Saturday, April 02, 2005

MSNBC - Pope John Paul II, 1920-2005

By Stephen Weeke VATICAN CITY - Those born in the last quarter of the 20th century might be forgiven for thinking that the papacy and Poland go hand in hand or that the pope has always been a man at home among common people and intent on spreading the Catholic word around the globe in person. Older people, however, know John Paul II was anything but typical. Even in his last years — shaking from Parkinson's disease and moving slowly through a millennial pilgrimage to the Holy Land — it was clear he was a pope like no other. John Paul II lectured dictators and democrats with equal vigor, inspired millions to uphold human dignity and, in the eyes of many historians, helped bring about the collapse of communist rule in Europe. His unique physical presence and charm were striking in his early days as pope. Gifted with a tremendous affinity for language and an engaging manner, this pope forever changed the image of what a pontiff should be and what the leader of the "Mother church" can accomplish, both spiritually and politically. To his last days, John Paul strove to reconcile the church with other faiths and to heal the centuries-old schism within Christianity itself by encouraging a strong ecumenical movement around the globe. For more than two decades beginning in 1978, he reigned as the supreme leader of the Roman Catholic Church, as its "pontiff," from the Latin word "pontifex" — "keeper of the bridge." Indeed, his papacy bridged a span of history that ran from the dark days of the Cold War to the collapse of Soviet-backed communism in 1989 and into the new "globalism" of the 21st century. Typically, John Paul II refused to be satisfied with his contribution to communism's demise. He turned his attention to a new challenge: the ever-widening gap between the developed and the underdeveloped worlds. A Polish pontiff Coming after 450 years of Italian popes, the election of Cardinal Karol Wojtyla of Krakow on the evening of Oct. 16, 1978, broke tradition and stunned those who considered themselves experts on the Vatican. The public in St. Peter's Square that evening was so stunned by the announcement of this foreign name that it fell silent. Still, when Karol Wojtyla stepped out onto the balcony in St. Peter's, his smile and the joy in his voice charmed both the Roman and the global television audiences. He made a joke about his accented Italian, and the world embraced him in an instant. He brought with him the excitement of an evolutionary change, and soon his Slavic features and his dramatic flair for the public stage seemed as papal as his vestments.

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