Some who would be seen as intensely loyal to the papacy were voicing deep concern for the future of the church as a specific result of John Paul’s momentous pontificate.
Some who might be viewed as vehement critics of the Polish pope’s 26 years at the helm were praising the man for his fortitude, his principled stands, his ability to draw a clear line in the sand, and not be moved from it.
John Paul II was for sure a phenomenon wrapped in a conundrum.
As much as he impressed and infuriated people, John Paul has posed numerous questions, critical and puzzling, for those who must seek to clarify the man’s historical legacy.
John Paul was, at the very least, a man with an acute sense of his church’s historical mission.
To many people, Catholics and non-Catholics, he was also a contradictory figure. He stood fast behind traditional doctrinal orthodoxy while employing all the tools that modernity could provide to further what was in effect a retreat to pre-Vatican II standards and norms.
He delivered instructions to the faithful that appeared at direct odds with the daily practices of so many of them.
But his ability to charm, the starkly evident power of his personality, made sure that even his most unpopular dictums were heard, and absorbed with respect.
You might not agree with the man, but you did not dismiss him or his words lightly.
It was this ability of John Paul to profoundly impress those who disagreed with him, or those who were merely indifferent to his teachings, that has resulted in so much praise this past week from people who are just as quick to state that they embrace lifestyles very different to what John Paul raised to the height of the sublime and holy.
This raises an important question. Has John Paul’s church been adversely affected in direct proportion to the extent the man’s charisma and inspiring personality elevated his papacy?
And that papacy is already being dubbed “great.”
If the label sticks, the problem is that the bar has been raised to such a level that the next pope must either be a replica of John Paul II, or, inevitably, a paler shadow.
A replica will be hard, if not impossible, to pull from the 117 voters in the College of Cardinals.
The paler shadow would seem be a more likely result of the upcoming conclave.
Or, of course, there is the possibility of a pope who charts a completely new course for a church that is facing challenges unimagined even in 1979.
In a week of mourning and ritual, more and more eyes will be turning to this troublesome future.
The cardinals must choose a successor to Peter. But in a more immediate sense they will seek to find a man to replace Karol Jozef Wojtyla, a most outstanding man of his times indeed, but one who history might see as a pope who poured extraordinary faith and energy into merely delaying the tide of inevitable historical change.