The Life Of Pope John Paul Ii

1920 -2005

April 03, 2005|By Dan Fesperman and John Rivera : Sun Staff

Pope John Paul II, who died yesterday at the age of 84, was a proud son of Poland who helped break communism's hold on Eastern Europe as he kept a strict doctrinal grip on worldwide Roman Catholicism.

As the first non-Italian pope since 1523, the man born as Karol Josef Wojtyla sought out crowds and cameras during his 26-year reign as no previous pontiff had. A one-time actor, he became a performer to the world, taking his spiritual message of hope, tolerance and economic justice to more than 130 countries.

But during the final years of his papacy, the vigor gave way to the frailty of old age and the ravages of Parkinson's disease. The hale and hearty pope became a stooped and trembling figure, easily fatigued, visibly in pain, unable to finish sermons or stand on his own and, at the end, unable to speak, as he became a symbol of the redemptive power of suffering.

Many of his ailments in his last weeks were the result of his weakened condition from Parkinson's. Hospitalized twice this winter, he underwent an operation to insert a tube in his throat to help relieve his breathing problems. In his last days, the Vatican issued reports that chronicled his body's quickening decline, including his need for a feeding tube. He suffered a urinary infection followed by a high fever, then heart failure and septic shock.

The pope elevated the role and visibility of the papacy through the strength and warmth of his personality, setting on a course a church that had been adrift after the upheaval that followed the Second Vatican Council, according to many observers. He spoke out clearly and forcefully on contemporary moral issues and also showed a sense of compassion, affection and humor, particularly toward the poor, the sick, the disabled and the young.

But even as he attracted millions of admirers on every continent, he received mixed reviews within his own church, dividing the world's 1 billion Catholics with his insistence on strict adherence to church doctrine and his rigid opposition to the use of contraceptives, the ordination of women and marriage for priests.

"He has been the great defender of human dignity against the barbarism of his own time, including Nazism, communism and the reduction of human beings to objects for human manipulation, which is the new post-Communist threat," said his biographer, George Weigel.

Although the world's most lasting memory of Pope John Paul might be that of a smiling, waving man engulfed by crowds, those who knew him best will recall the quiet intensity of his personal faith. Steeped in the mystic traditions of Polish Catholicism, with its medieval icons and roadside shrines, he was a man for whom each prayer became a spiritual journey to God, an event that absorbed him no matter what his surroundings.

"We all feel like orphans this evening," said Archbishop Leonardo Sandri, the Vatican's undersecretary of state, annonucing the pope's death to the crowd of 70,000 that had gathered in St. Peter's Square below the pope's still-lighted apartment windows.

Presidents and prime ministers from around the world paid homage to his legacy.

"The Catholic Church has lost its shepherd," President Bush said at the White House. "The world has lost a champion of human freedom."

"We will always remember the humble, wise and fearless priest who became one of history's great moral leaders," the president said.

Italy declared three days of mourning, and churches remained open through the night in Warsaw, Poland. French President Jacques Chirac said all of France was in mourning.

Members of the College of Cardinals were already headed toward the Vatican to prepare for the duty of locking themselves in the Sistine Chapel to elect the next pope.

The overwhelming majority of the cardinals were themselves chosen by Pope John Paul who came of age in the shadow of two of the century's most tyrannical regimes.

He was born in the rural southern Poland town of Wadowice on May 18, 1920, two years after Poland returned to nationhood at the end of World War I. The country had earlier been divided among three competing empires, an era when Catholicism was one of the few means of expressing Polish nationalism.

His father was an army officer, first for the Austro-Hungarian Empire and then for Polish forces, a stern man who settled his family in an apartment next to the town's parish church, just off the main square. They led a simple, relatively comfortable life, but one that was repeatedly interrupted by personal and national tragedy.

When he was 9, his mother died. From then on, according to friends and biographers, the Virgin Mary was a surrogate mother to his spirituality, as well as his predominant ideal of womanhood.

He was 12 when his older brother died. Six years later, he and his father moved to nearby Krakow, where the young Wojtyla enrolled in the Jagiellonian University.

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