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The Church Loses Its Light

By October 2003, John Paul had named all but three of the 117 cardinals eligible to vote in a conclave on his successor.

John Paul presided over 482 canonizations and 1,338 beatifications, more than all in the preceding 400 years. Many of those chosen for elevation were from developing countries.

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MOURNING | LIFE | SUCCESSION
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Obituary: Church Loses Its Light
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A Political Papacy

In the realm of politics, John Paul opposed the U.S.-led wars against Iraq in 1991 and 2003 and the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia during the Kosovo crisis in 1999. He called for an end to the U.S. embargo on Cuba and U.N. sanctions against Iraq, and he declared that the rich nations should forgive the debts of the developing world.

His proclivity for politics grew out of his personal experience. As a priest and bishop in Poland, he conducted a more or less continuous political dialogue with the communist government, which was imposed on the country by the Soviet Union after it drove the Germans out late in World War II. He met with every U.S. president from Jimmy Carter to George W. Bush.

Many people regarded his support for the Solidarity trade union movement in Poland in the 1980s as a crucial factor in that country's peaceful transition to democracy and the subsequent collapse of communism in the Soviet Union and its former satellites. "All that has happened in Eastern Europe over these last few years would have been impossible without the presence of this pope and without the important role . . . that he played on the world stage," Mikhail Gorbachev, the last president of the Soviet Union, declared in 1992 in an article in the Italian newspaper La Stampa.

John Paul's election as head of the world's oldest international organization was itself a significant development in the politics of the Cold War. Communist leaders in Warsaw and Moscow could not ignore his enormous influence among the Polish people, to whom the Catholic Church is an inseparable part of the national identity.

In "His Holiness: John Paul II and the Hidden History of Our Time," published in 1996, Carl Bernstein, who gained fame for his work for The Washington Post uncovering the Watergate scandal, and Italian journalist Marco Politi argued that the pope and President Ronald Reagan in effect planned the demise of Eastern European communism during their first meeting in 1982, and that the pontiff and the United States exchanged intelligence information.

Robert M. Gates, a former director of the Central Intelligence Agency, said in a comment on the book that although the Vatican and the White House had similar goals, he believed they worked along parallel tracks "that did not intersect." He added that he was unaware of any information the Vatican supplied to the CIA.

In "Witness to Hope," a noted biography of the pope, author George Weigel said John Paul believed that culture, rather than politics or economics, was the engine that drove history. It was clear from the beginning of his papacy that he had a particular interest in bringing Eastern Europe back to its Christian traditions. In his first visit to Poland as pontiff in June 1979, he said:

"After so many centuries, the Slav peoples have heard the Apostle of Jesus Christ speaking in their own tongue. And the first Slav pope in the history of the church cannot fail to hear those closely related Slav languages, although they may still sound strange to ears accustomed to the Romance, Germanic, English and Celtic tongues. Is it not Christ's will that this pope should manifest at this precise moment the spiritual unity of Europe?"

Throughout the 1980s, John Paul was an observer-participant and mediator-partisan in Polish developments. The decade began in a turmoil of strikes and protests. In September 1980, shipyard workers in Gdansk formed the Solidarity trade union under the leadership of Lech Walesa. In December 1981, Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski, the strongman of the Warsaw government, declared martial law and jailed most of Solidarity's leaders, including Walesa.

John Paul announced that the church was "on the side of the workers." A few weeks later, he told worshipers in St. Peter's Square that respect for civil rights in Poland and the country's independence were necessary conditions of world peace.

"My land is bathed with the blood and sweat of its sons and daughters," he cried. "I put this problem before the conscience of the whole world."

Impassioned though these words were, the pontiff's chief role was that of moderator. The problem for all parties -- the church, the government and the Solidarity leadership -- was twofold. First, they wanted to keep the situation sufficiently calm that the Soviet Union would not intervene militarily. Second, they wanted to move toward reform quickly enough to avoid civil unrest among ordinary Poles, as occurred in 1970 with the loss of scores of lives at the hands of police and security forces.

In 1983, during his second pastoral visit to Poland, John Paul met with Jaruzelski and Walesa. In 1986, he concurred in a plan to establish a government-church commission. In 1987, the Polish general called on the pope in the Vatican and told him that communism was doomed in Poland and that the problem had become one of handing over power peacefully to a successor system.


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