THE ten years of John Paul II's pontificate, which we mark this week, have been times of growing self-confidence for the Catholic Church. Paul VI had many fine qualities, not least his towering intellect and sensitivity to the modern age. But the later years of his pontificate were marked by a certain hesitation, which contrasts sharply with John Paul II's clear policies and forthright public statements.
These ten years have seen a leader of the Church who makes no apologies for speaking out strongly and unequivocably from conviction with the power of one who recognises his own duty to comment on the many challenges of our world, however unpopular his message.
Since 1978, the head of the Catholic Church has led his flock with robust energy that belies both his years, and the not inconsiderable physical discomfort he has suffered repeatedly since Ali Agca's foul assassination attempt in 1981.
He combines traditional with modern elements in his papacy. The prodigious volume of addresses, letters, exhortations and speeches is in the firm tradition of a scholarly papacy that had edured 2000 years. Yet he has also found time to travel more extensively than any of his predecessors — 78 countries at the last count. Such globe trotting has not only given Catholics worldwide a much more real sense of their leader, and of the direction that he has chosen for the Church, but it has elevated John Paul II to the inner circle of world leaders whose every word and movement command headlines through the technology of an appreciative global media audience.
There is another side too to these remorseless travels. While they give strength to Rome at the expense of the local church, and to the authority and direction of the papacy, they have also marked a distinct swing in the pendulum away from western Europe and towards the emerging churches in Africa, Asia and Latin America. The Pope has both anticipated and encouraged this trend. While we in western Europe at times run the risk of becoming obsessed with our liberal issues and battles, he has taken on board the truly universal aspect of his task in a way that none of his predecessors did. The reduction of the numerical strength of Europeans in the College of Cardinals has given further evidence of this commitment in Rome.
The clear lead that John Paul has given his flock has not precluded debate. Those who may question individual statements do so in a spirit of loyalty, and in the knowledge that while the church is not a democracy, John Paul has at least shown on his travels that he is prepared to listen before giving his lead. His spirit will characterise the Catholic Church as it enters the third millennium.
Rebecca Winterhalder is a happy, healthy 19-month-old baby. Her parents think the world of her: they've already got her down for a place at a local playgroup, and have high hopes for her future.
Two years ago, the outlook for Rebecca could hardly have been more different. Five months into her pregnancy Dawn, Rebecca's mother, was told her child had Down's Syndrome. Her gynaecologist strongly advised her to have an abortion, but Dawn refused. She wanted her baby, no matter what.
The Winterhalders expected the worst when Rebecca was born. In fact, said Dawn, they have been delighted with the best. At the moment their daughter is no different in her abilities from any other toddler. With support and help, there is every chance she will go to an ordinary primary, and perhaps even on to a secondary school. And when she eventually leaves full-time education Rebecca may, like other Down's youngsters, find herself a job in an office or shop, she might even learn to drive a car too.
Rebecca's parents, and the parents of other Down's Syndrome children, want more people to be aware of the potential of youngsters with this handicap.
What sadness these brave parents must feel when they read of a new test, heralded as a great step forward, which will provide more efficient screening for Down's babies before birth. They know, and the doctors know that the test will result in more women being pressurised into having abortions. And they know that, as well as denying countless babies like Rebecca the chance of life, such a move can only undermine their attempts to get their own children the recognition they so much need and deserve.