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Pope John Paul II, 1920-2005

NBC's Rome correspondent,  Stephen Weeke, remembers John Paul II, perhaps the most important pope of the second millennium.
/ Source: NBC News

Those born in the last quarter of the 20th century might be forgiven for thinking that the papacy and Poland go hand in hand or that the pope has always been a man at home among common people and intent on spreading the Catholic word around the globe in person. Older people, however, know John Paul II was anything but typical. Even in his last years — shaking from Parkinson's disease and moving slowly through a millennial pilgrimage to the Holy Land — it was clear he was a pope like no other.

John Paul II lectured dictators and democrats with equal vigor, inspired millions to uphold human dignity and, in the eyes of many historians, helped bring about the collapse of communist rule in Europe.

His unique physical presence and charm were striking in his early days as pope. Gifted with a tremendous affinity for language and an engaging manner, this pope forever changed the image of what a pontiff should be and what the leader of the "Mother church" can accomplish, both spiritually and politically. To his last days, John Paul strove to reconcile the church with other faiths and to heal the centuries-old schism within Christianity itself by encouraging a strong ecumenical movement around the globe.

For more than two decades beginning in 1978, he reigned as the supreme leader of the Roman Catholic Church, as its "pontiff," from the Latin word "pontifex" — "keeper of the bridge." Indeed, his papacy bridged a span of history that ran from the dark days of the Cold War to the collapse of Soviet-backed communism in 1989 and into the new "globalism" of the 21st century. Typically, John Paul II refused to be satisfied with his contribution to communism's demise. He turned his attention to a new challenge: the ever-widening gap between the developed and the underdeveloped worlds.

A Polish pontiff
Coming after 450 years of Italian popes, the election of Cardinal Karol Wojtyla of Krakow on the evening of Oct. 16, 1978, broke tradition and stunned those who considered themselves experts on the Vatican. The public in St. Peter's Square that evening was so stunned by the announcement of this foreign name that it fell silent.

Still, when Karol Wojtyla stepped out onto the balcony in St. Peter's, his smile and the joy in his voice charmed both the Roman and the global television audiences. He made a joke about his accented Italian, and the world embraced him in an instant. He brought with him the excitement of an evolutionary change, and soon his Slavic features and his dramatic flair for the public stage seemed as papal as his vestments.

A life of struggle
The man who would be pope lived a childhood marked by the loss of his mother at the age of 8, a strict upbringing by a conservative, impoverished father and then the double traumas of Nazi occupation and the postwar communist takeover.

The young Karol Wojtyla became a devout, scholarly and determined young man. Studying in a secret seminary banned by the Nazis, he became a priest, surprising most of his school friends, who expected him to pursue a life in theater, something he showed a great affinity for as a young man.

His faith was a deeply intellectual one: He studied philosophy, and those who knew him as a young seminarian say he would have preferred to live a monastic life.  But his superiors recognized in him an ability to touch people and attract them and pressed him into a life of religious outreach.

Karol Wojtyla's Poland was liberated by Stalin's armies, but the church found itself little better off under communism than it had been under the Third Reich. While the church was tolerated in postwar Poland to a much greater extent than in many other Soviet satellite states, being a member of the clergy automatically qualified one as a potential "counterrevolutionary."

As Karol Wojtyla rose through the ranks of the church, to bishop, then archbishop and cardinal, he struggled constantly with a repressive regime for more religious freedom, earning him a reputation as a thoughtful dissident who attracted intellectuals, writers, workers and others unhappy with the government.

Taking on the communists
The alliances he forged during his rise through the Polish church helped feed a small rebellion in a Gdansk shipyard in the 1970s that ultimately would prove the first ripple in the tidal wave that would sweep Soviet-inspired communism from Poland and then from all of Europe. Solidarity, the movement founded by the shipyard's workers, became a symbol of peaceful resistance behind the Iron Curtain.

The future pope — by now Cardinal Wojtyla — supported the movement from its inception. In 1978, at a time when Solidarity's struggles were getting more and more attention in the Western press, the election of a Polish pope sent political shock waves through the Kremlin and raised awareness in the White House that the Roman Catholic Church might be an ally in its own effort to roll back Soviet domination.

On the road
The new pope immediately set out to bring his word directly to the faithful, undertaking a politically sensitive trip to Mexico within months of his election. During that trip, a milestone in the relationship between the Church and a Mexican state that had been anti-clerical for decades, the world got its first glimpse of the missionary style John Paul II would adopt. He spoke about moral truth and economic justice, gave stirring speeches, spoke occasionally in Spanish and then, diving into a crowd to shake hands and hold babies, he emerged wearing a sombrero. All Mexico was enthralled.

Many see his first visit to his Polish homeland, in June 1979, as a significant moment in the collapse of communism. Despite government efforts to play down his visit by limiting crowds and broadcasts, John Paul managed to galvanize Poles with his carefully worded denunciations of the regime. Many who later played key roles in the overthrow of communism there said his words gave average Poles the strength to face down repression. In effect, he put the Vatican's stamp of approval on Solidarity.

The assassination attempt
Though never proven, it's been suggested by analysts that a subsequent attempt on John Paul's life was directly connected to the Soviet Union's fear of the pope. The assassination attempt in St. Peter's Square in May 1981 failed, but the right-wing Turkish gunman who shot the pontiff later suggested he had been paid to do it by the Bulgarian and Soviet secret services. At Mehmet Ali Agca's trial, however, involvement by East bloc intelligence agencies was never proven.
The pope survived the serious wound to his intestine and would later place the bullet that nearly killed him in the crown of the statue of the Virgin at Fatima in Portugal, saying he survived because the day he was shot was May 13, the anniversary of Our Lady of Fatima. In 1986, in a private meeting in Agca's prison cell, John Paul forgave his assailant.

Dogged on doctrine
The pope continued his jet-age evangelism in far-flung corners of the world, carrying a message of social and economic change but religious conservatism. He stood resolutely against contraception, homosexuality, abortion and women in the priesthood. Despite hope in some liberal wings of the church, John Paul never relented on these basic precepts and, in fact, moved to further cement them as church doctrine.

This unique mix of progressive political views and doctrinaire faith sometimes created friction around the world. His fierce anti-communism, for instance, put him at odds with the church in Latin America, which was experiencing a rebirth in the 1980s through the popularity of a school of thought known as "liberation theology," which argued that the church should ally itself with the poor and aid the cause of ousting the oligarchs and landowning families who traditionally dominated the region. His strict adherence to traditional doctrine also caused problems in the United States and Western Europe, where a more liberal interpretation of Catholicism had taken hold. John Paul occasionally chided those who treated aspects of Catholicism as optional, though a full showdown with America's more liberal bishops never came.

‘The people’s pope’
None of these conflicts hampered John Paul's transformation into the first celebrity pope. The most photographed man of our time, John Paul appeared in Australia holding a koala bear, with painted tribal warriors in Papua New Guinea and even in a handmade white leather papal cassock with fringe in front of a Native American teepee in Canada.

In France, on one of his first trips, the local media came up with a phrase that summed up the paradox of his appeal: "The people love the singer, but they don't like the song."

From the Americas to Africa, crowds of millions attended large open-air masses to wave maniacally at the smiling pontiff in his popemobile while privately rejecting his message on sexual morality.

In his final years his strong will was put to the test by his own body. It betrayed him with the onset of Parkinson's disease — making his left hand tremble constantly and stiffening the facial muscles on his right side, giving him a stony, stern expression so removed from that of the jocular man he had been in his prime.

Still, he undertook difficult visits to Cuba and to the Holy Land and attempted several times without success to win approval for a visit to the ancient Iraqi city of Ur, the Biblical birthplace of the prophet Abraham.

His Cuban visit in 1998 helped persuade the island's communist leader, Fidel Castro, to allow more religious freedom. As he had in Poland, the pope spoke out against communism's repression of individual liberty. But Cuban society, unlike Poland, remained a web of state control despite the pope's efforts.

At the end of the century, John Paul fulfilled a lifelong dream by celebrating the 2,000th anniversary of the birth of Christ — the Great Jubilee, in Vatican parlance — in Jerusalem.
The visit punctuated a long effort led by John Paul to repair relations not only with the many splintered sects of Christianity, but also with Judaism and Islam. Having broken a taboo in 1986 by making the first-ever visit by a pope to a synagogue — in this case, Rome's main synagogue — John Paul extended his ties to Judaism by meeting with the religion's top officials. He also conferred with Jerusalem's chief mufti, Islam's senior cleric in the city. And, as always, the pope waded into the political arena, prodding Palestinians and Israelis to make peace.

His death does not leave the world surprised, because it's been expected for a long time. But it does leave a moral void on the global stage that will take a strong man to fill. Because in this world, friends and foes agree, John Paul II was a superstar.