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John Paul II: Passing of a Papal Giant

Carola Hossfeld (ktz)
April 2, 2005

The Vatican announced Saturday evening that the pope died at 20:37 CET. For more than a quarter of a century John Paul II steered the affairs of the Catholic Church and changed the face of the papacy.

The pope lies in state as the world reflects on his papacyImage: AP

Karol Jozef Wojtyla was born on May 18, 1920, in the Polish town of Wadowice. On Oct. 16, 1978, the former archbishop of Cracow became the first non-Italian pontiff in over 450 years and history's first Slavic pope. During his more than 20 years as the head of the Vatican, Pope John Paul II steered the Catholic Church through turbulent times and influenced the image of the papacy more than any other recent pope.

Junger Karl Wojtyla
A 19-year old Karol Wojtyla (bare-chested at right), the to-be Pope John Paul II, during the construction of a building for a military camp in this July 1939Image: AP

With his globetrotting and visits to more than 100 countries, he increased the international presence and clout of the papacy and drew attention to human rights and world peace. In the minds of both critics and supporters, Pope John Paul II was intrinsically connected with the Catholic Church's struggle with reform as he continued to defend conservative positions on pressing social issues such as abortion, contraception and homosexuality.

Restoring the Church

Papst als Kardinal
Cardinal Karol Wojtyla, right, Archbishop of Krakow, Poland is shown on a visit to the United States in Sept. 1969Image: AP

Pope John Paul II's election to the papacy was largely the result of disunity among the Italian cardinals who were unable to agree on a candidate from among their own ranks and thus turned to the Pole who had already made a name for himself with his radiant charisma, intellect, and not last, his robust health.

Although the Catholic Church today undoubtedly bears the markings of Pope John Paul II and his conservative position, it was not always that way. When he inherited the chair of St. Peter's, the Church was going through a difficult reform process.

Galerie Papst 25 Jahre neu gewählt
Newly-elected Pope John Paul II raises his arms in greeting the crowd from the balcony of St. Peter's Basilica on Oct. 16, 1978Image: AP

Between 1962 and 1965, the Vatican had embarked on a path of modernization. It did away with the Latin mass and introduced a new collegial church leadership. The new worldliness was not without its consequences, however. Theologians began to question religious doctrines, Catholics ignored the ban on contraception, and in Latin America, the clergy started to forge ties to Marxism.

The Vatican responded by introducing a period of restoration, which reached its highpoint in the "Humanae Vitae," a papal writing which said contraception went against the teachings of the Catholic Church. John Paul II continued the morally restrictive course when he became pontiff in 1978.

Papst Johannes Paul II. hat sein 25 jähriges Dienstjubiläum, Rom, Italien
Pope John Paul II is seen with a group of children in traditional costume in St. Peter's Square in 2003Image: AP

It was especially his position on sexuality -- an act he said should only occur between a husband and wife for the purpose of creating children -- which outraged many church-goers in western industrialized countries. Even within the Church, John Paul II's stance was considered out of keeping with contemporary views.

Peace and freedom

In other areas, John Paul II was ahead of his time, and even began to use his position in the Church to speak out on world affairs. His relentless fight against human rights breaches, oppression, bondage and war gained him not only admirers within the Church, but worldwide.

Vatikan: Johannes Paul II., Neujahrsmesse
Pope John Paul II blesses faithfulImage: AP

Since his first days in the Vatican, he showed an impressive grasp of peace-making diplomacy, which the most-traveled pope in history often translated into action on his numerous visits to foreign countries. Nor die he shy away from entering the political fray and criticized world leaders for waging war and neglecting the poor in their quest for ever-more material gains.

"In the East, atheist regimes left behind a spiritual wasteland, while in the West a disproportionate focus on capitalism threatens to choke the spiritual values of a whole civilization," he once said, endearing himself to the opponents of communism and globalization.

The pope's unflagging appeal for mutual respect among the world's religions was a grand gesture in the name of peace. He set himself apart from his predecessors by seeking an ecumenical dialogue with Protestant leaders and by becoming the first pope to visit a synagogue and a mosque. His effort to bring together religious leaders from around the world in Assisi in the name of peace was a milestone in the history of civilization.

A "giant among the giants"

Papst Johannes Paul II. stützt sich auf seinen Hirtenstab
The pope leans on his crozier in 1999Image: AP

Even though opinions about John Paul II differed; he will undoubtedly go down in history as a Pope of superlatives and a towering figure at the moral center of modern life. He was a charismatic, visionary and strong-minded successor of St. Peter. In the words of an Italian writer, he was a "giant among the giants of the Earth." His successor will surely have a difficult time measuring up to John Paul II.

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