Faith Renewed: John Paul II and the Collapse of the Soviet Union

The situation in Europe after the Second World War was complex, and posed particular challenges for the Catholic church. The establishment of the “Soviet bloc” meant that many Catholic parts of eastern Europe unexpectedly found themselves under communist control, with severe restrictions being placed on the activities of churches and religious believers. In the west, the radical questioning of traditional structures of authority and beliefs in the 1960s created a cultural context that challenged many Catholic ideas.

The Second Vatican Council began to address some of the issues raised for Catholicism in the west, although its implementation led to some impatience developing, particularly in relation to the question of artificial contraception. Yet the influence of the Soviet Union and its eastern European satellite states arguably caused a much greater problem. There seemed little that the papacy could do to engage the situation. Influence was seen as resting on pragmatic factors – such as military force. On being criticized by Pope Pius XII, the Soviet leader Josef Stalin dismissed this intervention as inconsequential. “How many bat- talions has the Pope?”

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Pope Paul VI died in August 1978. Like his predecessor, John XXIII, Paul VI was an Italian pope, who had worked hard to improve relations with other Christian churches, and to open the windows of the church to the world. It was unclear who his successor would be. Some favored Cardinal Giuseppe Siri, the conservative archbishop of Genoa, whose criticisms of the Second Vatican Council suggested he would lead the church in a more conservative direction. In the event, the papal conclave elected the Italian Albino Luciani, who took the name “John Paul I.” It soon became clear that he would be a reforming pope, concerned to implement the decisions of the Second Vatican Council.

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