President Bush today hailed Pope John Paul II as "a hero for the ages" and said his death has deprived the world of a "champion of human freedom," as tributes to the pontiff came in from across the United States.
Speaking in the Crosshall of the White House with first lady Laura Bush at his side, Bush said, "The Catholic Church has lost its shepherd, the world has lost a champion of human freedom, and a good and faithful servant of God has been called home."
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Bush recalled that the pope, in his native Poland, had "launched a democratic revolution that swept Eastern Europe and changed the course of history."
In the West, he said, "John Paul's witness reminded us of our obligation to build a culture of life in which the strong protect the weak."
Indeed, that term borrowed from papal pronouncements -- culture of life -- has become a staple of the Bush presidency. It is invoked to express solidarity with views ranging from opposition to abortion to efforts in recent weeks to preserve the life of Terri Schiavo, a brain-damaged Florida woman.
Bush added, "All popes belong to the world, but Americans had special reason to love the man from Krakow." Calling John Paul II "an inspiration to Americans and the world," Bush said, "We will always remember the humble, wise and fearless priest who became one of history's great moral leaders. We're grateful to God for sending such a man, a son of Poland, who became the Bishop of Rome, and a hero for the ages."
After his statement, Bush and the first lady, both wearing black, turned and walked away into the White House Blue Room without taking questions. Later, the Bushes attended a solemn Mass honoring the pope at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle in Northwest Washington.
Bush announced that he has ordered the U.S. flag to be flown at half-staff at the White House and on all public buildings, all military installations at home and abroad, all naval vessels and all U.S. diplomatic posts overseas until sunset on the day that the pope is buried.
The White House did not immediately say whether Bush would attend the pope's funeral or announce any other details of the U.S. funeral delegation.
White House spokesman Scott McClellan told reporters that Bush reacted to the pope's death, after being informed of it shortly before 3 p.m. EST, by saying that his papacy "shows the courage of one person can help change history." McClellan said Bush had great respect and admiration for the pope, whom he met on three occasions, most recently in 2004, when he presented the pontiff with the Medal of Freedom.
Tributes also came today from former presidents Gerald Ford and Bill Clinton. Clinton said in a statement that the pope "was a beacon of light, not just for Catholics but for all people," and was "tireless in his efforts to defend human rights and human dignity."
Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), the Democratic presidential candidate in the 2004 elections, said the pope "helped to topple communism around the world." Kerry said he and his wife, Teresa, "will never forget the example he set by forgiving the man who tried to take his life, and by praying at the Western Wall to ask Jews for their forgiveness." Kerry referred to an assassination attempt against the pope in 1981 by a Turkish gunman and to a papal visit to Jerusalem in 2000.
Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger hailed John Paul II as " one of the greatest men of the last century. Perhaps the greatest."
Praise for the pope also came from American religious leaders of other faiths.
"Pope John Paul II was unquestionably the most influential voice for morality and peace in the world during the last 100 years," Evangelist Billy Graham said in a statement reported by Religion News Service. "His extraordinary gifts, his strong Catholic faith, and his experience of human tyranny and suffering in his native Poland all shaped him, and yet he was respected by men and women from every conceivable background across the world. He was truly one of those rare individuals whose legacy will endure long after he has gone."
Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, said: "Pope John Paul II was a religious leader of inordinate conviction, courage and compassion who bridged the gulf between intellect and spirit, piety and poverty, church and synagogue to leave the world a better place."
The Washington-based Council on American-Islamic Relations said in a statement, "Muslims worldwide respected Pope John Paul II as an advocate for justice and human rights. His message of international peace and interfaith reconciliation is one that will reverberate for decades to come."
But not all of the reaction to the pope's death was laudatory. There was also criticism of his staunchly conservative views, including his strong opposition to contraception and abortion.
"On the temporal level, this papacy was a profound disappointment for those who believe that Christ's message of liberation, human freedom and more democracy should apply not just to the world, but to the church itself," said Frances Kissling, president of Catholics for a Free Choice, a Catholic dissident group that supports legal abortion. John Paul "was a pope, but he was a man," Kissling said. "He was human; he did good things and bad things. He had glorious achievements and abject failures. God has finally taken him home and, I am sure, welcomed him with love and compassion."