Opinion: Charismatic Pope who touched a nerve

Peter Stanford, a writer and broadcaster and sits on various trustee boards

So John Paul II is buried and the cardinals of the Catholic Church are gathering to elect his successor. We have witnessed another great outpouring of public grief that has swept up many non-Catholics and non-believers.

Much has been said already of Karol Wojtyla's strengths and weaknesses, but his qualities as a moral leader are worthy of further reflection.

We operate, after all, in a sector that aspires to a certain type of moral leadership in society. Often this is implicit - by example - rather than explicit. Morality has become a rather embarrassing concept in society at large. Each to their own is the new mantra; everything is relative.

So trying to suggest some sort of collective standards is always tricky.

Historically, many of our leading charities have their roots in Christianity, even those that are often decried by the churches today. The Brook Advisory Clinics, for example, were founded by a Catholic woman who was following the imperatives of her faith. And many new charities are Christian: one in ten of all new registrations, according to the Charity Commission (Third Sector, 23 March).

John Paul could, it should not be forgotten in this outpouring of grief, lecture in a style that recalled Victorian vicars scolding 'fallen women' before offering them a place to stay. But more often he managed to inspire.

Part of it was his charisma - the actor in him gave him a sure touch for the theatrical - but another key part was having the courage to tell people what, on the surface, they didn't want to hear.

His great advantage was lasting so long. If you keep hammering on about the same old themes for 26 years, people afford you a grudging respect.

To judge by the scale of the mourning, however, there was more to it than that. He touched a nerve, whether it was in opposing the death penalty, the two Gulf wars, the unequal trading conditions that blight the third world or even with his less immediately attractive line on personal morality.

There is a widespread sense that technology has got ahead of itself, and he articulated the fear that we play with the beginning and end of life at our peril.

One of his favourite phrases was that the church must be "a sign of contradiction" in an increasingly secular, selfish age. It works well as a mantra for charities too. We must have the courage to speak up, point out what is wrong and appeal to the often dormant moral spirit in our communities.

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