Some bloggers have lamented the fact that the late Pope John Paul II acted too much like a narcissistic pop star, and seemed to revel in gaining fame and popularity and playing to the media. This is to some extent a valid point and does have some justification. However I do feel that I could give a brief explanation why, and to do so we must see his pontificate in its historical context and its consequent implications on the present one of Benedict XVI.
John Paul II was elected in 1978 in the crisis of the aftermath of the second Vatican council. The rebellion over Humanae Vitae had seriously damaged the credibility of the church's teaching and magisterium, and dissent and compromise seemed to have all but gained the upper hand. The prestige of the papacy was at an all time low: the weak and vacilating leadership of an ailing Paul VI had been followed by an elderly John Paul I, who lasted only a month in office. Rome was completely powerless to do anything about bishop's conferences who were acting independently of the Holy See.
In these circumstances with the church and college of cardinals bitterly divided, in no way could anyone of the likes of Pius XII be elected to the papacy. So as always happens in such circumstances, a compromise candidate was chosen, Archbishop Karol Wojtyła of Cracow. He was a man for young people and culturally progressive, yet he was orthodox on doctrine: so he was acceptable to both sides.
In a church completely without direction and with dissent and doctrinal confusion everywhere, it was absolutely imperative to re-establish the prestige and credibility of the papacy and it's teaching office. With the church held to ransom by the media, John Paul knew that he could not reject the media, but had to use it and in many respects act like a pop idol. It was tasteless and banal, but we must bear in mind that God uses what is crooked to write straight.
Indeed the nineteen eighties was a particular time of pop idols and mass media generated personality cults. The films of that era such as Amadeus and Chariots of Fire focus on the genius and the superman. By profession Karol Wojtyła had been an actor, and he played on this fashion very well, and for good reason. He may have created a personality cult of himself, but it was not for his own glory.
John Paul used the cult following that he gained from the media and from his publicity stunts as a means to affirm the particular church's teachings of which he was a key architect - on the dignity of human life. He is well known as the author of Veritatis Splendor and Evangelium Vitae, but what is not so well known was that as Archbishop Karol Wojtyła he was the key figure in persuading Paul VI to hold fast and issue Humanae Vitae.
It should also be remembered that it was John Paul's particular charisma and leadership that brought about the eventual downfall of the Communist regimes of Eastern Europe. No other man could have done it - he himself was a Pole and knew Communism inside out, and it was his leadership that was integral of the unravelling of the Eastern bloc.
He may not have been a very good administrator - he tended to delegate as much as possible - and he probably failed to fully appreciate the importance of liturgy to the church’s life. But we must realise that it was largely him who made Joseph Ratzinger such a key figure in the church, and laid the way for him as his successor.
When John Paul II died, as anyone who remembers his funeral and the last conclave will remember, the great following he had among the faithful was effortlessly translated over to Benedict XVI, destroying the whole media propaganda assault against Ratzinger in one stroke. Despite the fact our present Holy Father has downplayed the cult following he achieved from his predecessor, it is stronger than ever.
Whether we like John Paul II or not, one thing is clear. His legacy on the church will be long lasting and irreversible, and the present pontificate could not be possible without him. Benedict would never be able to exercise his authority as he has done without that legacy. The reign of John Paul the Great was clearly part of the great plan for the church by divine providence, of which future generations of the faithful will be eternally grateful.