase has it, having canonized 482 saints – more than all of his predecessors combined, who “made” some 300 saints all told. View the list of canonizations and beatifications, which is the penultimate step to sainthood, on the Vatican’s website.

Angles for reporters

There are so many issues and events that John Paul affected that it is useful to group them into two major categories: issues affecting the Catholic Church internally, and issues affecting the political and religious world outside Catholicism. Many of these issues will naturally have interconnections.

Inside the Church

A Polish Pope

While John Paul has generally been cast as a champion of tradition and orthodoxy, the very fact of his 1978 election was a revolution of sorts. As a Pole, he was the first-non-Italian pontiff in more than 450 years and the first Slavic pope ever. His frequent travels were groundbreaking, and many observers say he transformed the papal office from that of an “overseer” to more of an overtly evangelizing presence-a kind of Catholic Billy Graham. Observers also note that in an encyclical on ecumenism, Ut Unum Sint, John Paul surprised many tradition-minded Catholics by inviting a debate on the role of the pope, which he recognized as a common impediment to ecumenical dialogue.

Pope on the move

John Paul’s travels outside Rome were unprecedented for a pontiff, and are a hallmark of his papacy. At the time of his 25th anniversary as pontiff in 2003, it was estimated that he had traveled more than 700,000 miles to 129 different countries on more than 100 journeys outside of Italy. Before John Paul, and his predecessor Paul VI, popes rarely ventured beyond the walls of the Vatican. Experts argue that this revolutionized the papacy, turning the pope into a global statesman-and a celebrity. The Vatican web site includes information on the pope’s travels, and the U.S. bishops’ site also has an index of his trips outside Italy and, specifically, his visits to the United States.

Catholic, with a small "c"

Pope John Paul II was a great promoter of what the church calls “enculturation”-that is, adapting the church’s rites and liturgies, if not its teachings, to various cultures. That strategy proved a wise one for Rome under John Paul, as Catholicism continued a massive demographic shift from Europe – historic Christendom – to developing countries. Catholics in Africa grew to well over 100 million during his reign, and more than 40 percent of Catholics now live in Latin America. Likewise, the College of Cardinals that elected his successor grew ever more international, as the number of Italian cardinal-electors diminished while cardinals from the developing world increased. All this came as religious practice in Europe continued to decline. Experts say that while John Paul’s vocal advocacy of human rights and social justice made him a hero in the developing world, his refusal to allow the church or its leaders to become directly involved in political movements sparked tensions and frustration for many Catholics in those same areas. The shift in Catholic demographics also set up a scenario, observers said, in which the choice of the next pope would come down to a choice between a cardinal who represented the Southern Hemisphere and its millions of poor but devout Catholics, or one from the Northern Hemisphere, where there is great wealth but less religious observance. The choice of Pope Benedict XVI of Germany in 2005 secured Northern papal hegemony for at least the time being.

Roman Catholic, American Catholics

During John Paul’s tenure the number of Catholics in the United States grew about 30 percent, from just under 50 million to more than 65 million. That number had risen to 77 million by 2013. Despite these periods of growth, John Paul’s flock continued to grow more restless, and even disillusioned. Experts say the early years of John Paul’s reign were marked by controversies and tensions with the American hierarchy and church leaders in the United States. Vatican efforts to rein in bishops and theologians who were seen as too liberal led to many headlines and books on the growing split between Rome and America. But experts say John Paul’s great personal popularity largely overshadowed those conflicts for the average Catholic, and as he grew older American Catholics also tended to see him as an avuncular presence, more than as a taskmaster.

Then the clergy sexual abuse scandal hit like a whirlwind in 2002, and suddenly the pope’s own popularity took a hit, as well as his track record. Several bishops were removed – including his point man in the United States, Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston – and the American church he largely shaped suffered its worst crisis of credibility in history. Experts say the abuse crisis not only tarnished John Paul’s image, but it also exposed pre-existing rifts between what the pope preached and how Catholics behaved on a wide variety of issues, from birth control to abortion to gay marriage and other matters. Moreover, they say the scandal and resulting disillusionment with the institutional church that John Paul championed also contributed to a sense that Catholics would continue to go their own way on moral questions. That is the exact opposite of what John Paul wanted.

A return to tradition and orthodoxy

John Paul strongly emphasized what he perceived to be a need for Catholicism to return to its roots, which experts saw as a trend towards conservatism and which sparked a number of polarizing debates in the church. Many liberal and moderate Catholics were alienated by his policies, but others saw his papacy as a natural reassessment period after the great reforms of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965). Debates over liturgy, the role of lay people in ministry and worship, the bar on women from the priesthood, the disciplining of theologians, the Catholic identity of church universities, the enforcement of Catholic sexual teaching, among other issues, all became battlegrounds. Many experts viewed all of these debates through the lens of authority and how it was exercised in the church – from Rome, as John Paul would have it, or in a more decentralized way, as others would like.

The priesthood

John Paul was a great champion of the all-male, celibate priesthood. But in spite of his encouragement, vocations have continued to erode, especially in relation to the world’s Catholic population, which increased 40 percent during his tenure, topping 1.1 billion. The clergy sex abuse scandals that shadowed the latter stages of his reign also contributed to a growing ferment on issues regarding the priesthood. Issues of optional celibacy and women’s ordination were at the forefront of Catholic debates toward the end of his papacy, as they were at the beginning.

Outside the church

Papal statesman

John Paul’s impact in international affairs was obvious and profound. His visits to his native Poland and his support for the Solidarity trade union were universally considered as major factors in the collapse of Soviet communism. He was considered one of the foremost defenders of human rights and advocates for social justice, though experts say those messages did not receive nearly as much attention in the United States as they did in the developing world, where John Paul was enormously popular. The pope was often critical of United States foreign policy, especially in the post-Cold War era when America was the lone superpower. He denounced the United States’ war in Iraq. Depending on the administration in the White House, the Vatican either worked with – or against – U.S. interests on population control issues in United Nations meetings in Mexico City, Cairo and Beijing. Experts also point out that for all of his global successes, travels and popularity, John Paul never visited Russia and China.

The modern world

The pope was a philosopher as well as a theologian, and a poet and dramatist as well. Papal experts say his efforts to engage the debate between religion and the modern were a signal legacy. The pope saw no conflict between faith and reason and believed they should be complimentary. But experts say John Paul disliked much that he saw in modernism, especially when the fall of Soviet communism led to what he saw as rampant materialism and secularism. The pope considered those trends – often associated with the industrialized West – as problems every bit as dangerous as Marxism.


While John Paul was known as a great promoter of Catholicism, he continued and often amplified the ecumenical (inter-Christian) policies of his immediate predecessors. John Paul held prayer services with other Christian leaders wherever he traveled. He was the first pope to visit Canterbury Cathedral, seat of the Anglican Communion, and he promoted dialogues with Protestantism, frequently apologizing for the sins of the past against reformers. While he made groundbreaking visits to Eastern Orthodox churches, he was not able to thaw entirely the chilly relations with the Orthodox, who he considered the “other lung” of Christianity. In fact, experts say the collapse of the Soviet empire and the resurgence of nationalism and the suppressed Orthodox churches may have contributed to a worsening of Catholic-Orthodox relations.

Interfaith relations

John Paul’s efforts in the arena of interfaith relations were extraordinary, even though a debate remains over their effect. He was the first pontiff to visit a synagogue (1986) and a mosque (2001). He reached out to leaders of all the major religions, and the Dalai Lama was a frequent visitor to the Vatican. John Paul hosted two interfaith prayer services in 1986 and 2001 at Assisi with the leaders of the major world religions that were emblematic of this push. Experts say John Paul’s efforts to forge bonds with the Muslim world were less successful than his attempts to heal divisions between Catholics and Jews. Most Jewish leaders recognize John Paul as a historic figure in this regard, even though experts in both camps say that for all the progress, many issues remain.

Poll on the Pope

  • “American Catholics Rate the Pope”

    A 2003 Washington Post/ABC News poll showed strong support for Pope John Paul II in general, but many disagreements with him among American Catholics-and more so among non-Catholics on specific issues.

National sources

  • George Weigel

    George Weigel is an orthodox-minded Catholic theologian and distinguished senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. He is the author of God’s Choice: Pope Benedict XVI and the Future of the Catholic Church (2005) and Witness to Hope (1999), which is essentially the authorized biography of Pope John Paul’s papacy. Weigel also wrote The End and the Beginning: Pope John Paul II : The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy (2010).

  • Michael A. Fahey

    The Rev. Michael A. Fahey is professor emeritus of theological studies at Marquette University in Milwaukee. He is an expert on the history and office of the papacy, and papal elections.

  • Robert Wister

    The Rev. Robert Wister is a leading expert on the history of the papacy. He is a professor of church history at Seton Hall University in New Jersey. He earned a doctorate in church history at the Gregorian University in Rome.

  • Helen M. Alvaré

    Helen M. Alvaré is a professor of law at George Mason University in Virginia. Alvaré chaired the commission investigating clerical abuse in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia and was an adviser to Pope Benedict XVI’s Pontifical Council for the Laity, as well as an ABC News consultant. Her scholarship regularly addresses current controversies about marriage, parenting and the new reproductive technologies.

  • Philip A. Cunningham

    Philip A. Cunningham is a professor and director of the Institute for Jewish-Catholic Relations at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia. Before that he was a theology professor at Boston College and executive director of the Center for Christian-Jewish Learning. The center is “devoted to the multifaceted development and implementation of new relationships between Christians and Jews that are based not merely on toleration but on full respect and mutual enrichment.” Cunningham is an expert on the Catholic Church’s dialogues with Judaism, especially during the reign of Pope John Paul II.

  • John L. Allen Jr.

    John L. Allen Jr. is editor of Crux, a website specializing in coverage of the Catholic Church. He previously was the longtime Rome correspondent for National Catholic Reporter. Allen is considered a top Vaticanologist and a leading English-language expert and commentator on the papacy.

  • Eugene Kennedy

    Eugene Kennedy is emeritus professor of psychology at Loyola University, Chicago and a columnist for National Catholic Reporter. Kennedy has argued that the Catholic church needs to go in a more reformist direction. He is author of several books, including The Unhealed Wound: The Church and Human Sexuality (St. Martins Press, 2001).

Regional sources

In the Northeast

  • Stephen Pope

    Stephen Pope is a professor of theology at Boston College and a frequent commentator on church affairs and the papacy. He is author of The Evolution of Altruism and the Ordering of Love and writes about different forms of love in Christian thought, Christian ethics, justice, and charity, and evolutionary theory.

  • Alice Laffey

    Alice Laffey is an associate professor of religious studies at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass. She has written a history of papal statements and the evolution of papal teaching, and she can address issues regarding women and gender.

  • Lisa Sowle Cahill

    Lisa Sowle Cahill is a professor of theology at Boston College who has written about genetics from a Christian perspective. Her books include Theological Bioethics: Participation, Justice and Change and Bioethics and the Common Good.

  • Mary Ann Glendon

    Mary Ann Glendon is the Learned Hand Professor at Harvard Law School and was a vocal advocate of  Pope John Paul II’s views on women, abortion, sexuality and related issues. In 2004 the pope appointed her as head of the Vatican’s Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, at that time the highest Vatican post ever held by a woman. From 2008 to 2009 she was the U.S. ambassador to the Holy See.

  • Robert P. George

    Robert P. George is the McCormick professor of jurisprudence at Princeton University. He has written on natural law, marriage and family life, religious freedom, bioethics and public morality. Additionally, he’s served on the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom and the President’s Council on Bioethics.

  • Jo Renee Formicola

    Jo Renee Formicola is a professor of political science at Seton Hall University in New Jersey and author of Pope John Paul: Prophetic Politician (Georgetown University Press, 2002). She can discuss the impact of John Paul’s papacy on world affairs. She is co-author, with Mary C. Segers and Paul Weber, of Faith Based Initiatives and the Bush Administration: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.

  • Roberto Suro

    Roberto Suro is a professor at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism and the School of Policy, Planning and Development at the University of Southern California. Before moving to USC in 2007 he was director of the Pew Hispanic Center, a Washington-based nonpartisan research center established in 2001. Suro can talk about the growth of Hispanic Catholicism in America, and as a former New York Times Vatican correspondent in the 1980s, he can talk about Pope John Paul II’s legacy and his global journeys.

  • Stephen D. Miles

    Stephen D. Miles is associate professor of theology at Immaculata University in Pennsylvania. His teaching and research interests include the Catholic Church and the pope.

In the South

  • Gerald P. Fogarty

    The Rev. Gerald P. Fogarty is a professor of religious studies and history at the University of Virginia and an expert on the Vatican. He is the author of several books on Catholicism and the papacy. His essay “The Papacy: From Low Regard to High Esteem” is part of a 2000 collection from Liturgical Press titled The Catholic Church in the Twentieth Century.

  • A. James Rudin

    Rabbi A. James Rudin was the senior interreligious adviser for the American Jewish Committee and a longtime veteran of Catholic-Jewish dialogue. He met with Pope John Paul II many times and participated in high-level talks at the Vatican between Catholic and Jewish leaders. He has also consulted frequently with Christian churches and groups that want to present Passion plays and Easter dramas. Rudin is currently affiliated with Saint Leo University in Florida and works at the university’s Center for Catholic-Jewish Studies.

  • William F. Maestri

    The Rev. William F. Maestri is a theologian and spokesman for the Archdiocese of New Orleans with a specialty in bioethics. He can talk about Pope John Paul II’s philosophical defense of human dignity in all contexts — medical, economic, etc.

  • Charles E. Curran

    Charles E. Curran is the Scurlock Professor of Human Values at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. He specializes in moral theology, social ethics and the role of the church as a moral and political actor in society. He is a liberal theologian who was dismissed from Catholic University of America for his teachings on human sexuality after an extended struggle, which included meetings with then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. Curran can also comment on the politics of the papacy.

  • John Norris

    John Norris is a theology professor at the University of Dallas and an expert on Catholic history and the teachings of John Paul II.

In the Midwest

  • Steven M. Avella

    The Rev. Steven M. Avella is associate professor of history at Marquette University in Milwaukee and an expert on American Catholic history and the history of the American West.

  • Dennis Martin

    Dennis Martin is an associate professor of theological history at Loyola University in Chicago and an expert on papal history and Pope John Paul II’s life, history and writings.

  • Peter J. Bernardi

    The Rev. Peter J. Bernardi is an associate professor of religious studies at Loyola University in Chicago. He can talk about the papacy in the contemporary world. He contributed an essay to the collection in Catholicism Contending With Modernity: Roman Catholic Modernism and Anti-Modernism in Historical Context.

In the West

  • Thomas P. Rausch

    The Rev. Thomas P. Rausch is a professor of theology at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. A Catholic priest, Rausch is the author of Authority and Leadership in the Church: Past Directions and Future Possibilities.

  • Sally Vance-Trembath

    Sally Vance-Trembath is a lecturer at Santa Clara University. Her areas of expertise include the pope and the Catholic Church today.

  • Stephen Sundborg

    The Rev. Stephen Sundborg is president of Seattle University. He was in Vatican City 25 years ago and witnessed the announcement of the new pope at his first appearance.

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