On Sunday Christians of the Roman Catholic and Protestant traditions celebrated Easter, the central holiday of their faith.  But Pope John Paul II for the first time was absent from some of the celebrations.  The revered leader of the Roman Catholic Church for more than 25 years, John Paul II has been hospitalized twice for the flu and a tracheotomy over the past several weeks.  He also suffers from Parkinson?s disease.  Despite his very frail health, the pontiff has consistently displayed remarkable will and spirit.

Monsignor Brian Ferme, Dean of the School of Canon Law at The Catholic University of America in Washington, said it is actually the Pope himself who insists on appearing in public, especially in difficult situations where he has been ?beset by sickness.?  The Monsignor said that?s because of the Pope?s deep spiritual understanding of his role as a priest and as leader of the Church.  In the past 10 years particularly, he said, Pope John Paul II has issued a number of encyclicals that underscore the ?culture of life? as distinguished from the ?culture of death.?  And with that comes an appreciation of those who suffer, especially the elderly. 

Speaking on VOA News Now?s Press Conference USA program, Monsignor Ferme said that it?s ?rather dangerous? to entertain ideas about legacies of people who are alive.  But, due to the circumstances in which the Pope was elected 26 years ago, especially in communist Eastern Europe, the Monsignor thinks it may not be too early to talk about a legacy of this pontificate.  As the most traveled pope in history, John Paul II has made more than 100 apostolic journeys to all parts of the world.

Monsignor Ferme said he believes Pope John Paul II will be remembered for his role in the Church?s relationship with the wider world ? for example, the fall of communism.  Talking about the Catholic Church, he admitted that there have been some ?wrenching? problems, especially in the United States.  The Monsignor said that the ?defense of life? is absolutely fundamental to this pope, which includes opposition to abortion.  At the ecumenical level, the fact that Pope John Paul II has extended his hand to non-Catholic Christians, to Jews, and to Muslims is extremely important, and he has repeatedly underscored his ?profound respect for the differences of the beliefs of people.? 

According to Monsignor Ferme, the Pope appeals to a wide range of people whether they are evangelical Christians, anti-communist East Europeans or social democrats because of his ?honesty? in navigating among these differing positions.  Theologically, he said, the Pope is perhaps best described as ?conservative,? but on social issues such as the ?unbridled making of money,? the ?defense of the poor,? and the definition of what constitutes a just war, he often leans in the other direction.

Regarding the choice of a new pope by the 117 electoral members of the College of Cardinals, Monsignor Ferme said the ?politics? of the situation is inevitably caught up with ?who they think? is the best person to lead the Church.  Another factor in their selection, the Monsignor said, is the number of cardinals from various countries.  For example, the United States has second largest group, after Italy.  Furthermore, he noted that the electors would probably not want the selection process to be protracted.  The press recently mentioned as possibilities well-known cardinals from Argentina, Brazil, and Italy, but the Monsignor said that ?no one knows? who will ultimately be chosen. 

Monsignor Ferme said that one of the challenges the Pope?s successor is likely to face is the advanced age of a number of the prefects of the Roman curia, or church bureaucracy in Rome, and the appointment of replacements.  And there may need to be institutional changes regarding the shortage of vocations to the priesthood in some European countries and in the United States.  Furthermore, the Monsignor said the new pope would need to consider the ?whole relationship of Catholicism with Islam.? 

For full audio of the program Press Conference USA click here.