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The Church Loses Its Light

In John Paul II, World Found a Direct, Dynamic Leader

By J.Y. Smith
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, April 3, 2005; Page A31

Pope John Paul II, who died yesterday at the age of 84, was an obscure Polish prelate who became the supreme pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church, a statesman who helped bring down Eastern European communism, and a defender of the faith who insisted that the church confront the sins of its past to prepare it for the third millennium.

When John Paul was elected the 263rd successor to Saint Peter on Oct. 16, 1978, at age 58, he was the youngest pope in 132 years, the first Polish pope and the first non-Italian pope in 4 1/2 centuries.

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The former Cardinal Karol Wojtyla, archbishop of Krakow, the ancient capital of his native Poland, quickly declared a "new evangelization" and began an extraordinary series of journeys that made him one of the most familiar figures in the world.

His destinations included the United Nations in New York, remote islands in the farthest reaches of the Pacific, the Mall in Washington 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 messages were 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 "culture of death," in forms ranging from genocide and "ethnic cleansing" to abortion, euthanasia and the frenzied pursuit of material goods, was leading to a "blunting of the moral sensitivity of people's consciences."

His defense of traditional church dogma on sex and gender issues proved controversial in the developed world, where it tended to overshadow other church issues.

John Paul brought a global outlook to an organization that had been Eurocentric throughout its history. He took unprecedented steps toward opening dialogues with other religions. He spoke frequently and forcefully on political questions. He was a scourge of communism but also a critic of capitalism and its treatment of the poor.

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 15th 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 monument to Holocaust victims, 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 Jerusalem, John Paul prayed at the Western Wall, the most sacred site in Judaism, and visited the Dome of the Rock and the al-Aqsa mosque, the third-holiest site in Islam. He visited a Palestinian refugee camp and said Palestinians have a "natural right" to a homeland.

Dynamic Despite Ills

John Paul was an indomitable figure despite increasing infirmities. He never fully recovered from wounds he suffered at the hands of a would-be assassin in 1981. In 1992, doctors removed a benign intestinal tumor. 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 tremble, the result of Parkinson's disease.

Recently, speculation had mounted that John Paul's failing health might force him to resign, though he repeatedly said he would not. 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 appearances at the Vatican, and two cardinals publicly expressed alarm about his failing health.

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