Pope John Paul II: the beloved pope who left reformists cold

Pope John Paul II accompanied by Zaire President Mobutu Sese Seko in Kinshasa, 14 August, 1985. — AFP pic
Pope John Paul II accompanied by Zaire President Mobutu Sese Seko in Kinshasa, 14 August, 1985. — AFP pic

VATICAN CITY, April 27 — Pope John Paul II, who was declared a saint today along with John XXIII, was a charismatic leader who helped topple communism but was criticised for failing to tackle the scourge of child sex abuse by priests.

The first non-Italian pope since the Renaissance, and the first from eastern Europe, Polish Karol Wojtyla was hugely popular, eschewing the pomp that surrounded his predecessors and seeking contact with ordinary people.

During a papacy that lasted nearly 27 years, John Paul II travelled far and wide, often greeted by massive crowds as he championed peace, denounced human rights abuses and deplored the decadence of the modern world.

Some of the most memorable moments of his papacy were his attempted assassination in St Peter’s Square, his call on mobsters to repent and a meeting in which he kissed people with AIDS at the height of the devastating epidemic.

John Paul II also sponsored ultra-conservative Catholic movements like Opus Dei and the Legion of Christ in an effort to counter rising secularism in the West and win new followers, particularly in the developing world.

He left one of his most momentous acts for the twilight of his papacy—an attempt to purify the soul of the Roman Catholic Church with a sweeping apology for sins and errors committed during its 2,000-year existence.

Wojtyla was born on May 18, 1920 in a small town near the mediaeval city of Krakow in southern Poland, which was then at war with the Soviet Union.

His mother died when he was eight years old and his father raised him, teaching him German and football.

He studied literature in Krakow where he became fascinated by theatre and wrote a number of plays.

The experience of war caused John Paul to consider the priesthood and his childhood contacts with the large Jewish community of his area were credited for his desire to build closer relations with Judaism.

He became a parish priest and rose steadily through the Church hierarchy, eventually rising to cardinal.

Relative outsider

When he was elected pope in October 1978, John Paul II was 58, a robust sportsman and a relative outsider amid the vast mostly Italian bureaucracy of the Holy See.

He spent his holidays hiking, skiing or kayaking, and refused to be penned in by the Vatican, sometimes sneaking out of the tiny state incognito.

His first foreign visit was to his native Poland.

Despite Soviet warnings, communist authorities were unable to head off the pope’s 1979 trip, when he appeared before million-strong crowds speaking powerfully for human rights.

The upshot was a huge, reinvigorated anti-communist working-class movement, the birth of the Solidarity trade union, and the steady thaw of the Soviet glacier that lay over central and eastern Europe.

For all the pope’s immense popularity, his moral teachings—notably on family values, homosexuality, birth control, euthanasia and abortion—stuck to traditional doctrine and alienated many Catholics.

Among them were reformers, young people and Third World congregations in the grip of the AIDS epidemic where there was disappointment over his refusal to give ground on the issue of condom use.

Dogged by a rising wave of scandals of paedophile priests, the pope, at the behest of US bishops, approved new measures to punish clergymen committing sexual abuses but only after a long silence.

His refusal to denounce Marcial Maciel, the founder of the Legion of Christ and a serial sexual predator who abused male seminarians and fathered at least three children despite his vows of chastity, drew criticism.

But the Vatican has brushed off the accusations, with spokesman Federico Lombardi saying there was “no personal implication” of the pope in the scandal.

‘Man of certainties’

John Paul II’s extraordinary life nearly came to an end in 1981 when right-wing Turkish extremist Mehmet Ali Agca shot him twice at close range as he was riding an open-top “popemobile” in St Peter’s Square.

Though the motives behind the attack were never clear, conspiracy theories included a KGB-ordered hit and an attempt by radical Islamists to polish off the world’s most prominent Christian leader.

The pope said the Virgin Mary saved his life, and had one of the bullets inserted into the diamond-studded crown of the Virgin of Fatima in Portugal.

He visited Agca in prison in 1983 to forgive him—another highlight of a reign in which John Paul II turned into a global media superstar.

He met virtually every major world leader of the time.

The United States, the Soviet Union and then Russia, the countries of the former Soviet bloc, Mexico, Israel, Jordan and the Palestine Liberation Organisation established diplomatic ties with the Vatican during his papacy.

John Paul II was the first pope to pray in a synagogue, in Rome; the first to enter a mosque in an Islamic country, in Damascus; and the first to preside over a meeting of the heads of all the major world religions in 1986.

“He was a man of certainties, not doubts. A mystic who had both feet on the ground,” said one of his closest collaborators, Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re.

He died aged 84 on April 2, 2005. — AFP

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