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The Pope's Silver Jubilee

After a quarter of a century and counting, what will be Pope John Paul II’s legacy?

October 16, 2003

After a quarter of a century and counting, what will be Pope John Paul II's legacy?

As milestones go, today’s 25th anniversary of the reign of Pope John Paul II is one that has been achieved only four times in history — placing it among the greatest of this era. Although the Pope continues to inspire reverence, questions swirl around the 83-year-old’s deteriorating health. After a quarter-century rule, we examine what the Pope has accomplished. How will he be remembered?

Although no one knows the exact date, Apostle Peter became the Bishop of Rome — and therefore the first Roman Catholic Pontiff — in 32 A.D., just after Jesus was crucified. He served as pope for 35 years until his own martyrdom in 67 A.D.

To this day, the duration of the first pope's reign remains unmatched.

It was also a crucial period of dramatic growth for Christianity, when the Church — although still clandestine and persecuted by the authorities — began its triumphal march through the Roman Empire.

Thereafter, popes tended to occupy the Throne of St. Peter for very brief periods. Often, their rule lasted only a few years — and, in some cases, just a few days.

In the early centuries of the Christian era, they were often martyred. That harsh reality also accounts for the prevalence of saints among the popes in the first few centuries A.D.

But even when the Church became fully established, the popes tended to be short-lived. First of all, before getting elected, they had to have a long career within the Church hierarchy.

They needed to build coalitions within the decision-making Curia — and usually spin a complex web of intrigue. Most of them ascended to the papacy rather late in life.

The office was further threatened by the political and military rivalries between Italy, the Church and various European kings and emperors — not to mention local Italian princelings.

None of these different factions were above eliminating reigning pontiffs — typically with the help of poison.

With popes coming and going in quick succession, it is no wonder that some time in the Middle Ages, papal longevity became a mark of distinction.

In fact, the Silver Jubilee — a 25-year spell as pontiff — became a barrier that only a truly great Pope could reach. He was expected to be the true heir to St. Peter.

A few popes came tantalizingly close. For instance, Clement XI — who ruled from 1700 to 1721. Or Pius VI, who died within months of his Silver Jubilee.

Of course, with modern science extending life expectancy, it was only a matter of time before that mark would be surpassed.

However, when it was, it proved anti-climactic. Pius IX ruled between 1846 and 1878. His reign of 32 years is still the longest since St. Peter.

Blessed Pius IX was a controversial figure. He was, for instance, notoriously anti-semitic. He allegedly sanctioned the abduction of a Jewish child in Rome to convert him to Christianity.

But what was particularly galling, far from extending the dominion of the Church, was that the reign of Pius IX marked the end of the worldly power of the popes.

They lost their remaining territories in Italy during the Risorgimento — the struggle for Italian unification and statehood. The Church, incidentally, was bitterly opposed to Italian unification. Its troops — actively, if ineffectively — fought it every step of the way.

In 1870, when the Italian government finally annexed Rome, Pius IX locked himself in the Vatican.

He refused to deal with Italian authorities — and forbade all good Catholics to participate in Italian politics.

One of the reasons why Italy became so radicalized after World War I — and fell easy prey to fascism — was the absence of a true centrist Catholic political movement in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Now fast forward exactly 100 years, to our own times. John Paul II, incidentally, was elected on October 16, 1978, exactly a century after Pius IX finally died.

The current pontiff enjoys remarkable personal popularity and support throughout the Catholic world. He is the most charismatic pope in centuries — and he certainly has traveled more — and more widely — than any leader of the Catholic Church.

Yet, even though today’s Silver Jubilee celebrates a historic milestone, there is no mistaking the fact that the influence of Catholicism around the world is in decline.

The Church remains staunchly conservative. It is doggedly opposed to modern social mores, such as extramarital sex, divorce and abortion.

In the traditional Catholic countries of Western Europe, few people now pay attention to Church orders. In fact, Italy and Spain — formerly the staunchest bases of Catholicism — now have one of the lowest birth and marriage rates in Europe.

In the United States, a nasty scandal surrounding pedophile priests has resulted in horrible publicity for the Church. It could prove very costly once monetary damages from numerous court cases begin to roll in.

In the minds of many U.S. Catholics, the scandal has been exacerbated by the unrepentant attitude on the part of the official Church hierarchy and the Vatican.

The loss of support in rich countries, and especially in North America, could undermine the economic foundation of Catholicism going forward.

But even among traditionally devout Catholics in the developing world, the Church is losing ground — particularly to various offshoots of evangelical Protestantism.

In Mexico, for example, only a couple of decades ago nearly 100% of the population were Catholic. Now, the proportion of Protestants exceeds 7% — and is rising steadily.

Yet, the war with Iraq gave the Pope an opportunity to regain lost ground. World leaders — including British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Spain's Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar, Iran's President Khatami and the former Iraqi Foreign Minister Tareeq Azziz — all visited the Pope before the war to discuss alternatives.

For his part, the Pope continually pleaded for peace and understanding — and urged an end to terrorism. The Vatican even sent a special envoy to Iraq to lobby for cooperation with UN weapons inspectors.

As Pope John Paul II — and the rest of the world — celebrate the Pope’s Silver Jubilee, some argue that the spiritual influence of the Catholic Church is coming to an end. However, it is very possible that the current global environment will need the guidance of this institution — and its leader.