Recall January 1998 in Havana as the crowds shouted "Libertad! Libertad!" during John Paul's visit. Observers noted that a pained Fidel Castro looked as if he wanted to go to confession.
At each stop the crowds responded to his particular charisma, the showmanship of a former actor deepened by the serenity of a man who prays six hours a day. One minute on stage he was stealing rock star Bono's sunglasses; the next he was extolling the ministry of Jesus. He had a gift for using mass communication to criticize the affluent cultures that invented it. Teenage girls screamed at the sight of him. He made holiness buzz.
But over the years, it became less clear if his popularity translated into moral authority. Communism in Poland was an easy, familiar target and his victory was clean. But later in his pontificate, John Paul began to focus on more difficult targets such as capitalism. And here, the will of the people was not always on his side.
In his prodigious writings, he used church theology to fashion an alternative to modern materialism, to try to teach Catholics how to live in a world with fading respect for authority and human dignity, and amid scores of new-fangled temptations. He tried to find a way "to engage with the world without becoming of the world," explained Monsignor Lorenzo Albacete, a theologian and New York writer.
To accomplish that, he reoriented the theology of the church in fundamental ways. His writings emphasized the role of Jesus not just in revealing the mystery of the divine but also the mystery of the man. The result was to elevate the dignity of the human being, said David L. Schindler of the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family at Catholic University.
Simplified radically, his theology was this: Without fixed moral principles, people can fall into the trap of treating one another like objects of commerce or pleasure or vengeance. The proof was in nearly all realms of human activity. In "The Gospel of Life," his famous 1995 indictment of modernity, he cited the Second Vatican Council in listing murder, genocide, abortion, euthanasia, slavery, prostitution and disgraceful working conditions.
The task was his most ambitious, because it meant beating back not just one government or movement but the whole course of the modern world. The strain of his struggle showed. The pope meant his message to fill people with hope. Yet often, his tone turned dark and brooding. "In addition to the ancient scourges of poverty, hunger, endemic diseases, violence and war, new threats are emerging on an alarmingly vast scale," he wrote in an encyclical that read more like a Human Rights Watch report than a spiritual message.
The future looked even bleaker to him: "With the new prospects opened up by scientific and technological progress," he continued, "there arise new forms of attacks on the dignity of the human being."
He took this message with him back to Poland in 1995. This time he was in a new landscape of fast-food restaurants and red-light districts. The audience at Victory Square was distracted, and some reporters swore they heard boos. At one point the pope had to shake his fist like a grade-school teacher to get the crowd to listen.
"When people were free, it turned out they didn't go to church," said Albacete, the New York theologian. "They went to the nearest McDonald's."
Internally, similar battles were being played out over church discipline. In 1994, after the Anglican church became one of the last in the Protestant world to allow the ordination of women, the pope published an apostolic letter reiterating the historical and theological centrality of an all-male priesthood. As usual, he believed in communicating and explaining and debating his decision in passionate detail, but the answer was the same: There would be no budging.
Another challenge came in Latin America in the mid-1980s with the rise of liberation theology. The pope considered this movement a misguided Marxist revival and did not try to hide his impatience. On tours through Nicaragua and El Salvador, he lost his temper with crowds, yelling "Silencio!" He shut down seminaries and disciplined priests he saw as replaying the worst era of Poland in the Americas.
In John Paul's struggle against the course of modernity, the United States held a special distinction. On the surface, it seemed the one place where the pope's vision had a chance -- the only country that had thoroughly modernized but where 95 percent of citizens still believed in God.
Some American Catholic intellectuals, mostly neoconservatives such as Weigel, implied he was the "American pope," indirectly blessing the American experience of liberalism. Others such as Schindler countered that there was too much that infuriated John Paul about the American experiment for him to be wholly embracing.