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Pope John Paul II 1920~2005

The papal years: Charisma and restoration

Father Thomas Reese: Wojtyla was "a man of integrity and prayer."

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(CNN) -- Less than eight months after his inauguration, Wojtyla returned to Poland as Pope John Paul II for nine cathartic days.

Huge, adoring crowds met him wherever he went and were an acute source of embarrassment to the communist government. Officially, the country was atheistic; it was also suffering from food shortages. The pope added to the authorities' discomfort by reminding his fellow Poles of their human rights.

"That was the beginning of the end of what we call the Soviet Empire," Robert Moynihan, editor and publisher of the magazine "Inside the Vatican," told CNN in a 2003 interview. "I think he brought that empire down, but not with missiles and not even with economic sanctions, but just by being a man, by being a man of faith."

In the fall of 1979, the pope flew to Ireland and celebrated a Mass in Dublin's Phoenix Park for 1.2 million people -- more than a quarter of Ireland's population at the time.

He continued on to the United States where his visits to Boston, Massachusetts; New York; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Des Moines, Iowa; Chicago, Illinois; and Washington took on the trappings of major holidays.

The cities threw open their arms in a welcome that Current Biography said was of "staggering, unprecedented magnitude."

"Private citizens, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, flocked by the millions to glimpse the pope," it reported. "It was only a few short years ago that such mass forgetfulness of sectarian difference would have been unthinkable (and, politically, suicidal) in the United States."

Vibrations in the air

There was more to it than forgetfulness, for John Paul displayed that charisma during more than 200 visits to more than 125 countries over the past 26 years. And as TIME noted in naming him Man of the Year in 1994, he generated an electricity "unmatched by anyone else on earth."

In his book "The Making of Popes 1978," Andrew M. Greeley offered a close-up of the pope working a crowd: "His moves, his presence, his smile, his friendliness, his gestures ... have pleased everyone. ... He is great with crowds -- shaking hands, smiling, talking, kissing babies."

The Los Angeles Times reported that Poles waited for hours to see the pope when he returned in 1997. At his appearance, the crowds grew silent, "some falling to their knees and weeping as John Paul (parted) the crowd on a path to the altar."

"Such an incredible moment," Krzysztof Gonet, mayor of Nowej Soli, told the Times. "You can feel the vibrations in the air."

Not only was he the most traveled pope in history -- he spoke eight languages, learning Spanish after he became pope -- he also was quick to use the media and technology to his advantage.

In the early years of his papacy, he steered the Vatican into satellite transmissions and videocassettes. While other popes stayed close to Rome, remote and seemingly unapproachable, John Paul's wide-ranging appearances -- enhanced by an actor's sense of theater -- became worldwide news events.

When the pope visited Cuba in January 1998, hard-line Cuban leader Fidel Castro set aside his drab olive fatigues and put on a business suit to welcome him. Castro also attended a number of functions for the pope and escorted the frail Holy Father with almost touching deference.

A man with charisma, crowds gathered wherever Pope John Paul II went.  

The world is his business

Not content with tending merely to church affairs, John Paul made the world's business his business -- especially in regard to human rights.

"His engagement as pontiff was not only to spread out the gospel, to spread out the faith, but also to transform the Roman papacy into the spokesman of human rights," Marco Politi, author of "His Holiness," told CNN in 2003.

His criticism of such dictators as Alfred Stroessner in Paraguay, Augusto Pinochet in Chile and Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines encouraged opposition movements that eventually brought down those governments.

His support for the Solidarity movement in Poland -- priests concealed messages from John Paul to imprisoned union leaders in their robes -- was a key to the downfall of communism in Poland.

When a Turk named Mehmet Ali Agca shot the pope twice in an assassination attempt in 1981, Agca first told the authorities that he was acting for the Bulgarian intelligence service. The Bulgarians were known to do the bidding of the KGB, but Agca later recanted that part of his confession.

It didn't matter to the pope who was responsible, and later he visited Agca in his cell and forgave him. The astonished Agca said, "How is it that I could not kill you?"

But the pope didn't play favorites, and the West received its share of criticism. During that first triumphal visit to the United States, he warned his hosts about the dangers of materialism, selfishness and secularism and suggested lowering the standard of living and sharing the wealth with the Third World.

The message didn't play well. But that didn't stop the pope from insisting that materialism -- he regards capitalism and communism as flip sides of the same coin -- was not the answer.

"This world," he said, "is not capable of making man happy."

However, he believed the pursuit of a right relationship with God was life's paramount pursuit. To that end, he led by example -- through faith and prayer. Indeed, he was so often in prayer that he was said to make his decisions "on his knees."

At times, he was found kneeling on the ground in the middle of winter before a statue, and deep in prayer with his head resting on an altar. Even when not interacting with others, he was seen moving his lips, apparently in prayer.

'A culture of death'

start quoteA nation that kills its own children has no future.end quote
-- The pope's reaction to the liberalization of the abortion law in Poland in 1996

The Catholic Church John Paul II inherited in 1978 was in shambles. Reforms begun by the Vatican Council II shook the church to its foundation, and the tumult within the church could be compared to the turmoil in the outer world during the 1960s era of peace, love and protests over the war in Vietnam.

"The church went through a tremendous crisis," says Moynihan. "It knocked the church to its knees. It lost one-third of its priests and a tremendous number of nuns."

John Paul II embarked on nothing less than a restoration of the church, one grounded in its conservative tradition. His rejection of contraception and abortion was absolute and unbending, and his almost dictatorial manner did not always play well.

"When he came to power and he was elected, he realized that one thing he had to do was to restore clarity to Catholic teaching. And he says, 'OK, maybe they won't obey, maybe they don't accept, but at least they'll know what the church stands for,'" said Wilton Wynn, author of "Keeper Of The Keys," in a 2003 CNN interview.

"It's a mistake to apply American democratic procedures to the faith and truth," the pope said. "You cannot take a vote on the truth."

Hans Kung, a liberal Catholic theologian who crossed swords with the pope, told TIME, "This pope is a disaster for our church. There's charm there, but he's closed-minded."

In his opposition to contraception, abortion and euthanasia, for example, he accused the industrialized world of fostering "a culture of death."

The pope also confounded critics with his insistence that church doctrine prohibits the ordination of women. In affirming his position in a letter to bishops in 1994, he wrote in uncompromising fashion that "this judgment is to be definitively held by all the church's faithful."

"The pope's conservatism on issues such as contraception or abortion comes, I think, from his view of women and what he thinks their role and their status in society should be," said Mary Segers, a political science professor at Rutgers University, in a CNN interview from 2003. "I think the pope grew up with that. It's reinforced in Poland by a fierce devotion to the Virgin Mary as the patroness of Poland."

However, his opposition to the ordination of women priests had its supporters as well.

"Catholics believe what the priest is doing is, in a sense, representing the sacrifice of Christ," said Helen Hull Hitchcock of the Catholic group Women For Faith And Family. "He's standing in the person of Christ. He represents Christ in a way. And it makes sense then, that someone who is representing Christ would be male, as Christ was."

'A man of integrity and prayer'

The pope often explained himself with dense, closely reasoned and deeply philosophical encyclicals. His encyclicals, letters and other writings fill more than 150 volumes.

In 1994, the pope wrote answers to written questions posed to him by Italian journalist Vittorio Messori. Messori then edited them into "Crossing the Threshold of Hope," a book that became a best-seller in many countries.

Many observers have said John Paul's record is mixed. Although the church has expanded in Africa and Latin America -- the latter accounts for about half of the estimated 1 billion Catholics -- it has lost followers in the industrialized world, including Poland.

His inflexibility on issues with international ramifications -- birth control in Africa, for example -- drew strong criticism.

"The church's refusal of condoms even for saving lives is absolutely incomprehensible," French journalist Henri Tincq told TIME. "It disqualifies the church from having any role in the whole debate over AIDS."

But many are certain the pope's papacy will be remembered not for its shortfalls but its achievements.

"You'd be hard pressed to name any global figure who has achieved 100 percent of the things they set out to achieve," said John Allen, a Vatican analyst for CNN and Rome correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter. "I think the measure of success really has to be sort of fidelity to one's own vision and the capacity to make that vision real."

It is doubtful there has ever been a pope who so successfully translated his strength, determination and faith into such widespread respect and goodwill. In a world of shifting trends and leaders of questionable virtue, John Paul II was a towering figure at the moral center of modern life.

"This is not a pope who looks at the public opinion polls," said Father Thomas Reese, editor in chief of the Catholic weekly magazine "America" and author of "Inside the Vatican." "He says what he thinks is right and wrong from conviction. And that's why people admire him. He's a man of integrity and prayer, even if they don't agree with him."

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