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The People's Pope

John Paul II, Happy to Serve God and Layman

By Phil McCombs
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 3, 2005; Page D01

"Go ye therefore, and teach all nations."

-- Matthew 28:19

No pope ever took the show on the road like John Paul II.

Within hours of his election, this cheerful, energetic yet deeply mystical and pious man was holding an international news conference in several languages, sending Vatican bureaucrats scurrying in a panic to find out what he was saying.

In short order, he began fulfilling Christ's "great commission" to spread the Gospel worldwide by launching an unprecedented series of evangelical pilgrimages that by the quarter-century mark of his pontificate had taken him to 102 countries. Almost single-handedly, it seemed, John Paul II wrenched the papacy from near-medieval somnolence into the modern world of jet planes, Jumbotrons and electronic mass media.

The crowds he drew were enormous -- a gathering of more than 5 million in Manila may have been the largest in human history -- and people embraced him in a very intense, immediate, intimate way.

"To see a million people rise up and roar like you'd see at a collegiate football game when he was coming down in the 'Pope Copter' was very moving," recalled college student Dustin Katona of World Youth Day in Toronto in 2002. "My heart was racing. I was literally on my buddy's shoulders taking pictures."

"It was wild," Ysella Fulton-Slavin, a college English instructor, recalled of the pope's 1987 visit to Detroit. "We were in this football stadium, they were selling Pope-Corn and Pope-on-a-Rope and I'm thinking, 'This is crazy.' But all of a sudden he came out in his little car, and it was amazing the impact he had. . . . People were screaming and shouting. You could feel the power that he had -- it was like the Holy Spirit."

Sister Mary Ann Walsh of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops assisted on many of John Paul's trips. "People would be cheering, chanting 'Viva il Papa!' " she said. "I was in churches with him where people were standing in the pews. In Mile High Stadium in Denver he went to the security fence, working the crowd, and the mob surged forward and the security people were sweating bullets."

In Cuba in January 1998, Castro wore a suit and tie to the papal Mass and a million Cubans broke into the pope's homily with chants of "Libertad! Libertad!" That Christmas, in honor of the pope's upcoming visit, people had been allowed to celebrate publicly for the first time since 1969 -- as they still can today.

In Ireland in 1979, after John Paul told a crowd of 300,000 that "love always brings victory," the cheering and singing lasted nearly a quarter of an hour. A few days later in Boston, 2 million people gathered for the pope's outdoor Mass as thousands of red and white balloons were released -- in the middle of a heavy rainstorm.

In John Paul II, the world saw a figure -- former day laborer, survivor of Nazi and communist tyrannies, a poet and onetime actor and playwright, an athlete who skied and climbed mountains and had a swimming pool installed in the papal summer residence -- whom it could relate to and admire, yet a man transformed by faith into something more.

Indeed, although this pope enjoyed rock star status, he played to his crowds with a grace, passion and gentle humor that was at once humble and uplifting.

Deplaning in country after country, John Paul knelt and kissed the ground.

He donned local hats and robes around the world, often speaking to people in their own languages.

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