Pope John Paul II assailed the moral perils of modern life as he traveled the world, a crowd-pleasing superpastor whose 26-year papacy carried the Roman Catholic Church into Christianity’s third millennium in monumental strides. He took on the Soviet regime and emboldened Eastern Europeans to bring down the communist system.
As the first non-Italian pontiff in 455 years and the first from Poland, John Paul preached a back-to-basics conservatism infused with a common touch and a longing to heal ancient religious wounds. And he survived an assassination attempt to become the third-longest-serving pope.
Pope John Paul II, 84, died Saturday in the Vatican after his health took a sudden turn for the worse following weeks of treatment for various ailments compounded by chronic conditions, notably Parkinson’s disease.
John Paul was elected the 264th successor to St. Peter on Oct. 16, 1978, at age 58. The former Cardinal Karol Wojtyla (pronounced Voy-TI-wa), archbishop of Krakow, Poland, he rapidly declared a “new evangelization” and began an extraordinary series of journeys that made him one of the most familiar figures on the face of the earth.
His destinations ranged from the United Nations in New York to remote islands in the farthest reaches of the Pacific, the Mall in Washington, D.C., and the Lutheran strongholds of northern Scandinavia. He visited the barrios of Latin America, the rice fields of Southeast Asia and the plains of the Indian subcontinent. He made more than a dozen trips to Africa.
His message was that faith must be grounded in truth and that the key to freedom is love and service to God. His themes were peace, justice and the sanctity of life. He warned that a spreading “cult of death,” in forms ranging from genocide and ethnic cleansing to legalized abortion, euthanasia and the frenzied pursuit of material goods, were leading to a “blunting of the moral sensitivity of people’s consciences.”
John Paul reached out
With the passage of years, his insistence that the Roman Catholic Church atone for the Inquisition, the bloody hunt for heretics that began in the 13th century, and for other sins committed in its name became a dominant concern. Despite reported opposition from many high church officials, John Paul held that while the church itself is holy, and therefore infallible, its servants are human and sometimes stray from the teachings of Jesus.
In March 2000, he issued an unprecedented apology for the mistakes committed by the church throughout its history. Saying “we humbly ask forgiveness,” John Paul said Catholics needed to undergo a “purification of memory” of past errors as the only way to prepare for the future.
Nowhere was this aspect of his papacy more evident than in his relations with Jews and Judaism. In 1986, he became the first pope to visit a synagogue, and prayed with Rome’s chief rabbi. In 1994, he directed the Vatican to establish full diplomatic relations with Israel. In 1999, he ordered the Vatican to issue a document that it described as an “act of repentance” for the church’s failure to deter the Nazi genocide against Jews in World War II.
The process of reconciliation reached a dramatic climax during the pope’s visit to the Holy Land in March 2000. At Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial, he declared: “I assure the Jewish people that the Catholic Church, motivated by the Gospel law of truth and love and by no political considerations, is deeply saddened by the hatred, acts of persecution and displays of anti-Semitism directed against the Jews by Christians at any time, and in any place.”
Missing from the statement was an acknowledgment, sought by some Jews, of Pope Pius XII’s silence in the face of the Holocaust.
In Latin America, he helped defuse a dispute between Argentina and Peru. In Chile, he pressured Gen. Augusto Pinochet, head of the military government, to hold free elections. In the Philippines, he directed church officials to support Corazon Aquino, a factor in ending the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos. In Africa, he sought to end religious and ethnic violence in Sudan and Rwanda. He refused to visit South Africa until it had ended its racist policies of apartheid.
Strong, popular figure
John Paul was an indomitable figure despite his increasing infirmities. He never fully recovered from wounds he received at the hands of a would-be assassin in 1981. In 1992, doctors removed a benign tumor from his intestines. The following year, he underwent surgery for repair of a dislocated shoulder, and in 1994 surgeons replaced a broken hip. With the advance of years, he suffered from severe arthritis and had difficulty walking. His left hand developed a tremor, the result of Parkinson’s disease.
Recently, speculation had mounted that John Paul’s failing health might force him to resign, although he repeatedly denied that he would. On a visit to Bulgaria and Azerbaijan in May 2002, he was unable to walk unassisted and delivered his messages in a wavering and sometimes inaudible voice. In September 2003, he was forced to cancel scheduled appearances at the Vatican, and two cardinals publicly expressed alarm about his failing health.
John Paul was an intellectual, a pragmatist, a scholar who held degrees in theology and philosophy, and an essayist, poet and playwright. A linguist, he spoke eight languages, including Latin. He was a defender of liberty who had experienced oppression at the hands of both Nazis and communists. He was a mountaineer who loved hiking and skiing.
An actor in his student days, he brought to his exalted position a keen sense of pageantry and a sure understanding of the reach and power of television and radio. When Time magazine named him man of the year for 1994, it was the 12th time he had appeared on its cover in 16 years.
He was famous for his smile and the warmth of his personality, and on his travels he routinely drew mammoth crowds. An estimated 175,000 people turned out for a Mass he celebrated on the Mall in Washington in October 1979; on a visit to Poland in 1999, a million people stood on a muddy field in Krakow waiting to hear him say Mass in a pouring rain, but illness prevented him from appearing.
He was said to have been seen by more people than anyone else in history.
The example of his life added to his appeal. This was demonstrated when he prayed for Mehmet Ali Agca, 22, a Turk who had gone to Rome by way of Bulgaria and shot him in a failed assassination attempt May 13, 1981. The attack occurred as the pope was standing in the back of a jeep being driven through a crowd of worshippers in St. Peter’s Square. Gravely wounded in the abdomen by pistol shots fired at a range of 20 feet, John Paul was rushed to the Agostino Gemelli Clinic, where he underwent surgery. It was four months before he resumed public appearances.
In July 1981, Agca was sentenced to life in prison. Later, he sought to implicate others in the attack, and in 1984 three Bulgarians and five Turks went on trial in Rome. Although all were acquitted in 1986, questions about whether Agca acted alone persisted.
On Dec. 23, 1983, John Paul visited Agca in his prison cell to forgive him in person, and the two sat face-to-face for 20 minutes. After 19 years in jail in Italy, Agca was pardoned in 2000 and returned to Turkey, where he is serving a sentence for the murder of a journalist.
In matters of faith and morals, John Paul was guided by the church’s doctrine that God made humankind in his own image and that the right to life is fundamental and universal. In the encyclical “Evangelium Vitae” (“On the Value and Inviolability of Human Life”), published in 1995, he declared: “Man’s life comes from God; it is his gift, his image and imprint, a sharing in his breath of life. God therefore is the sole Lord of this life: man cannot do with it as he wills.”
The same perspective informed his special interest in the welfare of families, his opposition to divorce and his teaching on sex. In his book “Love and Responsibility,” the pontiff said, “Sexual intercourse between husband and wife has the value of love only when neither of them deliberately excludes the possibility of procreation.” He held that artificial contraception subverted this principle and demeaned women.
John Paul refused to alter the general prohibition against marriage by priests, or the prohibition against ordaining women. He reminded the faithful that the church deems homosexual behavior a sin. In addition, he safeguarded the pope’s prerogatives as the ultimate power in the church, refusing to grant a larger role to the bishops, the clergy or the laity.
These doctrines were prominent in disputes that have wracked the Catholic Church since the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s. Critics charged that by sticking by them, the pope was distancing himself and the church from modern reality.
In 2002, many American Catholic parishioners became upset by what they saw as a weak response from the Vatican as scandals involving the sexual misconduct of priests swept the U.S. church. In April of that year, John Paul summoned a dozen U.S. cardinals to a special Vatican summit, where he said, “People need to know that there is no place in the priesthood and religious life for those who would harm the young.” But critics in the United States said he should have been faster and more forceful in responding.
For John Paul, worldly dispute was nothing compared with the duty to obey God’s word. In a homily that could serve as a summary of his stewardship, he said: “I am not severe – I am sweet by nature – but I defend the rigidity principle. God is stronger than human weakness and deviations. God will always have the last word.”
John Paul was fascinated by science. In contrast to the church’s traditional wary approach to the subject, he established a Pontifical Academy of Sciences, a body made up of eminent scholars, Catholics and non-Catholics alike, to advise him on developments in the field. He also commemorated the 100th birthday of Albert Einstein and directed that Galileo, imprisoned by the Inquisition in 1633 for asserting the truth of Copernicus’s theory that Earth circles the sun, be fully rehabilitated.
In October 1996, he declared that physical evolution is “more than just a theory,” advancing the church’s view, held for half a century, that the process was worthy of discussion but still was open to question. At the same time, he deplored the Enlightenment, the 18th-century movement that gave the Western world many of its scientific, economic and humanitarian principles. Its triumphs included the Industrial Revolution and the propositions embodied in the Constitution of the United States. But the church opposed the notion that the human being, not God, was the center of the universe. This struck at the heart of Catholic dogma.
John Paul spoke repeatedly and movingly against the modern tendency to make profit and efficiency the measure of success. He blamed this trend for the alienation of individuals, the disintegration of the family and the abandonment of objective standards of behavior in modern society. In 1993, he used the occasion of a World Youth Day gathering in Cherry Creek State Park near Denver, one of a series of biennial events he began in 1986, to summarize his thoughts on the “cult of death”:
“In a technological culture in which people are used to dominating matter, discovering its laws and mechanisms in order to transform it according to their wishes, the danger arises of also wanting to manipulate conscience and its demands. In a culture which holds that no universally valid truth is possible, nothing is absolute. … Good comes to mean what is pleasing or useful at a particular moment. Evil means what contradicts our subjective wishes. Each person can build a private system of values.”
At a rally the next day, he said: “In our own century, as at no other time in history, the culture of death has assumed a social and institutional form of legality to justify the most horrible crimes against humanity: genocide, ‘final solutions,’ ‘ethnic cleansings,’ and the massive taking of lives of human beings even before they are born or before they reach the natural point of death.”
John Paul made novel and far-reaching gestures toward establishing closer ties with many faiths, not just Judaism. In 1986, he organized a prayer-for-peace meeting at the shrine of St. Francis of Assisi to which he invited Christian and non-Christian leaders alike. Among those attending were the Dalai Lama, the Archbishop of Canterbury and Mother Teresa of Calcutta.
In 2001, during a visit to Syria as a part of a pilgrimage retracing the journey of St. Paul, he became the first pope to enter a mosque.
But John Paul was unable to realize one of his most cherished goals, that of reconciling with the Eastern Orthodox Church, which split with Rome in 1054. He was able to visit the predominantly Orthodox countries Bulgaria, Romania, Ukraine and Greece, but never was allowed into Russia.
Recognizing that more than half of the world’s Catholics now live in developing countries, he transformed the church’s leadership, greatly reducing representation from Italy and elsewhere in Western Europe. In 1994, when he made appointments to bring the voting strength of the College of Cardinals, the body that will select his successor, to 120, 60 percent of the members were from Africa, Asia, Latin America, Eastern Europe or the United States. John Paul presided over 476 canonizations and 1,300 beatifications, more than in all the preceding 400 years. Many of those chosen for sainthood were from developing countries.
In the realm of politics, John Paul opposed the U.S.-led Persian Gulf wars against Iraq in 1991 and 2003, and the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia in the Kosovo crisis in 1999. He called for an end to the U.S. embargo of Cuba and U.N. sanctions against Iraq, and he declared that the rich nations should forgive the debts of the developing world.
Many people regarded his support for the Solidarity trade union movement in Poland in the 1980s as a crucial factor in that country’s peaceful transition to democracy and the subsequent collapse of communism in the Soviet Union and its former satellites.
‘It is God’s will’
Karol Josef Wojtyla was born May 18, 1920, in Wadowice, an industrial town in the shadow of the Tatra Mountains in southern Poland. His father, after whom he was named, was a noncommissioned officer in the army of the Austro-Hungarian Empire – which included his region of Poland until the end of World War I – and then in the Polish army. His mother, Emilia Wojtyla, died when he was a child. His older brother, Edmund, a medical student, died of scarlet fever he contracted from a patient.
In 1938, the Wojtylas, father and son, moved to Krakow. The future pope enrolled in Jagiellonian University, where he studied philosophy and joined the Rhapsodic Theater. He also wrote poetry and a number of plays on religious themes.
Because he was a student, Wojtyla was exempted from military service when Nazi Germany invaded Poland on Sept. 1, 1939, starting World War II in Europe. One of the first acts of the Nazi occupation authorities in Krakow was to close the university. They also began deporting able-bodied men for work in Germany. To avoid this, Wojtyla got a job as a laborer in a quarry supplying a chemical plant. Since this was war work, he got a special identity card that exempted him from the occupiers’ dragnets.
His studies continued underground, as did his work with the theater. He also kept up his numerous church activities. In 1940, while attending a prayer group, he met a tailor named Jan Tyranowski, who was to have a profound influence on his decision to join the priesthood. Tyranowski was a student of St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila, the Spanish mystics who founded the Carmelites, and he encouraged a sense of mysticism he found in Wojtyla.
In 1942, Wojtyla began studying for the priesthood. Because of strictures imposed by the occupation, this activity was carried on in secret in the residence of Prince Adam Stefan Sapieha, the archbishop of Krakow and Wojtyla’s sponsor in the church.
On Aug. 1, 1944, the Warsaw uprising against Nazi rule began. Fearing a similar outbreak in Krakow, the Nazis there began a roundup that netted an estimated 8,000 men and boys. Wojtyla escaped – the Germans who searched the house where he was staying failed to look in the basement room where he was praying. He soon moved to the relative safety of the archbishop’s residence, where he lived and studied in secret.
Wojtyla was ordained Nov. 1, 1946. He was sent to Angelicum University in Rome, where he received a doctorate in theology. He wrote his thesis on St. John of the Cross. When he returned to Poland in 1948, he became a deacon in the village of Niegowic and then pastor of St. Florian’s Church in Krakow.
In 1949, he was awarded a doctorate in theology at Catholic University in Lublin, Poland. His thesis was on the phenomenology of Max Scheler, a German philosopher who studied the relation of mental attitudes and feelings to objects. In 1953, Wojtyla was appointed a philosophy professor at a seminary in Krakow, and the next year he joined the faculty of Catholic University in Lublin.
In 1958, he was named auxiliary bishop of Krakow, and in 1964, when the communist government lifted a ban on such appointments, he was promoted to archbishop. In 1967, Pope Paul VI made him a member of the College of Cardinals.
On Sept. 28, 1978, Pope John Paul I, the former Cardinal Albino Luciani, died of a heart attack after serving only 34 days. Six days later, Wojtyla left Poland to join his fellow cardinals in Rome to choose a successor.
On Oct. 16, after three days of deliberation in the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel and eight ballots, Wojtyla was elected the supreme pontiff.
“It is God’s will,” he declared when the vote was announced. “I accept.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.