JUST A YEAR ago, Pope John Paul II paid his postponed but triumphal and inspiriting visit to Baltimore. Tomorrow he is due to enter the hospital for an appendectomy - at least the fourth invasive surgery of his papacy.
Eighteen years next week (Oct. 16), 58-year-old Karol Wojtyla was elected the first non-Italian pope in 455 years. His papacy has been phenomenal in many respects, which are excellently detailed in the recently published book, "His Holiness: John Paul II and the Hidden History of Our Time," by Watergate's Carl Bernstein and Marco Politi.
Regrettably, some reviewers are focusing narrowly on the controversial question of an anti-communist "alliance" between John Paul II, President Reagan and the CIA.
More spellbinding to me was the book's story of Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka, the philosopher who discovered a kindred spirit in the cardinal of Krakow and worked with him for four years in recasting his most important philosophical opus, "The Acting Person," and turning it into a definitive English edition.
She arranged for his first Harvard lecture, thus making him internationally prominent. There was later an estrangement between the two over copyright issues - she had thoughts of suing the pope - but they are said to be now reconciled.
Uniquely chilling is the book's account of a 1994 private audience between the pope and Nafis Sadik, undersecretary of the U.N. Conference on Population and Development. We have only this Pakistani woman's word for the pope's blistering treatment of her over the United Nations' plans for its Cairo conference. She claims the pope even asked: "Don't you think that the irresponsible behavior of men is caused by women?"
Also downbeat is the book's final chapter, in which the pope is depicted as angry and increasingly lonely. His chief sorrow is said to be the failure of his beloved Poland to spark an exemplary spiritual revival in Europe after the fall of communism.
In a recent interview, co-author Marco Politi - an Italian journalistic expert on the Vatican - claimed that, given the pope's declining health, "the sunset era has already begun."
He quotes an unnamed Vatican official: "A moment comes when you feel that a papacy is ending, and once you feel that way everything becomes provisionary." Politi adds: "There is stagnation in the Curia [the Vatican bureaucracy]; the offices are not producing anything."
The sunset impression may be genuine, but the amazing life of John Paul II has been full of surprises and comebacks. In February 1944, while returning from a double shift in a Krakow factory, he was knocked unconscious by a hit-and-run Nazi truck.
He appeared to be dead from head injuries, but a kindly Nazi officer had him taken to a hospital where he stayed 13 days, followed by further convalescence elsewhere. This episode occurred 19 months before his priestly ordination, 50 years ago this Nov. 1.
Just 31 months into the papacy, a gunman shot John Paul II. The bullet lodged a few millimeters away from his central aorta and caused a 60 percent loss of blood.
The old saying was that a pope has only two bodily conditions: healthy and dead. In recent years, the Vatican has been more forthcoming about the pontiff's health, if only because John Paul has probably spent a record number of papal days in the hospital.
Is John Paul II near the end of his life?
During the pope's recent visit to France, the Archbishop of Paris, Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger, said of him: "He talks of his death freely and with a smile. There is no fear in the face of the void."
Given his whole life and his mystical spirituality, that attitude is not a surprise.
Still, he has made it clear that he hopes to live until the millennium. He would only be 80 by then, and though the papacy is an exhausting job, most of the popes of the past century have been long-lived: Paul VI died at 80; John XXII and Pius XI at 81, Pius XII at 82, Pius IX at 85, and Leo XIII at 93.
It is noteworthy that the present pope delayed his entry into the hospital (where he has a special room reserved for him) until today's scheduled beatification service at St. Peter's.
As the Bernstein-Politi book asserts, under John Paul II, the church has become a saint factory. There are about 3,000 canonized saints, 10 percent of them so named in the past 18 years alone.
The present pontiff has raised more than 300 men and women to the pre-canonization state of "blessedness" - more than any other pope. He has lowered the requisite number of confirmatory miracles from two to one.
No doubt in a hero-hungry world he wants to increase the number of Christian models from every walk of life.
Of the first thousand years of popes, 73 are reckoned as saints, many of whom were also martyrs. In the second thousand years, only five had been declared saints and eight blessed.
Three 20th-century popes are now under consideration for sainthood: Pius XII (1939-58), John XXIII (1958-63) and Paul VI (1963-78). Will John Paul join them?