“May you live 100 years!” shouted Poles when Pope John Paul II first visited his homeland in 1979 after having been elected pope in 1978. The ailing pope, who last week celebrated the 25th year of his pontificate, might not make it that long. But he has accomplished so much it will seem as if he had.
His 1979 pilgrimage to Poland ignited the Solidarity movement, which helped show that the country’s communist government was not on the side of the workers, but was an oppressive regime. Across the world, people watching at the time were astounded that a man of peace and faith had gone into the lion’s den of communism and stood up to tyranny.
The pope’s skillful diplomacy over the next decade was a major reason the Soviet empire collapsed with mostly peaceful revolutions beginning in 1989. He continued his peaceful battle to replace communism with his 1998 trip to Cuba, where he reminded dictator Fidel Castro of the importance of liberty and faith. And he has worked for peace across the world, from the Middle East to Latin America.
Another highlight came in 1991 with his encyclical Centesimus Annus, which promoted free markets and entrepreneurialism while criticizing the stultifying effects of large governments, bureaucracies and welfare dependency. “Another important principle is undoubtedly that of the right to ‘private property,’” he wrote. “This is something which must be affirmed once more in the face of the changes we are witnessing in systems formerly dominated by collective ownership of the means of production (socialist systems), as well as in the face of the increasing instances of poverty or, more precisely, of hindrances to private ownership in many parts of the world … .”
From his early days as a seminarian who was persecuted first under the Nazis, then as a priest struggling against the communists in Poland, Pope John Paul II has emphasized the human person — that every person has intrinsic worth and cannot be turned into an object by a government or anyone else. That’s a message that will last not just 100 years but for all time.