The Right Leader at the Right Time

It is difficult to know which Pope John Paul II the world will miss the most.

Will it be the brilliant head of state, who guided the Vatican for more than a quarter century, and is widely regarded as a primary architect of the downfall of communism?

Will it be the moral arbiter, who criticized the excesses of capitalism and always cast his lot with the poor?

Will it be the philosopher, whose staggering body of theological writings is unmatched by any modern pontiff?

Or will it be the smiling Shepherd of souls, who could make gentle jokes and gibes in more than a dozen languages and whose nearly 200 trips around the world made him not just one of the most traveled humans in history, but one of the most recognizable faces of all time?

The man who was born Karol Josef Wojtyla in the Polish city of Wadowice in 1920 seemed always to be destined for greatness. Even as a junior high school student, he caught the attention of Poland’s most powerful religious leader with a smoothly worded speech he delivered. He survived the Nazi occupation of his homeland, and still found the time to act, write poetry and prepare himself for the priesthood, even as he did heavy manual labor in a quarry.

Once ordained, he was christened “Uncle Wojtyla” by the young people who adored his easy camaraderie. “I have two responsibilities to youth,” the newly frocked priest once said. “Canoeing and skiing.” He became, at 38, the youngest bishop in Polish history. When informed of the honor that had been bestowed on him, he protested that he was on vacation in the mountains and would take up his new position when he returned.

When Pope John Paul I died only a month after assuming the Throne of Peter, the elders of the Catholic Church were looking for a fresh face. In the cardinal from Krakow, they found everything they could have wanted: youth, vigor, charm, humor, intelligence and pastoral skill. The only problem: he wasn’t Italian. “Il Polaco!” — “the Pole!” — shouted the disbelieving throng in St. Peter’s Square when his election was announced in 1978. The newcomer from Poland won them over as soon as he appeared on the balcony and spoke to them in nearly flawless Italian. “If I make a mistake, you will correct me,” he said modestly. They loved him.

The pope’s final years of physical decline were a sad denouement to a life characterized by physical, mental and moral vigor. When he visited the United States in August 1993, John Paul accepted a gift of a pair of sneakers. Rather than politely putting them aside, he kicked off his black loafers, laced up the sneakers and led an astonished security retinue on a hike. It was a demonstration of the life embracing brio with which he conducted his life until illness curtailed it.

Because he was young, rugged looking, and athletic when he became pope, the Western world assumed he would bring an attitude of modernization with him. Yet Wojtyla, young or old, sporty or invalid, was conservative — theologically, socially and politically — to the core. When he revealed his dogmatic view of how salvation must be earned — by strict adherence to Church doctrine — European and American Catholics could not understand the contradiction between what he seemed and what he said.

Despite his initial popularity (followed by sullen opposition) in America, John Paul’s emphasis was never on the developed world. His focus of the Church’s future was the Third World – deepening its roots in Latin America and Africa, and establishing itself in Asia. Americans, fixated on themselves and their sex lives as always, never did figure out that while they were wrestling with personal freedom issues like women priests, homosexuality and abortion, John Paul was embarked on a grander scheme to make the Catholic church the world’s Christian faith. What Americans thought of him mattered to him not a whit.

Strategically and intellectually brilliant, quietly humorous, unendingly curious and imbued with a spirituality that few could even understand let alone match, John Paul was God’s gift to a church in need of leadership as it crossed the threshold from a tired, blood soaked millennium to the unknown of the future.

He was the right man at the right time. His equal is unlikely to be seen again.

John Moody serves as the Senior Vice President, News Editorial for FOX News. He is responsible for both the design and editorial direction of FOX News Channel and oversees all story content for FOX News. Mr. Moody is also the author of "Pope John Paul II: Biography".

John Moody is Executive Vice President, Executive Editor for Fox News. A former Rome bureau chief for Time magazine, he is the author of four books including "Pope John Paul II : Biography."