In an age of celluloid public figures, when personality traits are magnified and transmitted electronically around the globe, John Paul II has played a special role. He has been the most public of popes, the energetic salesman for his faith, and something more than a powerful religious leader whose views carry immense political weight worldwide.
He has been an international celebrity, the superstar of prelates. He was made for the media age.
No other public figure in recent times has stirred so strong an emotional response. While his views have become increasingly controversial, especially in the United States, his character has not. His ideology may be questioned, but not his humanity.
The grief and shock that poured forth yesterday when news of his shooting flashed around the world were testaments to those personal traits. In less than three years this first Polish pope has captured the attention of the world as had none of his immediate predecessors, so many of whom were the most distant of figures. That cannot be said of John Paul II.
Not long after his elevation to pope, a group of nuns surrounded him and tore at his cassock as if were some hard-rock star touring town. When he flew from Rome to Ireland, on a journey that would take him to the United States, he was almost knocked down by the army of TV camermen and reporters who surrounded him as if he were the the quintessential charismatic presidential candidate.
In those, and other ways, John Paul II has made news in everything he does -- and seemed to revel in it.
He has been popularized as the singing pope, the skiing pope, the swimming pope, the acting pope, the traveling pope. He has flouted tradition, courted the crowds, held news conferences, talked with reporters on his plane and conducted himself differently from any pope in memory.
His personal magnetism became an instant cliche, but, like all cliches, it contained truth. To see this pope with people -- that mobile face, all creases and lines, strong jaw, furrowed brow, wreathed in smiles -- was to see a man who seemed filled with exuberance of life and sensitivity toward others.
To an unusual degree, John Paul II has been demonstrating the power personality can exert on public affairs. It has been the source of his appeal -- and the center of the controversy that has arisen around him.
To his critics, especially in the United States, his charming personal characteristics -- a puckish sense of humor, an air of irrepressible good will -- have obscured the sterness of his ideological message. Thus, to those who oppose his views, he has been all the more formidable a figure.
The reception he received on his American trip in the fall of 1979 represented much more than acclaim for an interesting and new religious leader. He was hailed as a world leader; it was clear, seeing the millions who cheered him, that this pope was filling a political void for many Americans who had seen a generation of leaders destroyed or disgraced.
They responded to him personally as to no other public figure in years. Whether they shared his theological message was something else.
Later, when his pronouncements on such things as divorce, the family, birth control and the role of priests and women in the clergy stirred strong reactions, some who had regarded him as a liberating force for the Catholic Church expressed surprise and dismay.
There should have been no surprise, for John Paul II, the first Polish pope, has been consistent throughout. His record has been of the strongest traditional convictions in terms of dogma and belief -- which he has never neglected to state publicly.
Those who knew him in Poland, or had studied his record, had a different forecast for the kind of pope he would become. Firm, very firm, were words repeated about him by those in the Batican who had watched him. They were correct.
For all his obvious warmth and feeling for people, John Paul II has taken stand on matters affecting the church around the world.
In his first weeks as pope, for instance, he reaffirmed the traditional rule of celibacy for priests, told nuns he didn't like the idea of their wearing secular clothing in public, and said they should not permit any feminst claims to overshadow their call to a chaste, impoverished and obedient life.
His first encyclical, framed around the subject of the nature of man and his destiny, also struck a traditional note in style and content. He discussed such things as free-wheeling by Catholic theologians, liturgical excesses, the indissolubility of marriage and devotion to the Virgin Mary as the Mother of God.
Those, too, should have been familiar. His background in the Polish church placed him in an older, more dogmatic, more clannish, traditional brand of Catholicism. Poland's Communist domination since World War II intensified those strains. The church, more than any other force, has been the unifying vechicle for the Polish people in that period. John Paul II, the former Karol Wojtyla of Krakow, was shaped by those influences.
But ideology, dogma and national background aside, he also has brought something else to his position as spiritual leader of the world's Catholics -- a humanity that transcends questions of theology and politics.
Yesterday, when the shots rang out in the sunshine of St. Peter's Square, other human traits emerged -- derangement, horror, violence. They are sadly familiar to Americans. We know that no president is immune from a madman's assault. Now the world knows that no pope can ever be entirely safe, either.