INDEPTH: POPE JOHN PAUL II
The Vatican: Its rise to spiritual superpower
CBC News Online | April 2005
From the National, March 31, 2005
Reporter: Brian Stewart
Producer: Harry Schachter
Vatican has become not only a spiritual force but a political
one. CBC’s Brian Stewart looks at how the Holy See
emerged as a spiritual superpower.
For more than a quarter century, Pope John Paul II has held a towering status in a turbulent era: the world's pre-eminent spiritual leader. No one on earth has been more photographed or honoured or more adored by giant crowds of faithful.
|CBC's Brian Stewart on the Vatican's emergence as a spiritual and political superpower.
Video runs 9:52
More often than is recognized, he helped shape the face of modern world politics. He has influenced debates over issues as broad as social justice, family relations, war and peace. To a generation that has only known this one pope, it may seem the papacy has always been thus, but not so.
Michael Higgins is a leading Catholic commentator who has closely studied the church under John Paul: "The papacy as we have it now is a remarkably revivified or restored international reality. This isn't always the way it's been."
Michael Higgins: "The papacy as we have it now is a remarkably revivified or restored international reality."
"Even in recent years, I mean, at the turn of the 18th century, the pope was kidnapped. Napoleon just picked up Pius VI, brought him to Paris, had him crowned and had his way with him. Pope Pius IX had to flee from Rome during the Italian unification. His life was threatened and his immediate aides, and he withdrew into the Vatican.
"That's where you get the phrase, 'prisoner of the Vatican.' The Pope, in effect, became prisoner of the Vatican. So the highly visible, transportable papacy that we've seen during the pontificate of John Paul II is a wonderful illustration of how the papacy has actually been turned around."
One aspect of the Pope's importance, however, has not varied. For a billion Catholics, he's not just a leader elected by cardinals in Rome. He's a human link to the very birth of Christianity in a spiritual line of succession going back 2,000 years to Christ's apostle St. Peter. Other Christians may dispute this continuity, but it is crucial to any papacy's clout.
Father Raymond De Souza, a university chaplain and also a prominent writer on Catholicism, has this view of the Catholic Church:
Father Raymond De Souza: "...we believe that the Pope...inherited that special role of being that vicar that takes the place of Christ."
"The Catholic belief is that Christ himself founded a church built on the apostles, and amongst those apostles, the first bishops, he chose Peter St. Peter to be the one who is the prince or the head, and made him the vicar."
"We use the term vicar of Christ, you hear that term used for the Pope, and it means that the successor of St. Peter, and we believe that the Pope, this current Pope, the 264th successor of St. Peter, inherited that special role of being that vicar that takes the place of Christ. It doesn't mean that he has Christ-like powers or that he's divine. Obviously not, but that authority on which the church was founded by Christ has been given to St. Peter and his successors."
Over centuries, the profound spiritual importance of the papacy has given the Pope's government the Holy See, or the Vatican as it's usually called a worldwide secular power base. Other governments are keenly aware of the Vatican's intricate web of connections.
"There are very few spots on the planet that don't have some kind of Roman Catholic presence, a missionary order, a tradition of Catholicism, recent arrivals, whatever," according to Higgins.
"In addition to that, you have a fairly large network of personnel, hundreds of thousands of Roman Catholic priests who are in both religious orders and in the secular priesthood. Now, when you marshal that personnel, I mean, that really eclipses most governments when you consider the sheer size of the personnel working for the central administration."
It is said that such connections give a pope unofficially one of the best intelligence services anywhere. And the Vatican's timeless diplomatic corps is widely viewed as one of the world's best.
"Currently the Vatican maintains bilateral diplomatic relations with 172 countries, which is actually one more than the United States government, for example, maintains," says religious historian John Peter Pham.
John Peter Pham calls the Vatican's network an "extraordinary force."
"In addition to that diplomatic network, the geopolitical significance of a community, a faith community of over a billion adherents around the globe serviced by a network of well over 4,000 bishops and a million priests is an extraordinary force."
Many world leaders still go out of their way to be seen with the Pope. Not just because he's a powerful symbol, but because the Vatican's goodwill is still important.
"The Vatican, where the Pope resides, is not just simply a spiritual power for Roman Catholics or a moral power for the non-Catholic world, it is a significant political presence," says Michael Higgins. "[If] you're talking in terms of influence, being an important player at the board when it comes to negotiations, being taken as a serious neutral voice on political and moral affairs, it's very difficult to be a serious competitor with the Vatican."
Though John Paul II has taken the modern media age papacy to previously unimagined heights, the process did not begin with him. Like so many cultural phenomena, it emerged in the glittering 1960s.
That's when a turbulent era of Catholic reform was introduced by the historic papacy of John XXIII, a daring and cheerful pontiff beloved by the media. His successor, Paul VI, took the papacy on the road, so to speak, travelling widely and involving himself deeply in world affairs, but still it was John Paul who most dramatically raised the profile of the papacy.
From the moment he first stepped on to the Vatican's famed balcony as the new Pope, John Paul set a jolt of vibrancy and renewed self-confidence through the church. He arrived at a time of political unrest throughout Europe, a growing self-doubt within the West generally.
"There was that sense that maybe the papacy was just going to overwhelm whoever was in it, and that is no longer the sense," says Father De Souza.
Yet in barely over a decade, he would play a pivotal role in ending the Cold War by staunchly supporting Poland against a threatening Soviet Union. Poland's triumph in turn set off one of the great upheavals of the 20th century, the fall of communism.
"I think the papacy would be important no matter who is the incumbent, just by the weight of the demographic and social factors; however, this particular Pope, John Paul II, has certainly contributed to the magnification of that importance," says John Peter Pham.
"His contributions are well recognized to the collapse of the Eastern bloc in the 1980s, by his tacit alliance with the West during that period as well as the internal dynamic of the Eastern bloc under Mikhail Gorbachev."
The papacy is also expected to be in constant dialogue with other religions, and this has political and diplomatic implications. For example, after John Paul opposed the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the danger of Muslim-Christian tensions eased in many areas.
Popes are not always successful. Governments often make polite noises and ignore papal criticism or advice. Still, the very trappings of the ancient authority in Rome lend extraordinary awe to the office. Even myth plays a part.
The priceless art and settings of the Vatican lead many to assume it's far richer than it really is. The art is heritage and cannot be sold. The Vatican runs on a modest budget, barely $300 million a year. When you reduce the Pope's government to its essence, it's a miniscule city-state run on rather medieval lines all of which only makes the importance of the papacy the more remarkable.
It depends on faith that still moves a billion people, and a line of authority two millennia long, and its influence will wane or grow stronger depending upon the singular will, style and spiritual appeal of the lone man elevated to St. Peter's throne.