John Paul was an intellectual, a pragmatist, a scholar who held degrees in theology and philosophy, and an essayist, poet and playwright. A linguist, he spoke eight languages, including Latin. He was a defender of liberty who had experienced oppression at the hands of Nazis and communists. He was a mountaineer who loved hiking and skiing.
An actor in his student days, he brought to his exalted position a keen sense of pageantry and a sure understanding of the reach and power of television and radio. The news media adored him. When Time named him "Man of the Year" for 1994, it was the 12th time he had appeared on the magazine's cover in 16 years.
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Appeal Transcends Church
He was enormously popular with ordinary people, whether Catholic or not. In the early 1990s, a compact disc on which he recited the Rosary in Latin against a background of music by Bach and Handel rose to the top of the charts in Europe. John Paul souvenirs -- coffee cups, plates, T-shirts and photographs -- sold by the millions wherever he went.
He was famous for his smile and the warmth of his personality, and on his travels he routinely drew mammoth crowds. An estimated 175,000 people turned out for a Mass he celebrated on the Mall in Washington in October 1979; on a visit to Poland in 1999, a million people stood on a muddy field in Krakow waiting to hear him say Mass in a pouring rain, but illness prevented him from appearing.
He was said to have been seen by more people than anyone else in history.
The example of his life added to his appeal. This was demonstrated when he prayed for Mehmet Ali Agca, a 23-year-old Turk who had gone to Rome by way of Bulgaria and shot him in an assassination attempt on May 13, 1981. The attack occurred as the pope was standing in the back of a jeep being driven through a crowd of worshipers in St. Peter's Square. Gravely wounded in the abdomen by pistol shots fired at a range of 20 feet, John Paul was rushed to the Agostino Gemelli hospital, where he underwent surgery.
In July 1981, Agca was sentenced to life in prison. Later, he sought to implicate others in the attack, and in 1984 three Bulgarians and five Turks went on trial in Rome. Although a second trial in 1986 yielded no conspiracy convictions, questions persisted about whether Agca acted alone. On Dec. 27, 1983, John Paul visited Agca in his prison cell to forgive him in person, and the two sat face-to-face for 20 minutes. After 19 years in jail in Italy, Agca was pardoned in 2000 and returned to Turkey, where he is serving a sentence for the murder of a journalist.
In matters of faith and morals, John Paul was guided by the church's core teaching that God made humankind in his own image and that the right to life is fundamental and universal. In the encyclical Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life), published in 1995, he declared: "Man's life comes from God; it is his gift, his image and imprint, a sharing in his breath of life. God therefore is the sole Lord of this life: man cannot do with it as he wills."
The same perspective informed his special interest in the welfare of families, his opposition to divorce and his teachings on sex. In his book "Love and Responsibility," the pontiff said, "Sexual intercourse between husband and wife has the value of love only when neither of them deliberately excludes the possibility of procreation." He held that artificial contraception subverted this principle and demeaned women.
John Paul refused to alter the general prohibition against priests marrying, or the prohibition against ordaining women. He reminded the faithful that the church deems homosexual behavior a sin. In addition, he safeguarded the pope's prerogatives as the ultimate power in the church, refusing to grant a larger role to the bishops, the clergy or the laity.
These doctrines were prominent in disputes that have wracked the Catholic Church since the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s. Critics charged that by sticking to them, the pope was distancing himself and the church from modern reality.
Church membership passed 1 billion by the end of the 1990s, with much of the growth in Africa, Asia and Latin America. But in Europe and North America, millions of the faithful turned to "cafeteria Catholicism," picking and choosing which parts of dogma they would obey, or left the church entirely.
In 2002, many American Catholic parishioners became upset by what they saw as a weak response from the Vatican as scandals involving sexual misconduct by priests swept the U.S. church. In April of that year, John Paul summoned a dozen U.S. cardinals to a special Vatican summit, where he said, "People need to know that there is no place in the priesthood and religious life for those who would harm the young." But critics in the United States said his response should have been more prompt and more forceful.
For John Paul, worldly dispute was nothing compared with the duty to obey God's word. In a homily that could serve as a summary of his stewardship, he said: "I am not severe -- I am sweet by nature -- but I defend the rigidity principle. God is stronger than human weakness and deviations. God will always have the last word."
In the encyclical Veritatis Splendor (The Splendor of Truth), published in 1993, he spelled out sharp limits on dissent: