The above heading expresses the confidence of the Papacy in the hour of its eclipse and destruction by Christ—see Revelation 18:4. It also implies that in her recent history she may have “become a widow”, and may have “seen sorrow” but that the tide of circumstances has turned to her favour once more and so the ‘eternal’ institution of the Papacy steams ahead with all confidence. This sense of assumed perpetuity is comprehended in the reiteration of chapter 17—“the beast that was and is not, and yet is” (v8, v11). The Pope’s persuasion is that his office and his city will go on forever.

Looking back 200 years

When Napoleon bundled off Pius VII in 1809 to Avignon it really must have seemed that the end of the Papacy as a major player in world affairs had come. As shown in this series of articles there were in fact a lot more hurtful reversals to come. The first four Vials of Revelation chapter 16 all represented terrible turnarounds and humiliations for the Catholic Church, especially in her home territory of Western Europe.

The explanation given in 17:16 was most apt: “And the horns which thou sawest upon the beast, these shall hate the whore, and shall make her desolate and naked, and shall eat her flesh and burn her with fire”. The Roman Church lost vast lands and buildings of immense value all through Europe. Yet in the seventh Vial she is again “great Babylon”, who comes in remembrance before God. This resiliency is truly characteristic of the system, and the final bounce back from the depths of the 19th Century setbacks is an amazing final story in itself.

After World War II

Pope Pius XII continued his reign (as they so unashamedly call it!) until 1958, thirteen years after the war stopped. His family had provided lawyers to the papacy for many years and it was this kind of atmosphere and behaviour that characterized most of his nineteen year term. As well as signing the Concordat with Hitler’s Foreign Minister Von Pappen he made many such arrangements with other major European powers. Pius was fanatically anti-Communist and feared what this atheistic power might do to the Church if it spilled out from Russia into Western Europe. Cardinals in Hungary and Poland found asylum in embassies of western nations lest they were captured and sent off to Siberia. The bitterness between Rome and Moscow was very strong, but this Pope seemed only able to combat communism by a stone-wall approach and diplomatic intrigue. He became reclusive and this, combined with an ascetic lifestyle, generated much mystery about his person, so that his world-wide flock looked upon him as a living saint causing mass hysteria when he ventured to show himself to the public. Overall then, he held the old position of the Papacy but presided over a Church that was losing ground in a modern changing world. He also exercised ‘Papal infallibility’ when he proclaimed in 1950 from the chair of St Peter’s the doctrine of Bodily Assumption of the Virgin Mary into heaven. Why it had taken 1900 years for this fact to be proclaimed was just a strange and inexplicable thing, but it added to the mysterious autocracy of the Papacy, which was its image during the 1950’s.

John XXIII and Vatican II

When Cardinal Roncalli of Venice came to the Papal chair in October 1958 it was a very different scene in every way. Though 77 years of age he was personable, frank, open and even had a note of humour. He was in figure as short and plump as Pacelli was tall and lean. He arose from a poor farming family and had never lost the common touch. Despite his years he knew that if the church was to make progress and regain its supremacy then it just had to revitalise its thinking and review its many institutions and policies. Having been posted outside of Rome for many years, he had learned to accept the new wave of socialism and democracy and had often even befriended the Communist authorities where he resided.

It was in keeping with this new approach that he called Vatican Council II. There had been no Council since 1870. It had been a great shock to the Curia, the inner core of Italian officials, who were apprehensive of the changes that might come from such a gathering. His famous statement in opening the Council was “We are not here on earth to guard a museum, but to cultivate a garden”. With this determination the council, which met at times through the next four years, swept away much of its musty irrelevance and made itself more acceptable to the age of democracy. The Roman Church is of the world, so has policies on all manner of political and social questions and these received much consideration, as well as the doctrine of infallibility and divine revelation. When John XXIII died in June 1963 there was a worldwide recognition and respect for the far greater openness that he had brought into the Roman Church often despite bitter and determined conservatives in the Curia. So the Woman was lifting her image and increasing her popularity and influence in the world; the process was well underway!

Pope Paul VI—Man in the Middle!

When the Church signed the Concordat with the Nazi regime, in the back of the photo, attendant on Cardinal Pacelli (later Pius XII) was a younger man, Giovanni Montini. As this fact suggests he was trained in the Secretariat of State of the Vatican essentially involved in the intrigues of foreign diplomacy. He had an especially close relationship with Pius XII and in many of his habits and ways he was very similar to the mysterious pope. On the other hand he had spent a decade in the great industrial city of Milan and had fought to increase the role and prominence of the church in a communist run city, where he was closely associated with the common workers and the poor.

So when he became Pope Paul VI in 1963 his mind was divided between the liberal style of John XXIII and the arch-conservative style of Pius XII. Whilst many of his policies followed the revisions of John XXIII, his personal style was more in keeping with Pius. Paul VI travelled often and further than any pope in history, yet encyclicals like Humanae Vitae brought him an abiding hatred from liberal minds throughout the world. There is no doubt that this pope wanted to lift the church onto the middle of the world’s stage; he had the picture but he lacked the character to popularise his vision. Nevertheless the wider, more public, international role of the Papacy was given real impetus; and the Word of prophecy was surely determining the direction of this ancient institution as it prepared to redress its image for the final day of Yahweh.

Pope John Paul II—an Explosion in Popularity!

In October 1978 the cardinals met in Rome to elect a new pope. There was some special tension in the air, for only a month before they had elected Pope John Paul I who had mysteriously died after only 33 days in office, a shattering blow to the papacy who had hoped that he would breathe a new openness into Vatican affairs. Two Italian cardinals were the popular candidates, but in the early ballots they divided the votes so evenly that neither could obtain the sufficient majority to be elected pope. It was at that point that Cardinal Wojtyla of the city of Cracow in Poland came to the fore and after a short period of further ballots he emerged with eighty percent of the votes and took the name John Paul the Second.

By any estimation this man has created a new era for the Roman Church, just exactly the type of person we may have expected to come forward and lift the image and relevance of the Papacy. He was an outsider to Rome, from Poland still then behind the Iron Curtain of Communist Russia’s domination. He was highly experienced in the battle against atheistic Communism. He was a gifted academic, always given to study, reading and writing and yet a man of the outdoors, still given to skiing in the Tatras mountains of Poland. He genuinely loved people so that his residence in Cracow was open to all comers, a most unusual feature for a cardinal’s court. He lost his mother, his sister and his father before he was 20, knew poverty and simplicity and so had a soft sympathy for the oppressed. His youth was marked with a love for theatre and he would indeed have pursued this vocation before he turned to the priesthood. Both in the writing of script and in the performance itself Carol Wojtyla enjoyed exceptional theatrical ability.

When he then stepped onto the main stage of the church as Pope John Paul II it was soon evident that a remarkable personality had come to the Papal throne. He was an absolute arch-conservative Catholic in conviction, obsessed with Mariolatry so typical of his native Poland and every distinctive doctrine the Church ever held, yet with it all there came an egregious, smiling, embracing, reassuring leader who gave an amazing boost to Catholic confidence and wooed the praise and admiration of the world.

Pope John Paul II has spoken to larger audiences, in more countries, on more occasions than any other human being in history. His first international visits were to Mexico, South America, Ireland and the United States and millions of people came out to hear him. Vast open air masses brought millions of Catholics together. When he visited his home country he literally stole the hearts of Poland’s 40 million faithful and made the hearts of the Communist leaders to tremble at his presence. Cavalcades, pomp and bright coloured costumes magnified the sense of awe and wonder. Every continent and most countries have been visited by John Paul II. He has preached on all kinds of matters all through the world and has combined the warmth of John XXIII with the political savvy of Paul VI. A review of his weekly activities as in the Vatican Observer awakens one to the continuous program of events, receptions, speeches, and travels local and overseas, that has marked his twenty-five years.

In a word it has been a phenomenon. Even now when Parkinson’s disease has taken a toll upon his physical powers, yet the activity of the Papacy is still quite remarkable.

When John the Apostle was given the picture of the Roman whore in the day of its judgment it was that of a gaudy woman riding the crest of popular acclaim (Rev 17:1,2,15). She sits a queen and is no widow! The nations of Europe know they need Papal support to finally bring Europe together. It has been Pope John Paul II who has brought about this new buoyancy and confidence of the Church.

With the knowledge of our Master’s last message we have been blessed to behold this historic development, a helpful confirmation of our faith and a sure witness to the approaching judgment upon Babylon the Great (Rev 16:19–21, 17:8, 18:8).

The earlier Vials gave her opportunity to repent (16:9,11) but she took no heed and so “repented not” of the innocent blood of God’s servants which she had spilled so copiously for many centuries.

“Alas, alas that great city Babylon, that mighty city! for in one hour is thy judgment come.”