Pope John Paul II left a towering legacy, according to Rochester Bishop Matthew H. Clark.
“Most would agree he’s been one of the great world figures of our time. I think he’ll be strongly remembered by virtue of his long tenure and the style of his pontificate, his extensive travel,” Bishop Clark said of the pope, who died April 2.
The bishop saluted John Paul II’s “deep attention to life that’s vulnerable and fragile; it has been remarkable. He’s been a clear advocate of respect for life, all the range of life.”
Bishop Clark said the Holy Father earned universal respect for such actions as meeting with and forgiving the Turkish man, Mehmet Ali Agca, who had shot him in 1981. “It was a very strong sign of the depth of his spirituality, his commitment to the Gospels,” the bishop said.
He also cited the Polish pope as a key figure — if not the leading figure — in communism’s collapse in Eastern Europe during the late 1980s. “It’s interesting that he did it without any economic leverage or military power,” Bishop Clark said.
The respect Pope John Paul held among people of all ages was evidenced following a 1992 incident in which pop singer Sinead O’Connor ripped up a photo of the pope during an episode of “Saturday Night Live.” This prompted a huge backlash, even though the show had a long reputation for edgy subject matter.
One year later, the pontiff took North America by storm when he presided over World Youth Day festivities in Denver, attracting hundreds of thousands of admiring teens — including several hundred from Rochester, as well as Bishop Clark.
Asked how the pope could retain such solid multigenerational appeal, Bishop Clark replied, “The best I can come up with is that the man’s integrity is so strong. His message has always been convicted, consistent and clear. He explained what he thought and gave reasons for it.”
Bishop Clark’s tenure as leader of the Diocese of Rochester began in 1979, shortly after Pope John Paul II became shepherd of the universal church. In fact, then-Father Matthew Clark was serving as spiritual director at North American College in Rome when Cardinal Karol Wojtyla was elected pope on Oct. 16, 1978, succeeding Pope John Paul I, who had served just 33 days before his sudden death.
Bishop Clark recalled the scene in St. Peter’s Square on the night of John Paul II’s election. “There had been a magnificent sunset and the moon was rising. The square was full of throngs of people. It was a splendid evening,” he said. The bishop added that the new pope instantly endeared himself to the masses by asking for forgiveness if he did not speak clear Italian. It was a sign of things to come for a pope who became revered for his common touch.
At that point, then-Father Clark had never met John Paul II and knew little about him. Yet only months later, Pope John Paul asked him to become Bishop of Rochester. The pontiff ordained him in St. Peter’s Basilica on May 27, 1979.
Since then, Bishop Clark has met five times with John Paul II for ad limina visits — scheduled meetings between a pope and bishop that take place every five years. “The first four, I had the wonderful privilege of sharing his dining-room table with eight or nine bishops and celebrating Eucharist in his private chapel,” Bishop Clark said. During the Holy Father’s visits to North America, “he always put himself out to greet us (bishops).”
Citing the high volume of people whom Pope John Paul received at the Vatican, Bishop Clark said he was awed by the pope’s high energy level even as he aged.
“His schedule has been staggering, as I can perceive it,” the bishop said, observing that ad limina visits were “just one portion of his day. The stream of visitors every day from all parts of the worlds — that’s apart from his desk work and meetings, and the complicated issues to deal with in multiple languages.”
John Paul II was a fierce defender of life from conception to natural death, strongly denouncing abortion, euthanasia and capital punishment. Such stances brought mixed reviews from the public and certain Catholics, who considered him overly conservative. Bishop Clark said he refrains from affixing such labels to the pontiff, saying that in some ways John Paul II was “very, very liberal — out front seeking change and a better life for people.”
The bishop acknowledged that Pope John Paul led a strong movement to uphold traditional church teachings worldwide. “There has been a fairly notable centralization of authority — a more direct oversight, a tighter rein on the life of local churches,” he said. “Some would argue that this was responsible and necessary.”
Like any significant public figure, John Paul II will be scrutinized long after his death for his successes and failures, Bishop Clark said. But the bishop said the pope’s virtues “will stand strong through all that.”
Bishop Clark did not speculate about who will become John Paul II’s successor, but ventured that he will be an Italian.
“I don’t even have a great reason for it, it’s just my intuition,” he said, noting that John Paul II was the first non-Italian pope in more than 450 years. However, Bishop Clark also predicted that popes will come from several countries and continents over the next couple of centuries.
Asked about his hopes for the next pontificate, Bishop Clark said, “I’d love to see the new Holy Father remember that he’s just got to be himself. He will have a different set of gifts and aspirations — you’d want him to bring his own style, and not be caught up in the trap of living up to this wildly successful person.”