What will be the legacies of Popes Francis, Benedict XVI and John Paul II?

By LARRY URISH     8/24/2018

As a boy in Wadowice, Poland, Karol Wojtyla loved soccer and was known to his friends as “Lolek the Goalie.” Whenever Jewish boys played Catholic boys in pickup games, Karol often volunteered to join the former group, so the teams would be equal in number.  

While Wojtyla won’t be remembered for his goalkeeping, his legacy will live forever. So will the legacies of the pontiffs who followed, Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis.  


Jorge Mario Bergoglio  

The first Jesuit pontiff, Pope Francis has rarely been associated with the word “traditionalist.” Choosing to eschew what many see as outdated protocols, he has implored Catholics worldwide to act like saints, not just quote them.  

“In the years to come, Pope Francis will be known for his willingness to reach out to the Catholic community,” says Msgr. Stephen Doktorczyk, vicar general of the Diocese of Orange. “His actions have had quite an impact.” 

While these actions – and his call to action – have ruffled more than a few feathers, Pope Francis’ spirit and messages have appealed to millions of Catholics, non-Catholics and even nonbelievers. And he hasn’t been afraid to mince words. In his encyclical “Laudato Si,” he slams conspicuous consumption at the expense of those struggling to survive, and he warns the world about the environmental threat to our planet. 

In addition, says Msgr. Doktorczyk, “Pope Francis has made more changes to canon law in his last five years than John Paul or Benedict did altogether. … We’ll also remember him for his reform of Catholic marriage-nullity procedures. It was bold, and he made it happen quickly.” 

Francis’ Year of Mercy, Msgr. Doktorczyk adds, led to a resurgence of followers going back to confession. “People around the world have seen the importance of confession. Even after the Year ended, it’s still having a positive effect.” 


Joseph Aloisius Ratzinger 

It’s unfortunate that Pope Benedict XVI may most likely be remembered for his 2013 resignation. Understanding what motivated him to do so helps put his decision into a positive light. 

“He saw John Paul’s last years, and it’s commonly accepted that [his waning energy] created a power vacuum,” says Msgr. Doktorczyk. “Benedict had to deal with the fallout when he became pope. So when he saw the effects of his own aging, he knew that stepping down was for the good of the Church. It brings up the question: Should someone be pope until he’s 95?” 

Pope Benedict’s legacy will be rooted in knowledge and teaching. “He had a background in scholarship,” Msgr. Doktorczyk says, “and he wrote brilliantly for scholars for many years. He was very prolific. After he became pope, his writings became easier to be understood by non-scholars. A lot of his original writing, in German, is now being translated.” 

Msgr. Doktorczyk notes one book in particular: “Teaching and Learning the Love of God,” a selection of homilies delivered over a 60-year period.  

While some have accused Pope Benedict of taking a stern view of those who disagreed with him, Msgr. Doktorczyk says this is an unfair assessment. “Part of that may have been due to his background as a scholar and the fact that he’s German – not always very expressive. Actually, he was a generous man. … More than one theologian who’d found himself or herself in trouble with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith stated after Benedict’s election that he’d been most gracious and kind while interviewing them prior to any decision to censure. He was never intimidating – never any dictator-like behavior.” 


Karol Józef Wojtyła 

The young goalie from Poland eventually traveled far beyond Wadowice. Pope John Paul II will be remembered for visiting 129 countries to spread the Catholic way.  

It was John Paul’s return home in 1979, however, that helped forever change the world. He reminded huge crowds of their Christian heritage, which the communists had tried – and failed – to erase. Coupled with his focus on human rights, the first barely visible cracks in the Berlin Wall began to grow. “John Paul and Ronald Reagan had a very good relationship,” says Msgr. Doktorczyk. “Their combined influence had a huge effect.”  

John Paul’s “Theology of the Body” will surely be a part of his legacy. “He paid special attention in his teaching on the Church’s doctrines about sexuality, marriage and family,” says Msgr. Doktorczyk. 

By canonizing more than 480 people and beatifying more than 1,300 (greater numbers than all the previous popes combined), Msgr. Doktorczyk notes that, “He acknowledged the fact that everyone is called to be a saint. He honored laypeople who did wonderful things for the Church.” 

John Paul will also be remembered for the Catechism of the Catholic Church and the Code of Canon Law – he was essential to their development and eventually approved both – as well as his brush with death, in 1981, and his 2005 passing.  

“He showed mercy when he forgave the man who’d shot him,” says Msgr. Doktorczyk. “And near the end of his life, he taught everyone how to suffer and die with dignity.”