- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 2, 2005

VATICAN CITY - Pope John Paul II assailed the moral perils of modern life as he traveled the world, a crowd-pleasing superpastor whose 26-year papacy carried the Roman Catholic Church into Christianity’s third millennium in monumental strides.

He took on the Soviet regime and emboldened Eastern Europeans to bring down the communist system.

As the first non-Italian pontiff in 455 years and the first from Poland, John Paul preached a back-to-basics conservatism infused with a common touch and a longing to heal ancient religious wounds.

And he survived an assassination attempt to become the third-longest-serving pope.

In his final days, the 84-year-old pontiff sought to set an example of a dignified death. A letter released on Good Friday reflected on his hospitalization as “a patient alongside other patients, uniting in the Eucharist my own sufferings with those of Christ.”

John Paul’s Polish roots nourished a doctrinal conservatism ? opposition to contraception, abortion, female priests ? that rankled liberal Catholics in the United States and Western Europe.

Warm and straightforward, an outdoorsman who wrote plays and poetry, the 264th pope stood as a moral voice for the world, battling what he called a “culture of death” in modern society.

It made him a hero to those who saw him as their rock in a degenerating world and a foe to those who felt he was holding back social enlightenment.

“The church cannot be an association of freethinkers,” John Paul once said.

When a homosexual-pedophile priest scandal struck in the waning years of his papacy, he summoned U.S. cardinals to the Vatican and told them:

“The abuse which has caused this crisis is by every standard wrong and rightly considered a crime by society. It is also an appalling sin in the eyes of God.”

His was a papacy of groundbreaking change: his pilgrimage to his native Poland in 1979 in the teeth of the communist dictatorship; his appeal to God to forgive the sins of Catholics through the ages; his Vatican’s recognition of Israeli statehood; and his conciliatory gestures toward Islam and the estranged Orthodox Church.

No pope ever traveled so much or so far: He visited more than 120 nations, reaching out especially to Asia and Africa as fertile ground for missionary work.

No pope delivered so many speeches: He warned in vain against wars in Iraq and the Balkans, deplored the plight of Palestinians and visited a mosque during a visit to Syria, the first pope to step into a Muslim house of worship.

No pope wrote so much, or so popularly: He produced 14 encyclicals — major statements for Catholic clergy and the faithful — and the best-selling book, “Crossing the Threshold of Hope.”

And no pope celebrated so many Masses for so many of the world’s 1.1 billion Catholics: His open-air ceremonies attracted multitudes to St. Peter’s Square and became a hallmark of papal visits abroad.

In his later years, stooped and frail from ailments that included Parkinson’s disease, John Paul realized his dream of leading his church into the third millennium. He marked it by making pilgrimages to the very roots of Western faith, Mount Sinai and the Holy Land.

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