hen John Paul II was elected Pope in October 1978, I was a first grader at my Catholic elementary u___j school in the Bronx. I still remember Mrs. Mangieri, my teacher, running to turn on the television and bring us the news that we Catholics had a new spiritual leader. I immediately warmed to the new Pope, and he became one of my childhood heroes along with President Ronald Reagan, Bruce Springsteen, and Graig Nettles, the third baseman for the New York Yankees. As I grew into adulthood, both my religious faith and admiration for John Paul II deepened. For me, the Holy Father was a leader in the true sense of the word, preaching the Gospel to an often confused, tormented, and skeptical world and having the courage to uphold the Catholic Church's teachings, especially the unpopular ones. A short time after learning that the Pope had died, I attended my usual Saturday evening Mass at my local parish. I choked back tears as we prayed, "Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord, and let your perpetual light shine upon him." Since his death a year ago, John Paul II's achievements have been extensively discussed and celebrated. He provided the moral leadership that helped bring down Communism, championed human rights and freedom throughout the world, and improved relations with Protestants, Jews, Muslims, and other religious groups through ecumenical dialogue and acts of good will. Although they acknowledge these and other accomplishments, several prominent Catholic dissidents have asserted that John Paul II's "authoritarian style" and his uncompromising stands on artificial contraception, abortion, the ordination of women, married priests, and other matters, alienated many Catholics and harmed the Catholic Church as an institution and its prestige around the world. Although critics in the media and Catholic dissidents are quick to point out the Church's obvious problems such as the declining number of priests and the sexual abuse scandals, Roman Catholicism's unprecedented growth in the last several decades has received little or no attention. The Encyclopedia Britannica's Book of the Year for 1979 reports that in 1978, when John Paul II was elected, there were 563 million Roman Catholics in the world out of a total global population of


By Dimitri Cavalli


about 4 billion people. The Encyclopedia Britannica's Book of the Year for 2005 reports that in 2004, the last full year of John Paul II's pontificate, there were 1.1 billion Catholics in the world out of a total global population of about 6 billion people. During Pope John Paul IFs reign, the size of the Catholic Church nearly doubled. The Church has enjoyed its largest growth in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and Oceania. But Catholicism is not just a religion for "Third World" people. In Europe, which has become heavily secularized and even openly hostile to Christianity, there are still about 100 million more Catholics today than there were in 1978. In the United States, the number of Catholics surpassed the number of mainline Protestants a few years ago. These figures show that many Catholics have remained active in their faith by having their children baptized, and that many people have also converted to Roman Catholicism. In my view, John Paul IPs leadership had a lot to do with the Church's extraordinary growth. Before ascending up to heaven, Jesus Christ exhorted his Apostles, "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit" (Matthew 28:19). The Holy Father took these words to heart, deciding to preach the Gospel in person and eventually visiting 133 countries. This man, a philosopher and theologian by training and a former actor, had nothing of material value to sell but offered only a simple, clear, and uncompromising message of unconditional love, that Jesus Christ has not abandoned us to our countless problems and fears, and that each one of us has God-given rights and a dignity that must always be respected. In the last 27 years, tens of millions of people in nearly every part of the world responded to the Holy Father's message, leaving many secular elites puzzled. No one denies that the Catholic Church today has problems. Different people, however, may disagree on what those problems are and how to address them. The image often peddled in the secular media of the Church in decline and gradually losing its relevance is a myth. Much work remains to be done, but Pope John Paul II has left his Church and the world in far better shape than they were in 1978. Time will tell if Pope Benedict XVI, who has made the re-evangelization of Europe a top priority, can build on his predecessor's achievements and bring more people to the faith. • Dmitri Cavalli lives in New York City.

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