THE VATICAN : Pope John Paul II: Statesman Without Peer

Robin Wright covered the early years of John Paul's papacy, while based in Rome, for CBS. She returned to write about the end of his papacy for The Atlantic Monthly last year. She now covers global issues for The Times

Pope John Paul II's trip to the United States this week is likely to be his last visit. Aging and frail, the pontiff is clearly in the waning years of his papacy. Yet, on the political front, he is no less relevant.

Media attention from his stops in New York, Newark and Baltimore will probably focus on contentious issues, like abortion and family planning. John Paul's importance, however, is not in church social doctrine, which, after all, dates back almost two millennia.

His real legacy is his role as statesman. On that front, his strategy is original and his impact incalculable.

The last Pope to have such a profound impact on world affairs was probably Innocent III, who reigned from 1198 to 1215, when medieval Europe was prostrate. He helped Europe regroup, and the Continent is significantly different today because of him.

In the context of the century before his election, John Paul is even more remarkable. Since the 1870s, when the Holy See lost the last papal state, the reigning pontiff has had little tangible clout. For 50 years, successive Popes were virtual prisoners in the Vatican, unable or unwilling to leave due to a struggle symbolizing loss of power in an increasingly secular world.

A revamped modern papacy didn't emerge until the Lateran Treaty with Italy in 1929. But the Holy See's territory, once covering thousands of miles, was down to a hundred acres. Its army of Swiss guards--the former mercenary force of 12,000 hired in 1506--is now a mere hundred men. Today, they're better known for their colorful 16th-Century uniforms than their military skills.

As Josef Stalin once quipped, "How many divisions does the Pope have?" The bottom line is that, for much of the 20th Century, the Vatican has been a peripheral player in international politics.

Then came John Paul. Today, no leader of any state, large or small, past or present, has ever traveled as much, or as long, or as far--more than a half-million miles, more than the equivalent of a flight to the moon and back--as this Pope. More than a year of his 17-year reign has been spent away from the Vatican.

And no single world leader of the same period has arguably had as much impact, not only in his native Poland and Eastern Europe. Worldwide, he has reached out, inspired and empowered people when their own leaders refused.

During a showdown between Brazil's military junta and nascent unions, when strikes and even meetings were outlawed, John Paul, a former quarry worker during the Nazi occupation of Poland, met with 120,000 workers in Latin America's largest state.

"Power must never be used to protect the interests of one group against another," he told them. "The persistence of injustice threatens the existence of society." He punctuated his words with calls for "solidarity" within society. Spoken at a time when Poland's young trade union was challenging another form of authoritarian rule, everyone listening--not only in Sao Paulo--knew what he meant.

The act of empowerment became part of the pro-democracy movement that led, in 1985, to Brazil's first democratic election--and the return to civilian rule.

In the Philippines, John Paul sternly warned dictator Ferdinand Marcos that no government could justify subverting human rights in the name of its own security or survival. And he told 100,000 desperately poor farmhands, "The church will not hesitate to take up the cause of the poor and to become the voice of those who are not listened to when they speak up, not to demand charity, but to ask for justice."

During Marcos' 21-year rule, no other visiting leader, before or after the Pope, was ever so publicly critical. The tone and content changed the atmospherics, and helped lay the foundation for Marcos' demise five years later.

Suggesting papal cause to explain political effect would be seriously misleading. Indeed, on the face of it, John Paul has done nothing more than espouse millennia-old Christian principles. But as part of a broader strategy, the words are shrewdly calculated.

"I call his speeches time bombs," a ranking papal aide once said. "They're intended to transform. We just don't know when they'll explode."

Sometimes, he hasn't even needed words.

In Rio, he slipped off his gold ring, a gift from Pope Paul VI upon his elevation to cardinal, and gave it to a poor Rio parish to sell to help the poor. In Hiroshima, he prayed at ground zero, then ministered in Nagasaki to ailing radiation victims long forgotten by the world.

In Africa, he pointedly took his entourage--and the world's cameras--to the prisons from which Africans were shipped off to slavery in the Americas. He conducted masses in an Indonesian killing field and in Peru's Andean City of Ayachucho, a stronghold of drug lords and Shining Path guerrillas.

And in a gesture of ecumenicalism with strong diplomatic overtones, he held a joint ceremony in Rome's main synagogue with the chief rabbi, even speaking in Hebrew. It was the first time any Pope had entered a Jewish house of worship. He subsequently opened diplomatic relations with Israel.

Despite his claims of eschewing politics, John Paul was a critical player in the global political upheaval of the 1980s. The Cold War's end, however, has not diminished his significance. And anyone who listens closely next week may hear his political message for the 1990s.

After years of criticizing communism and assorted authoritarian ideologies, he is increasingly criticizing capitalism. The world's dominant economic system, he warns, is responsible for grave social injustices--even creating the totalitarian alternatives that have divided the world most of this century.

"The needs from which [socialism] had historically arisen were real and serious. . . . The situation of exploitation to which an inhumane capitalism had subjected the proletariat since the beginning of industrialized society was indeed an evil. This, basically, was Marxism's kernel of truth, which enabled it to present itself as an attractive reality to Western society," he said in Latvia in 1993.

In newly democratic Czechoslovakia, John Paul warned against replacing communism with "indifference, hedonistic consumerism and practical materialism." He told the local clergy, "The dangers that regaining contacts with the West can bring must not be underestimated." And in a 1991 encyclical, he warned about "the virus" of Western consumerism, a form of "neopaganism."

As economic strength replaces military might as the barometer of power worldwide, his words are again shrewdly calculated. While his health may be waning, he stubbornly believes his impact has not ended.

His days of traveling are not over, either. U.S. church officials have quietly accepted that he is unlikely to make another major swing through the United States, in part because he has designs on other parts of the world. To cap his papacy, John Paul is working hard behind the scenes to get to Moscow and Beijing.*

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