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Pope John Paul II 1920~2005

John Paul II: A strong moral vision

John Paul II

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(CNN) -- On the last day of a week-long celebration in October 1998 marking his 20 years as pope, John Paul II celebrated an open-air mass for 75,000 people in St. Peter's Square and wondered aloud whether he'd done a good job.

"Have you been a diligent and vigilant master of the church?" he asked himself. "Have you tried to satisfy the expectations of the faithful of the church and also the hunger for truth that we feel in the world outside the church?"

The pope offered no answers to the questions, but he did ask for prayers to help him carry on "right to the end."

In the papal tradition, "right to the end" meant the pope planned to die not as an ailing pensioner in the Apennines, but as the pope. Of the 263 men who preceded John Paul II as pope, only one -- Celestine V in 1294 -- left the papacy before his death.

Regardless of how he rated his performance, there is little doubt that John Paul II was regarded as one of the most significant figures of the last 100 years.

Indeed, there are those who believe he was nothing less than "the man of the century."

One of them is Jonathan Kwitney, whose "Man of the Century: The Life and Times of Pope John Paul II" was published in 1997. Another is George Weigel, a senior fellow at the conservative Ethics and Public Policy Center and author of "Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II."

"This has been the most intellectually serious pontificate in several hundred years and it is not going to be easy to find a pope who brings to this office the degree of engagement with ongoing intellectual life and cultural life around the world," Weigel told CNN in an interview before the pontiff's death.

The omnipresent papacy

Until John Paul II, most popes confined themselves to Rome and its environs. They were distant, seemingly unapproachable and, if doctrine held, infallible. But John Paul revolutionized the papacy that oversees the spiritual lives of 1 billion Catholics. A conservative and champion of long-standing church traditions, he was also the most-traveled pope in history and very much a man of the world.

John Paul II created "the seemingly omnipresent papacy," wrote Australian priest Paul Collins.  

In his book, "Papal Power," Australian priest Paul Collins wrote that by being so widely traveled -- he visited more than 120 countries -- and in his use of television, the pope created "an entirely new situation in church history: the seemingly omnipresent papacy."

He was also a key figure at a pivotal juncture in world history. As a cardinal in Poland, he was a shrewd and unflinching opponent of communism, advancing the church's agenda without allowing outright hostility -- and repression -- to develop.

As pope, his clandestine support of the Solidarity movement was instrumental and ultimately led to the downfall of the government.

"I think he played an extraordinary role in bringing about the end of communism, the end of the cold war, by his support of Solidarity and in encouraging the Polish people to stand up for their rights," Father Thomas Reese, editor of America magazine and author of "Inside the Vatican," told CNN in 2003.

The pope brought a strong focus on human rights to his preaching and his travels gave his teachings a global political impact unknown to previous popes. In Poland and Eastern Europe, Africa, the Philippines, Haiti and dozens of other places, the pope's preaching on human rights and individual liberty helped inspire those who fought for political change.

"His engagement as pontiff was not only to spread out the gospel, but also to transform the Roman papacy into the spokesman of human rights," said Marco Politi, author of "His Holiness," in a CNN profile of the pontiff broadcast in 2003.

John Paul II addressed the value of human rights in his 1987 encyclical, "Sollicitudo Rei Socialis (On Social Concerns)."

"When individuals and communities do not see a rigorous respect for the moral, cultural and spiritual requirements, based on the dignity of the person and on the proper identity of each community, beginning with the family and religious societies, then all the rest -- availability of goods, abundance of technical resources applied to daily life, a certain level of material well-being -- will prove unsatisfying and in the end contemptible," he wrote.

In a 1998 letter issued to mark the World Day of Peace, he wrote about issues involved in the global economy: "The challenge, in short, is to ensure a globalization in solidarity, a globalization without marginalization. This is a clear duty in justice, with serious moral implications in the organization of the economic, social, cultural and political life of nations."

He also addressed the church's role in past human rights issues. In 1998, the Vatican apologized for Catholics who had failed to help save Jews from Nazi persecution and acknowledged centuries of preaching contempt for Jews.

The pope expanded upon that in a March 2000 speech in which he asked forgiveness for many of his church's past sins, including its treatment of Jews, heretics, women and native peoples.

It was believed to be the first time in the Catholic Church's history that one of its leaders sought such a sweeping pardon.

"He also is going to go down in history as the pope who improved relations with Jews," Reese said. "This is extremely important. Now Jews and Catholics are beginning to treat one another as brothers and sisters again. This is just extraordinarily important."

He also opposed both the 1991 Persian Gulf War and the 2003 invasion of Iraq by a U.S.-led coalition.

A critic of the West

In 1998, he visited Cuba and in a dramatic speech in front of Cuban President Fidel Castro, the pope criticized Cuba's lack of religious freedom.

start quoteThis has been the most intellectually serious pontificate in several hundred years.end quote
-- Biographer George Weigel, a senior fellow at the conservative Ethics and Public Policy Center

But the pope also criticized the U.S. sanctions against Cuba. Indeed, the pope criticized the West with just as much vigor as he once spent on godless communism.

The pope was especially harsh with the West because he believed that in its preoccupation with materialism, it was frittering away the chance to know the truth. The cost, he believed, was a slackening in society's moral fiber.

For its acquiescence to contraception, abortion and even euthanasia, John Paul accused the West of fostering "a culture of death." In 1994, he used his influence to defeat a U.S.-backed initiative on population control at the U.N.'s International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo.

The pope explained himself in his best-selling 1994 book, "Crossing the Threshold of Hope." "We cannot afford forms of permissiveness that would lead directly to the trampling of human rights, and also to the complete destruction of values which are fundamental not only for the lives of individuals and families, but for society itself," he wrote.

He also opposed cloning, raising the specter of test-tube babies being used for body parts.

In his final book, "Memory and Identity," the pope criticized homosexual marriages as part of "a new ideology of evil" that is insidiously threatening society, and called abortion a "legal extermination."

The pontiff referred to "pressures" on the European Parliament to allow gays to marry.

"It is legitimate and necessary to ask oneself if this is not perhaps part of a new ideology of evil, perhaps more insidious and hidden, which attempts to pit human rights against the family and against man," he writes.

Finding fault

Not everyone agreed with the pope, of course, and at times the "omnipresent papacy" had its downside. John Paul said things he later regretted, but too late to keep them from getting halfway around the world.

Buddhist priests in Sri Lanka boycotted his visit there after he was quoted as saying Buddhism was "an atheistic system." He also was criticized for questioning the legitimacy of the Episcopalian priesthood, for appointing "yes men" to the College of Cardinals and for giving a papal knighthood to Kurt Waldheim, the former Austrian president who once worked for German intelligence during World War II.

He also was criticized in the sexual abuse scandal in which a number of priests in the United States were accused of -- and some convicted of -- molesting children. In some instances, the church was accused of knowing about problem priests but not informing parishioners.

Critics cited the Vatican's slow response to accusations of sexual misconduct, and its tendency to regard such reports as attempts to discredit the church.

In March 2002, the pope briefly alluded to the scandal in an annual letter to priests. At the end of the letter, he wrote: "At this time we are personally and profoundly afflicted of the sins of some of our brothers who have betrayed the grace of ordination in succumbing even to the most grievous forms of the mysterium inequitatis (the mystery of evil) at work in the world."

A month later, the pope summoned U.S. cardinals to discuss the sex abuse scandal and told them there is no place in priesthood for clerics who abuse children. He also acknowledged mistakes in how the church handled the issue.

His support for conservative lay Catholic movements such as Opus Dei and the Legionaries of Christ were distressing to some, who saw them as the Catholic counterpart to the Protestant fundamentalist right.

And many questioned his opposition to the ordination of women, which the pope maintained was inconsistent with church doctrine.

Strict discipline for clergy

The pope also had major influence on the Vatican's leadership of the church. He imposed strict discipline on his clergy after the more collegial leadership of his predecessors. In his papacy, John Paul II showed little tolerance for those who failed to carry out his orders.

start quoteEven as they praise this man as a great pope, they will be secretly relieved and they will want to elect a man who will be a little less heavy-handed.end quote
-- Father Richard McBrie, author of "Lives of the Popes"

"In terms of church, theology, religion, he's very, very conservative, and in fact, more and more so as time goes by," said Tad Szulc, author of the biography, "Pope John Paul II," in a 2003 CNN interview. "He does not brook dissent. He is impatient with those who do not follow his line of theological reasoning, who do not obey the church. He's a very severe judge."

His uncompromising views forced many Catholics, including priests and bishops, into open disagreement with the pope, especially on issues such as sexuality, celibacy and the role of women in the church.

Much to the dismay of some senior clergymen, John Paul consistently refused to accept their arguments for modernizing church teachings.

"Even as they praise this man as a great pope, they will be secretly relieved and they will want to elect a man who will be a little less heavy-handed in his exercise of authority and more respectful of their own authority," said Father Richard McBrie, author of "Lives of the Popes," in an interview with CNN before the pontiff's death.

The sheer length of John Paul II's papacy also had a major impact on the church. During his long tenure he appointed many of the bishops and most all of the cardinals, a hierarchy picked to reflect his conservative views and one that will choose the next pope.

"That is an extremely clear way in which he will impact the future of the church by having an impact on who his successor will be," Reese said in an interview before the pontiff's death.

Whether he was the man of the century or the prophet of a spiritual renaissance may be a judgment call. But clearly John Paul II was unafraid to articulate his vision of a better world and had the passion and integrity to hold himself to that vision.

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