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Church Mourns Pope's Death, Celebrates Legacy

Pope John Paul II, whose 26-year papacy was one of the longest and most activist in history, died Saturday. He was 84 years old.

The pope, who had suffered from Parkinson's disease and other illnesses, died in his Vatican apartment, surrounded by aides. He never fully recovered after being twice hospitalized in February with the flu and breathing difficulties. The cause of death, released by the Vatican, was listed as septic shock and cardio-circulatory collapse.

The Polish-born pontiff — the first non-Italian pope in nearly 500 years — left an indelible mark on the Roman Catholic Church. He became an international media star, traveling to 129 countries to deliver a message of spiritual intensity. He survived an assailant's bullet and later forgave the gunman. John Paul's political influence was felt beyond the Vatican — his first visit as pontiff to his homeland in 1979 was a catalyst for the collapse of communist rule in Eastern Europe.

He was keenly attuned to world politics and at the same time, an intensely spiritual man. He was a modern-day celebrity, who nevertheless maintained a conservative approach to dogma.

When on Oct. 16, 1978, Karol Josef Wojtyla made his first appearance as Pope John Paul II on the balcony above St. Peter's Square, the mainly Italian crowd warmly applauded this man who said he had come "from a faraway country."

On his first visit to his homeland as pontiff in 1979, John Paul rejected the division of Europe ratified at Yalta. The visit rallied the Polish people, leading to a wave of strikes and the creation of Solidarity, the first independent trade union in the Soviet bloc.

And just as Solidarity's popularity was at its peak, John Paul became the target of an assassin's bullet in Rome in May 1981. The gunman, a rightwing Turk named Mehmet Ali Acga, was immediately apprehended. The pope forgave him from his hospital bed.

Years later, a Rome court found no evidence of Acga's claim that the plot against the pope had been hatched by the KGB in Moscow to get rid of the man who was threatening soviet control over Eastern Europe.

Nevertheless, that first visit to Poland was a harbinger of events that ultimately brought down the communist regime in Poland and created a domino effect throughout Eastern Europe.

In January 1990, John Paul spoke of those tumultuous changes: "Warsaw, Moscow, Budapest, Berlin, Prague, Sofia and Bucharest have become stages in a long pilgrimage toward liberty. It is admirable that in these events, entire peoples spoke out — women, young people, men, overcoming fears, their irrepressible thirst for liberty speeded up developments, made walls tumble down and opened gates."

He believed it was providential that he, a Pole, had been chosen to lead the Catholic Church.

Karol Josef Wojtyla was born May 18, 1920, in Wadowice, near Krakow. He had lived through the Nazi occupation, World War II and then communism.

He felt the call to the priesthood when he was 20, following the death of his father. He studied theology clandestinely during the war and was ordained in 1946.

In 1963 he was appointed bishop of Krakow. In that position he proved himself a politically astute adversary of the atheist communist regime. He illegally organized teams of workers to build churches overnight.

John Paul had been chosen by his electors in 1978 to resolve what many of them saw as the church's crisis of identity following the Second Vatican Council. While John Paul repeatedly proclaimed his backing of Vatican 2 reforms, his actions were often seen as denying clergy and faithful alike the new freedoms encouraged by the council. Early in his papacy, he staked out his position on what became one of the most divisive issues between liberal and traditionalist Catholics — the ban against artificial birth control handed down by his predecessor, Paul VI.

One year after his election, addressing a group of doctors working on a "natural" alternative to artificial contraception, John Paul said, "one should not cheat with the doctrine of the church."

In subsequent years, the pope continued his hard line against contraceptives, even to prevent the spread of AIDS. He set down uncompromising guidelines on an entire spectrum of moral issues and condemned legalized abortion and euthanasia as part of "a culture of death."

In 1979, John Paul addressed U.S. bishops in Chicago. "As compassionate pastors, you also rightly stated that homosexual activity as distinguished from homosexual orientation is morally wrong," he said.

Throughout his papacy, John Paul insisted on the primacy of papal authority and numerous theologians in the United States, Latin America and Europe were disciplined for expressing dissent with Rome.

Despite the growing worldwide shortage of priests, he steadfastly upheld the requirement of celibacy for the clergy. And he upheld the ban against women priests.

And while John Paul encouraged political change in his homeland and Eastern Europe, he was much harsher with Latin American priests who had embraced leftist-inspired liberation theology to combat social injustice.

One of his most difficult trips was to Nicaragua in 1983 where the revolutionary Sandinista leaders in power included five priests — whom John Paul promptly suspended. Raising his voice above hecklers in the crowd, the pope lashed out against those he believed undermined the unity of the church.

"Dear brothers and sisters," he said, "keep in mind Christian unity can only be saved when each is capable of giving up on his own ideas, plans and commitments — even good ones — for the greater good of communion with the bishops, with the pope and with the entire church."

John Paul ensured implementation of his philosophy through the appointment of conservative bishops. Many Vatican watchers say John Paul also tried to ensure continuity of his views by appointing most of the 120 cardinals who will be eligible to vote for his successor.

On becoming pope, John Paul believed his destiny was to lead the church into the third millennium and restore Christian unity. But his insistence on the primacy of the papacy failed to heal Christianity's many schisms, despite his visits to many orthodox countries.

And — concerned over the exodus of many Christians from the Middle East — he also tried, unsuccessfully, to broaden the dialogue with Islam.

He was far more successful in promoting reconciliation with Judaism after centuries of church persecution and contempt of Jews. In March 2000, he fulfilled one of the earliest dreams of his papacy — a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. The visit was fraught with emotion and symbolism.

He won the hearts of many Jews when he visited Jerusalem's Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial. He stood stooped and frail in the dark, grim hall of remembrance for the 6 million Jews killed by Nazis. There he expressed the church's sadness over the hatred, acts of persecution and displays of anti-Semitism directed against the Jews by Christians at any time and in any place.

"I fervently pray that our sorrow for the tragedy which the Jewish people suffered in the 20th century will lead to a new relationship between Christians an Jews," he said.

The twilight of John Paul's papacy coincided with the clerical sex abuse scandal that rocked the U.S. Catholic Church. Outrage over the American bishops' handling of that scandal triggered widespread demands for greater lay participation in what had become John Paul's highly centralized church.

This account is based on Sylvia Poggioli's audio report.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.