The following is an essay by Stephen M. Colecchi, Director of the Office of International Justice and Peace at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops:
Pope John Paul II exercised considerable influence over world affairs. He was a different “diplomat,” one who transformed political situations with moral and cultural leadership. For over a quarter century he championed what he came to call a “culture of life”—a culture that embraced the life and dignity of every person at every age and stage of life.
Some statistics in his Vatican biography hint at John Paul’s extensive diplomatic involvement. Over 26 years as pope, he engaged numerous political leaders in 38 official visits, 738 meetings with heads of state, and 246 with prime ministers. This short essay cannot capture the breath or depth of his diplomacy.
Many believe his election, the first of a non-Italian pope in almost five centuries, and the only from a Communist nation, was critical to the liberation of Eastern Europe from communism. Pope John Paul’s moral and spiritual support strengthened the Solidarity movement in his native Poland and his pastoral visits in 1979, 1983 and 1987 energized Poles in their struggle for freedom. When Poland non-violently threw off communist rule in 1989, it was the first of the communist dominoes to fall in Eastern Europe.
The Pope’s promotion of freedom did not flow from a political ideology; it was rooted in his grasp of the truth of the human person expressed in his teaching. For example, in his 1987 encyclical, Sollicitudo rei socialis, he critiqued both capitalism and Marxism, and blamed East-West rivalry for contributing to the growing North-South poverty gap.
Pope John Paul II was a prominent critic of the war in Iraq. In his 2003 annual address to diplomats, he admonished world leaders: “War is never just another means that one can choose to employ for settling differences between nations;” it must be a last resort. He warned of the “consequences for the civilian population both during and after the military operations” and sent papal envoys to Iraqi leaders and President Bush to try to prevent the war. Sadly Iraqi civilians, and particularly Iraqi Christians, are still suffering terrible consequences today.
In a less well known crisis, the year following his election he agreed to mediate a serious territorial dispute between Argentina and Chile that threatened war. A Treaty of Peace and Friendship was signed by the two countries at the Vatican in 1984.
John Paul II took on many causes. In 1979 and 1995 at the UN, he emphasized “universal rights which human beings enjoy by the very fact of their humanity.” To promote nuclear disarmament, he sent a delegation from the Pontifical Academy of Sciences to various world leaders in 1981 to share the consequences of using nuclear arms. He sparked a global movement to forgive the debt for the poorest nations as part of the Great Jubilee Year 2000. In the wake of 9/11, he gathered the world’s religious leaders in Assisi for a second Day of Prayer for World Peace, building on the earlier unprecedented gathering he held in 1986. He frequently appealed for peace, poverty reduction, and clemency in death penalty cases, a cause given credibility by his forgiveness of his would-be assassin.