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The People's Pope

"To His saving power open the boundaries of states, economic and political systems, the vast fields of culture, civilization and development."

With that, he set out to facilitate the process.

"He was saying that in the midst of all these crosses we're called on to bear, there's a reason for living," said the Rev. G. Michael Bugarin, director of the Pope John Paul II Cultural Center in Washington. "As he himself put it, the cross of Jesus means there's no shipwreck without hope, no darkness without dawn, no storm without heaven."

Washington, Bugarin quoted John Paul as saying, would be the "crossroads of the world in the third millennium" -- hence the location of the imposing museum near the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in America's capital rather than in Rome.

A Far Reach

If there's an innate yearning for holiness in humankind, a need to cling to a higher hope, John Paul II -- as spiritual leader of 1.1 billion Catholics, one-sixth of the human race -- hit that sweet spot dead center.

Within a year of coming to the chair of Peter, the former Karol Wojtyla, who had been archbishop of Krakow, was preaching his message of human dignity and freedom in his native Poland -- in the very heart of communist darkness.

The government hadn't wanted him, but couldn't quite say no in the spotlight of international publicity. With a million Poles jammed into Warsaw's Victory Square and nearby streets, John Paul praised the martyred Saint Stanislaw's stand against state tyranny 900 years earlier, "a special sign of the pilgrimage that we Poles are making down through the history of the church."

In the middle of his homily, the vast crowd began chanting:

"We want God, we want God."

A decade later, Poland was free, the Soviet empire had collapsed.

The pope's extraordinary outreach wasn't limited to Catholics. He sought reconciliation with Jews, asking God's forgiveness for the sins of the church against Christianity's "elder brothers." He reached out to Muslims and Protestants, to the Greek and Russian Orthodox churches, indeed to "all people of good will" -- as he said on the Mall in Washington in 1979 -- "in common dedication for the defense of life in its fullness and for the promotion of all human rights."

He forgave Mehmet Ali Agca, the gunman who shot him in 1981, visiting him in jail.

He even apologized for the church's persecution of Galileo in the 17th century. In fact, Luigi Accattoli, the Vatican correspondent for an Italian newspaper, found that John Paul had publicly admitted church culpability 94 times, in matters ranging from the Crusades to the Inquisition to the treatment of women.

The pope also touched millions of lives with hundreds of his own books, articles and speeches. His 2001 book "Crossing the Threshold of Hope," was a U.S. bestseller. A recording of the pope chanting the rosary topped the charts in Europe. To the surprise of many, his 1997 work, "The Theology of the Body: Human Love in the Divine Plan," contains a forthright celebration of the joys of human sexuality.

Even hard-bitten journalists fell under his spell. On the long plane rides, John Paul was often informal, cracking jokes, conducting impromptu news conferences. He'd kneel on the first row of seats, facing backward with his arms folded over the headrests, and begin, "Okay, what questions do you have?"

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