Answering to a Higher Standard

Pope John Paul II has many friends. A mind-boggling 4 million of them gathered in Manila last Sunday to welcome him to Catholicism's World Youth Day.

He also has critics. From Manila, he will proceed to Colombo, Sri Lanka, where Buddhist monks have demanded an apology for his unflattering comments about Buddhism in his current international best seller, "Crossing the Threshold of Hope." Philippine President Fidel Ramos is known to favor a greatly enhanced use of artificial birth control in his nation of 65 million, one-third of whom live below the poverty line. Birth control, as an issue, pits most of the Western World against papal authority.

And yet the Pope's book, selling heavily in Spanish as well as English, has been on American best-seller lists for many weeks. Half a million orders were received in advance for a CD recording of him reciting the rosary in five languages, including Latin. He was Time magazine's 1994 Man of the Year. In the face of many enemies--Philippine authorities reported breaking up a Muslim extremist plot to kill him during his visit--his personal prestige has never been higher. John Paul doesn't need army divisions to make his point.

The Pope's own explanation: "It is not the Pope who is being sought out at all. The one being sought is Christ." A secular explanation, if one is possible: The Pope is popular because he does not seek popularity, he does not seek to please. His goals are higher than that, and for those, especially the young, who crave a higher goal than secular society can offer, his 74-year-old voice still resonates.

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