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The People's Pope

Afterward, when he was shaking hands, some would scoot from aisle to aisle for a second handshake.

He was enormously controversial. From the start, he stuck to a strict theological conservatism, attacking abortion and what he called the "culture of death" in general. He was unpopular among many American Catholics who favor contraception, the ordination of women and allowing priests to marry. He would have none of it.

It was widely felt he didn't respond vigorously to revelations of priestly sexual abuse of children, though he condemned it.

Yet John Paul defied easy classification. If he attacked communism and discouraged Marxist "liberation theology," he also scolded capitalists for greed and indifference to the poor. He expressed concern about the effects of economic globalization on the downtrodden. He opposed the death penalty and both U.S.-Iraq wars.

Ultimately, his wasn't a political message.

"You cannot explain or understand him without understanding the faith that has driven him," Washington's Cardinal Theodore McCarrick said as the 25th anniversary of John Paul's pontificate was celebrated. "It motivates him, it drives him forward and serves as his consolation. Some people are angry at him, but he wants to be faithful.

"He is not his own man. He is the Lord's man."

In a world where exploitation and coercion seem to characterize many relationships, even intimate ones, John Paul patiently insisted on the irreducible dignity and preciousness of each "human person," even those on death row for committing terrible crimes, even unborn innocents still in the womb.

Making It Personal

Whenever he touched someone's life personally, the effect was profound.

Lech Walesa, who became Poland's president after leading the Solidarity labor movement's struggle against the communist government, met with the pope and kept his picture pinned to his shirt through those dangerous times.

"He gave us strength," Walesa told former Boston mayor Ray Flynn. "He helped us believe that what we were doing was possible. If a Pole can become pope . . . anything is possible." Flynn, who became U.S. ambassador to the Vatican in 1993, recounted this in his 2001 book, "John Paul II: A Personal Portrait of the Pope and the Man."

Another story in the book, painful and wonderful for the Flynn family, suggests that John Paul, despite his worldly influence, his acquaintance with movers and shakers, his superstar status, remained a parish priest at heart.

When the family moved to Rome, as Flynn tells it, his oldest son, Raymond, was suffering from depression and remained in Boston. One day at a diplomatic reception, the pope surprised Flynn by asking after his son and saying he was praying for him.

The pontiff's concern felt deep, personal, real.

Finally, Raymond was persuaded by his father to come to Rome. "I was in a severe clinical depression and didn't think I was going to live," the son said in a phone interview, elaborating beyond what his father wrote. After Mass at St. Peter's, "The pope walked into the room and walked directly toward me.

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