Pope John Paul II

Pope John Paul Ii : 1920 - 2005

April 03, 2005

THE GOOD PASTOR gives his life for the flock.

A frail John Paul II voiced that simple declaration on his silver anniversary. It was his way of saying he intended to carry on his mission despite his infirmities. Now, at his death, his words stand as a testament to his 26-year papacy. In his last years, Parkinson's disease crippled the globe-trotting, multilingual pope, who as a younger bishop cut a dashing figure on the ski slopes. He became stooped and could barely walk and, at the end, was robbed of his ability to speak. But he pressed on, offering prayers and blessings even if they had to be read by another.

In the past week, as end-of-life issues made headlines in the battle over American Terri Schiavo, the 84-year-old pope remained vocal about his treatment and care, Vatican officials said, refusing to return to the hospital.

As patriarch of the world's billion Catholics, John Paul was a citizen of the world who exuded a disarming humility and convivial spirit that enhanced his popularity and the church's standing globally. He conversed easily with presidents and farmers, dictators and teenagers, and reached out to the world's other religions. As a champion of the poor and oppressed, John Paul criticized governments and corporations for policies and practices that widened the gap between the haves and have-nots.

Elected pope in 1978, the former archbishop of Krakow, Karol J. Wojtyla, was little-known when he arrived in Rome. A philosopher poet, he possessed a sharp mind and a zest for life. His papacy reflected the age in which he lived, from the fall of communism in Europe to the global economy to the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

As the archbishop of Krakow, John Paul had used his popularity and influence in that predominantly Catholic country to challenge the communist regime, but not in an overtly political way. He managed to build a Catholic church in one town, despite the government's opposition. His persistence was a testament to the power of faith over politics. And yet the underlying message was that his fellow countrymen could and should take on the government. Lech Walesa, the former Polish president and trade unionist leader, attributed the success of his movement to John Paul's support.

A year into his papacy, John Paul returned to his native Poland, where trade unionists were struggling against the communist regime. With a few simple words, "Do not be afraid," he rallied his fellow Poles to the Solidarity movement, the success of which swept through communist Eastern Europe and led to the fall of the Berlin Wall.

John Paul's successor might have a hard time matching his eloquence (he spoke eight languages) and his pace - he traveled to about 130 countries. But that was the pope the world came to see and revere: kneeling to kiss the ground in country after country, seeking reconciliation with world Jewry, defending human rights, denouncing the war in Iraq.

John Paul, the moral voice on world issues, was as outspoken and prolific on matters of grave concern to his Catholic flock: birth control, abortion, the death penalty. Although John Paul opposed the war in Iraq - and plainly told President Bush that - the pope and the Methodist president shared similar views on abortion and birth control. Mr. Bush, in campaign speeches, borrowed the pope's "culture of life" phrase, which won Catholics to his side. And Mr. Bush made reference to their common view in remembering him yesterday. "The Catholic Church has lost its shepherd, the world has lost a champion of human freedom, and a good and faithful servant of God has been called home. ... John Paul's witness reminded us of our obligation to build a culture of life in which the strong protect the weak. And during the pope's final years, his witness was made even more powerful by his daily courage in the face of illness and great suffering."

A staunch traditionalist, John Paul promoted conservative views that his critics say put him at odds with the realities of today's Catholics. His opposition to relaxing the priestly vow of celibacy and ordaining women did nothing to address the crisis of a shortage of priests. He was criticized for not responding quickly to the child sexual abuse scandal in America, a crisis with consequences that persist today.

John Paul was the first non-Italian pope in four centuries. His tenure and appeal should make it easier for another non-Italian to serve; the greatest areas of growth in the Catholic Church have been in Latin American and Africa. But he made certain that Catholic orthodoxy would survive him: He reinforced the conservative arm of the church by appointing like-minded traditionalists as cardinals and increasing their number.

Whoever succeeds John Paul II will inherit an example of ecumenism that should extend to the Islamic world. He should lead forthrightly and by example, but grant bishops the latitude to do so compassionately. He should engage his flock in the questions of a new century and guide them through the thicket with the determination of Karol J. Wojtyla.

For the full Sunday editorial page, which went to press before the pope's death, turn to Section C, Page 4.

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