Pope John Paul II’s impact on the Diocese of Phoenix will continue long after his death, many Valley Catholics agree, even as they see lingering issues that his successor will need to address.
Monsignor John McMahon, a Valley priest who coordinated the pope’s historic visit to the Valley in September 1987, likened John Paul to a modern-day St. Paul because of his "zeal and determination to preach the Gospel,’’ across the globe.
McMahon believes the next pontiff must be just as unwavering in "representing Jesus Christ on Earth to keep the gospel message of Jesus whole and wholesome and pure and to not let teachings get watered down."
"John Paul kept the teaching of Jesus Christ intact," he said. And in that mission, he relentlessly personified "Jesus Christ alive and well in the world today."
Betty Bova, a member of St. Bernard of Clairvaux Catholic Church in Scottsdale, said she always was heartened by the pope’s insatiable drive to travel to all corners of the planet and speak in numerous languages to ensure the message of Christ was heard. "He was trying to make Catholicism universal," she said.
Esther Cota of Our Lady of Guadalupe parish in Guadalupe, believes John Paul’s legacy will be his demonstration of humanity.
"He understood how people feel," said Cota who attended the Mass celebrated by the pope in 1987 at Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe. Her four daughters accompanied their Catholic school classmates that day to see the pope at St. Mary’s Basilica in Phoenix. "I was so excited and I had such a good feeling" that night, she said.
Singing in the choir at that stadium Mass was transforming for the Rev. Chris Carpenter, then a college student and now pastor of Christ the King Catholic Church in Mesa.
Before that night, he had been repressing a potential calling to be a priest. "I had been thinking about the priesthood really since high school, but I had been fighting it. But in wake of the pope’s visit, I couldn’t fight it anymore," he said.
Apart from his inspiration to individual Catholics, there is a more practical legacy. Carolyn Warner, an Arizona State University political science professor, whose focus is religion and politics, said John Paul’s conservative adherence to church doctrine has left its imprint for Valley Catholics and others worldwide.
He tended to emphasize "religious doctrine over adapting to the times or adjusting the church somewhat to contemporary circumstances," she said.
His impact on the Diocese of Phoenix and his conservative view was apparent in his naming of Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted to succeed Bishop Thomas O’Brien in last 2003. That came in the wake of a sexual abuse scandal that had shaken the local diocese. Olmsted is considered conservative in his approach, as was evidenced early by his disciplining of priests who he believed were publicly straying from church rules.
Warner said the priest pedophilia scandal that occurred under John Paul’s watch and "his rather annoyed reaction to what was going on in the United States," also may be remembered, as will more positive traits such as his unrelenting opposition to war and violence. "He was very much a pope for peace," she said.
Mary Douglas of St. Mary’s Catholic parish in Chandler said she admired the pope’s conservative approach in the face of declining morals. But looking forward, she hopes the next pope addresses the status of women in the church.
"I want to see women priests in my lifetime, and I haven’t got much time left," said the 78-yearold woman.
Several emphasized the need for the next pope to find ways to recruit more Catholics to vocations, especially the priesthood, where a critical shortage persists.
"The Vatican really needs to get behind vocations more," said Jeff Van Brunt, 25, of Tempe, who saw the pope in Phoenix.
"We have a real shortage of priests and now with the scandals, a lot of young men and women might be reluctant to approach vocations or respond to the calling."