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Bishop of Roam

For John Paul II, the World Was His Parish

By Robin Wright
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 4, 2005; Page C01

This is the pope I knew. In the slums of Rio, I watched John Paul II quietly slip off his gold papal ring, a gift from Pope Paul VI when he was elevated to cardinal in 1967, and give it to a poor Brazilian parish to help its flock.

I watched him in Hiroshima lead prayers at Ground Zero, and then in Nagasaki minister to long-forgotten victims wasting away from radiation more than 30 years after two nuclear bombs dropped on Japan ended World War II. As he told us on the plane, he anguished over the fact that two Catholics had been on the planes that first unleashed the world's deadliest weapon.

In Rio de Janeiro in 1997, the pontiff greeted Dom Helder Camara, the city's archbishop. The pope's invocation of Poland's Solidarity movement inspired Brazilians to rise up against the ruling military junta. (Gregg Newton -- Reuters)

And in the Philippines I watched him embrace a little boy who had dodged through a massive crowd, defying tight security, to touch his pope.

For many of us who traveled in the small Vatican press corps, John Paul will be best remembered as the human pope. He may not have had the common touch and comforting ease of John XXIII, who transformed the Roman Catholic Church by bringing it into the 20th century during Vatican II. But with a steely determination, the obscure Pole elected on the eighth ballot to lead the world's smallest state -- the first non-Italian in half a millennium -- ended up as a champion of the human condition, inspiring political upheavals against injustice in the wake of his visits on at least four continents. He used the church to help transform the world.

In the last decade of his legendary life, the increasingly painful images of John Paul II portrayed an ailing man crippled by Parkinson's disease, stiffened by wounds suffered from an assassin's bullets, hunched over and standing only with help from aides, in the end communicating in a raspy grumble that no one understood. But I will always think of him as a man of robust vigor, physically and intellectually -- and one of the greatest statesmen of the 20th century.

In Sao Paulo, I remember him standing in a freezing rain at a stadium rally of some 120,000 Brazilian workers, thrusting his fist repeatedly in the air and shouting "Solidarity, solidarity," invoking the trade union movement that served as a catalyst in upending communist rule in his native Poland as well as expressing his solidarity with their plight. He was effectively urging the Brazilians to mobilize against their own military junta, as eventually -- and successfully -- they did.

"Power must never be used to protect the interests of one group against another," the pope, a quarry worker during the Nazi occupation of Poland, told them. "The persistence of injustice threatens the existence of society."

In the Philippines in 1981, I was the pool reporter for his meeting with dictator Ferdinand Marcos, which was so tightly orchestrated that even the papal press corps had to wear the full-length gowns with butterfly sleeves favored by Imelda Marcos or the pleated men's shirts worn by the president -- both in white. Matching thrones had been specially carved for the president and pontiff to sit side by side.

But John Paul rarely tolerated pretense, and his private meeting before the public reception ended with Marcos storming out of a room in his own palace. I still remember the fury on his face. The pope emerged looking almost serene after privately delivering a blunt message that no government could justify subverting human rights in the name of its own security or survival.

"The church will not hesitate to take up the cause of the poor and to become the voice of those who are not listened to when they speak up, not to demand charity, but to ask for justice," he later told Filipino farmworkers in an implicit jab at the Marcos regime. During his tour of Manila's slums, John Paul also made it clear he knew the government had spruced them up with a coat of paint and a garbage cleanup only for his visit; he wasn't going to let Marcos get away with the manipulated backdrop for his sermons.

Those of us on the papal plane often discussed Soviet leader Joseph Stalin's quip "How many divisions has the pope?" -- reflecting how the church had been on the sidelines of global politics for much of the 20th century. John Paul changed all that. The last trip I made with him was to the newly independent Baltic states -- what had been the west coast of the Soviet Union.

But John Paul obviously felt his work didn't end after the demise of communism in Eastern Europe, the end of apartheid and minority rule in Africa, or the collapse of military dictatorships in Latin America. During the last years I covered him, including on a trip to Latvia, he began warning about the dangers of capitalism, specifically the "virus" of Western consumerism as a form of "neo-paganism."

When we pressed him on his growing impact on disparate corners of the globe, this pope always insisted he was only preaching Christ's timeless message. But those of us who traveled with him believed he was shrewdly deliberate in where and how he used that message, that each of his trips to some 130 nations was masterfully planned.

Others in the Holy See were more candid. "I call his speeches time bombs," a ranking papal aide once told me. "They're intended to transform. We just don't know when they'll explode."

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