John Paul's Complex Legacy: A Priest Reflects

Listen: Hear Father Burns' Commentary

Commentator Hugh Burns is a Dominican priest who preaches at Catholic churches around the country.

I was a 26-year-old seminarian when Pope John Paul II made his first pastoral visit to the United States. It was October 1979, and I was an usher at the National Shrine in Washington.

Before John Paul spoke, Sister Theresa Kane, president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, made a straightforward plea for the ordination of women. At the time I found her words bold and inappropriate. Over the past 26 years I've changed. So did the pope. John Paul's pontificate, one of the longest in history, was one of great accomplishment as well as anomaly.

The tireless champion of human rights who stood up to communist repression dealt harshly with independent voices in the Church. He apologized for more than a millennium of Catholic anti-Semitism, then canonized several individuals whose attitudes and actions toward Jews remain an embarrassment.

John Paul confounded conservatives and liberals alike. The right applauded his strong affirmation of traditional doctrine and ritual rules, his stand on sexuality and bioethics and his crackdown on dissent. The left welcomed his opposition to the war in Iraq and the death penalty, his challenge to the excesses of the free market and promotion of the rights of workers. He fashioned a College of Cardinals reflective of a Church no longer dominated by Europeans.

John Paul has left a more disciplined Catholic Church. It is a stronger player in the shaping of the 21st century. It is also more divided within, more wary of internal dialogue than a generation ago.

There is a crippling shortage of clergy, along with a growing call for married and women priests. The crisis of pedophilia has seriously compromised the Church's ability to address any sexual matters convincingly.

The laity has grown up over the last 26 years. They will demand more empowerment, especially in the areas of finance and selection of pastors and bishops.

When John Paul stepped from his car in front of the National Shrine that October day in 1979, the crowd raised a stadium cheer: "John Paul II we love you!" The pope responded playfully: "John Paul loves you, too!" As we Catholics move forward with hope into a new era of challenge, I find myself saying, "John Paul, We thank you. John Paul, We'll miss you."

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