The drama of John Paul II

As his helicopter turned toward the Denver skyline and the Rocky Mountains, Pope John Paul II fingered his rosary and gazed at the 500,000-plus worshippers gathered in Cherry Creek State Park for the closing Mass of World Youth Day in 1993.

What the pope was thinking and feeling at that moment can be summed up in one English word, according to the American journalist and theologian who recently released "Witness to Hope," a stunning 992-page biography of John Paul. And that word is "Gotcha!"

Many bishops and commentators had expressed doubts that young people soaked in malls and MTV would rally around the aging pontiff. Yet the pope envisioned an updated version of New Testament drama in which St. Paul met the Greek intelligentsia in the court of Areopagus and sympathetically noted their mysterious altar dedicated "to an unknown god."

For John Paul, said Weigel, World Youth Day's success was a "vindication of his claim that you could take the Gospel into the heart of secular modernity. This is why Denver was chosen. It was chosen because it is a self-consciously modern and secular city. He was saying, 'We are going to the Areopagus and we'll have World Youth Day at the altar of the unknown microchip.' "

In that Mass, John Paul told his flock: "Do not be afraid to go out on the streets and into public places, like the first apostles who preached Christ and the good news of salvation in the squares of cities, towns and villages. It is time to preach it from the rooftops."

The young people prayed and marched and cheered, while legions of journalists debated whether a new generation was ready to obey this pope, or merely impressed by his star power.

This is a variation on a critical question about John Paul II. This pope survived Nazism and played a pivotal role -- if not THE pivotal role -- in the fall of Communism. But has he vanquished "cafeteria Catholicism," a do-it-yourself brand of faith that reflects this consumer-friendly age?

The most popular critique of John Paul, writes Weigel, comes from a chorus of secular media voices and leaders in Catholic academia. It argues that this pope is, despite his courage and impact as a statesman, best understood as an authoritarian who has opposed the birth of a collegial, flexible, modern church. This critique argues that John Paul has been especially oppressive to intellectuals and women and, thus, is ridiculously old-fashioned.

But Weigel flatly notes that 35 years "after Vatican II, John Paul II's intellectual critics, and in some instances his avowed enemies, remain firmly in control of most theological faculties in the Western world. If this is repression, it is repression of a very inefficient sort."

Thus, many Catholic conservatives - who yearn for the restoration of order and discipline in an era they believe is dangerously chaotic - now offer an equally harsh critique. They believe that John Paul has been a wonderful prophet and a sensitive priest, but say he has failed to be an effective king.

Weigel said it is important to remember that before he was a priest, bishop, cardinal and pope, the young Karol Wojtyla was an actor and playwright. Today, John Paul still believes that life is a drama with many acts, one in which actors must make leaps of faith from who they are to who they should be. And because of the drama he has watched unfold in his native Poland, the pope believes that the content of a culture is more important than political, economic and even military power.

John Paul has not been trying to win a battle. He has been trying to be a witness and an evangelist who confronts what he believes is a global "culture of death." The pope has refused to condemn the modern world, or to compromise with it.

"I think that the pope is a man who is utterly convinced that God is in charge of history and that the truth wins out over time," said Weigel. "He is quite confident that the best way to preach that truth is through the model of Christ - who did not propose the truth with a bludgeon, but with the example of his own life."