With the death of John Paul II at 84, the Roman Catholic Church loses a historic and beloved world figure who survived an assassination attempt, lived to see his native Poland freed from communist tyranny and urged Catholics to reject the modern “culture of death.”
John Paul became the most traveled pope in history during his 26-year pontificate as the 264th man to hold the office that Catholic tradition traces to the apostle Peter, one of Jesus’ 12 disciples.
He was the first modern pope to visit the Holy Land, the first to apologize for Catholic wrongs against other religions and the first to be mass-marketed as a cultural and spiritual icon.
John Paul was applauded by conservatives both inside and outside the Catholic faith for his stout defense of orthodox theology and traditional morality, especially his opposition to abortion. But he also took stances considered liberal in the context of U.S. politics, such as criticizing the death penalty, the excesses of capitalism and the U.S.-led war in Iraq.
Born Karol Josef Wojtyla in Wadowice, Poland, on May 18, 1920, John Paul II served as leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Roman Catholics for 26 years — longer than all but two other popes. Only St. Peter’s 34-year reign in the 1st century and Pius IX’s 31-year reign in the 19th century were longer.
Upon being invested as pope on Oct. 21, 1978, he became the first non-Italian since the election of the Dutchman Adrian VI in 1522, and at 58, he was the youngest pope in a century.
His long reign means that John Paul “has appointed men who agree with him on the major issues that face the church,” said the Rev. Thomas J. Reese, editor of the Jesuit magazine America. “As a result … with the next pope, we will see more continuity than change.”
He was a Renaissance man — a student, actor and industrial worker during the Nazi occupation of Poland, then blooming into a translator, poet, playwright and philosopher, before advancing in his calling as professor, priest and finally, pope and global leader.
In 1978, John Paul was a sturdy 5 feet, 10 inches tall and 175 pounds. He would continue for some years to pursue the fabled athleticism of his youth — when he had been known to swim flooded rivers on a dare — by skiing, hiking and kayaking.
Before his priesthood, he wanted to study literature and become an actor, his love of acting dating back to impersonations of his teachers. He wrote six plays, the best known being “The Jeweler’s Shop” and “Job.” A lover of the Polish language, he translated Sophocles’ “Oedipus Rex” into that tongue.
The pope’s health began to decline after he was shot in the chest in St. Peter’s Square on May 13, 1981, by Mehmet Ali Agca, a Turk whom some accused of being hired by the Soviet secret police. The bullet missed his heart by a few millimeters.
In his last book, “Memory and Identity: Conversations Between Millenniums,” the pope said he didn’t recall much of what happened after he arrived at the hospital because “I was almost on the other side.”
The pope endured many accidents and operations in the mid-1990s and turned, some chroniclers have said, to mystical introspection. In 2000, Vatican officials said one of the Virgin Mary’s prophecies at Fatima foretold of the assassination attempt. In Polish Catholic tradition, John Paul focused his devotion on Mary, whom he often credited with saving his life that day.
“Agca knew how to shoot, and he shot with confidence, with perfection. But it was just as if someone guided this bullet,” wrote John Paul, according to an Associated Press translation of his last book’s Polish edition.
Besides being history’s most traveled and photographed pope, John Paul was its most prolific writer, composing 14 encyclicals, with the last being “Ecclesia de Eucharistia” (“On the Eucharist in Its Relationship to the Church”) in 2003, and a host of other papers, letters and books.
He oversaw formalization of the Second Vatican Council through the adoption of a new Code of Canon Law, which last had been updated in 1917, and a new universal catechism, the first since the 16th century.
In his 1998 encyclical, “Fides et Ratio” (“Faith and Reason”), he argued that religion can be in harmony with science and that “absolute truth” does exist in Jesus Christ, despite the modern world’s appearance as a shifting, fallen world of uncertainties.
In 2002, he introduced a fourth set of mysteries, or themes, for the rosary. Called the “Luminous Mysteries,” they help Catholics contemplate Christ’s ministry on Earth, unlike the other three “mysteries” of the rosary, which concentrate on His birth, death and Resurrection.
Many historians credit John Paul with hastening the end of the Soviet empire. He supported the Solidarity movement in Poland and helped keep it alive during its suppression by the communists.
But the pope also came under criticism toward the end of his pontificate for leaving in office American bishops who had covered up sex-abuse charges against priests.
“John Paul must bear partial responsibility for the catastrophe that has befallen us,” Catholic columnist Rod Dreher wrote in the Wall Street Journal in August 2002. Nevertheless, Mr. Dreher said the pope, whom he has called “the greatest man of my lifetime,” would go down in history as John Paul the Great.
The pope himself hinted that he knew administration was not his strong suit, saying that “a part of a pastor’s role is to admonish” and that he perhaps failed to be strict enough.
“Maybe I should reproach myself that I did not try to rule enough” while in Krakow, John Paul wrote in his next-to-last book, “Rise, Let Us Be On Our Way,” published in May. “But it stems from my character.”
John Paul promoted better relations with other Christian groups. He suggested in his 1995 encyclical “Ut Unum Sint” (“That All May Be One”), speaking as the bishop of Rome rather than “supreme pontiff,” that Rome might reconsider the exercise of papal authority if it would mean the end of a millennium of Christian division.
Evangelical Anglican theologian Gerald R. McDermott characterized John Paul as “unparalleled in his combination of personal holiness, theological and philosophical skills, his boldness and his eloquence in so many languages.”
John Paul commonly referred to Protestants and the Orthodox as “other Christians,” instead of the term “separated brethren” of the Second Vatican Council and the previous Catholic terms “heretics” and “schismatics.”
In one ecumenical meeting, in 1982, he met the moderator of the Church of Scotland’s General Assembly before a statue of John Knox, the man who led the Reformation in Scotland and called the Catholic Church “the synagogue of Satan.”
U.S. conservatives, including many non-Catholics, respected John Paul deeply. During a June 2004 visit to Rome for example, President Bush, an evangelical Methodist, called John Paul “a devoted servant of God” and presented him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian award.
John Paul also fostered numerous outreaches to Jews worldwide and to the state of Israel, including the 1993 establishment of diplomatic relations with the Jewish state.
He ordered a Vatican panel to produce the 1998 document “We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah” on the actions of Catholics during World War II, and in a 2000 Mass at St Peter’s Basilica, he asked God for forgiveness for the suffering visited upon Jews by Catholics throughout history.
In a visit to Jerusalem later in 2000, John Paul followed Jewish custom by placing a prayer in a crevice of the Western Wall. He scandalized some traditionalist Catholics by calling Jews “our dearest brothers” and saying God’s covenant with Abraham remains in effect.
Poland‘s chief rabbi, Michael Schudrich, called him “the person who has done the most for reconciliation between Jews and Catholics for the past 1,000 years.”
Priest and bishop
During the World War II occupation of Poland by Germany under Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler, a young Karol Wojtyla was hit by a streetcar and hospitalized, an incident that sparked him to consider a religious vocation.
He began studying in Krakow’s underground seminary in 1942, was ordained in 1946 and sent to the Angelicum University in Rome. His dissertation, “Problems of Faith in the Works of St. John of the Cross,” centered on a 16th-century Spanish mystic.
On returning to Poland, Father Wojtyla served as pastor of St. Florian’s in Krakow. He was professor of moral theology at Krakow’s major seminary by 1953, and the next year was appointed professor of ethics at Catholic University in Lublin.
While on a canoeing trip in 1958, he was summoned with the news that he had been appointed auxiliary bishop of Krakow. He rushed to Warsaw in a truck full of flour sacks to meet the head of the church in Poland, Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski.
In “Rise, Let Us Be On Our Way,” John Paul recalled that he told Cardinal Wyszynski: “Your eminence, I am too young — I am only 38.”
“The primate responded: ‘This is a weakness of which we are quickly cured. Please do not oppose the Holy Father’s wish,’ ” the pope wrote in his book, which takes its title from Jesus’ words in Mark to his disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane just before His betrayal and Crucifixion.
In 1959, Bishop Wojtyla was inducted into the Polish Academy of Sciences for his work in philosophy. He became archbishop of Krakow in 1964, but was called “vicar” because the communists banned the title “archbishop.”
The pope’s most important philosophical work as Karol Wojtyla was his 1960 book, “Love and Responsibility,” which applies the modern philosophy of personalism to support the church’s teachings on love and sex. “Love and Responsibility” was first translated into English in 1981 and since has supported a whole school of Catholic moral thought known as the theology of the body.
Archbishop Wojtyla attended all sessions of the 1962-65 Second Vatican Council and contributed to four of the major documents, notably “Gaudium et Spes” (“Joy and Hope”).
Pope Paul VI elevated him to cardinal in 1967 and invited him to teach at the annual papal retreat, a sign that he was favored as a successor. He is credited by some with the moral arguments that persuaded Paul VI to issue “Humanae Vitae” (“On Human Life”), which in 1968, reaffirmed the church’s teaching against artificial contraception.
The world stage
In January 1979, John Paul made his first overseas trip as pope, to Mexico, where he warned Latin America against Marxism-influenced liberation theology. He said later that he also saw the trip as “a pass that could open the way to a pilgrimage to Poland.”
“I thought the communists in Poland would not be able to refuse me … if I were received by a nation with a secular constitution, such as Mexico had,” John Paul wrote in the 2004 book.
In June 1979, the pope was greeted by millions of Poles, an event credited with galvanizing a spirit of national union in the face of 30 years of communist tyranny. The Solidarity labor union, backed by the church, was founded at a Gdansk shipyard the next year — one of the first cracks in the Iron Curtain before its collapse in 1989 and the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Former Czech President Vaclav Havel called the pope’s pilgrimage “a miracle” and the most important single factor in bringing down the Iron Curtain. Polish Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski, who oversaw the imposition of martial law and the crackdown on Solidarity in the early 1980s called the visit “the detonator.”
Former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev said, “It would have been impossible without the pope.”
Historian Timothy Garton Ash said, “Without the pope, no Solidarity. Without Solidarity, no Gorbachev. Without Gorbachev, no fall of communism.”
John Paul’s more than 100 trips outside Italy amounted to more travel than his 263 predecessors combined.
John Paul would visit the United States seven times as pope, starting with a 1979 tour and most recently a one-day stopover in St. Louis in 1999 on his way back from a lengthier visit to Mexico. In 1984, he and President Reagan established the first formal diplomatic ties between Vatican City and the United States.
He was a frequent thorn in the side of U.S. politicians of both parties, including his efforts against Clinton administration plans to spread abortion and contraception in the Third World.
At the 1994 U.N. population conference in Cairo, the Vatican opposed a proposal to declare abortion a right under international law. Catholic delegates allied with Muslim nations to defeat the measure, which was backed by a U.S. delegation led by Vice President Al Gore.
The previous year, the philosopher-pope came out with the encyclical “Veritatis Splendor” (“The Splendor of Truth”), which critiqued moral relativism and utilitarian thinking and encouraged readers to build a “culture of life” by obeying the Gospel.
It decried that “present-day cultural tendencies have given rise to several currents of thought in ethics … [that] would grant to individuals or social groups the right to determine what is good or evil,” an error John Paul identified with man’s first sin — when Adam and Eve ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
He built on this theme in his 1995 encyclical “Evangelium Vitae” (“The Gospel of Life”), where he called for a “cultural change” in the world that recognizes that there “is no true freedom where life is not welcomed and loved, and there is no fullness of life except in freedom.”
In one swoop, he joined his critique of the communist East with one of the materialism and liberal abortion laws in the secular West.
In a passage that has caused heartburn for pro-choice Catholic politicians, John Paul warned: “In the case of an intrinsically unjust law, such as a law permitting abortion or euthanasia, it is therefore never licit to obey it, or to ‘take part in a propaganda campaign in favor of such a law, or vote for it.’”
The star pope
Time magazine, after having featured John Paul on its cover 11 times in 16 years, named him its “Man of the Year” for 1994. The magazine said he spoke the language of morality and of right and wrong, standing firm amid a tabloid, amoral culture.
Time cited the pope’s reiteration that year of the church’s stance on the impossibility of ordaining women, a leading focus of dissent in the United States, as well as his approval of an English-language version of the catechism, and the publication of “Crossing the Threshold of Hope,” the first popular-press book written by a sitting pope.
John Paul made a huge popular impression in the United States and the West, especially among young Catholics, as the first pope of the mass market. Vendors during his U.S. visits could not keep up with the demand for pope-emblazoned trinkets — from memorial calendars to “Pope-on-a-Rope” bars of soap.
John Paul released a compact disc of himself saying the rosary in Latin. He was the first pope to have his life told in a Marvel Comic, and the first to attend a concert at Milan’s opera house.
In “Crossing the Threshold of Hope,” he answered, in layman’s terms, an Italian reporter’s wide-ranging questions on religion and the modern world. The results became a best-seller in all of the dozens of languages into which it was translated.
The secular and religious press alike noted John Paul’s influence in the growing conservatism of younger American men inspired to join the priesthood during his pontificate, especially “on matters of theology, the role of women and the authority of church leaders,” as Time put it in 1994.
Critic of conservatism
Biographer George Weigel wrote that a 1976 visit to the United States left the future pope “disappointed by American culture and its tendency to dissipate freedom into shallow license.”
Elizabeth Fox Genovese, an Emory University professor and adult convert to Catholicism, said John Paul saw American capitalism as suffering the same spiritual disease that communism did — “the unleashing of radical individualism.”
“Both, from the pope’s perspective, embody a betrayal of the true nature of the individual and of individual freedom, which emerge from the individual’s relation to God and to others,” she wrote in Christianity Today.
In “Memory and Identity,” the pope returned to that theme, saying that after casting off communism, Eastern Europe “is uncritically falling under the influence of negative cultural patterns spread in the West.”
John Paul took on consumer capitalism most explicitly in his 1999 letter, “Ecclesia in America,” decrying the “absolutizing of the economy … the growing distance between rich and poor, unfair competition, which puts the poor nations in a situation of ever-increasing inferiority.”
Other stances that did not enamor him to American conservatives included his opposition to the death penalty and both U.S.-led wars against Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.
Before his St. Louis visit, he asked then-Missouri Gov. Mel Carnahan to spare triple-murderer Darrell Mease, who was to be executed during John Paul’s visit. A court delayed the execution just days before, and Mr. Carnahan, a Baptist, commuted the sentence to life imprisonment on the day after John Paul left the United States.
In the run-up to the second Iraq war, he insisted that war is a “defeat for humanity” and that a preventive strike is neither legally nor morally justified. Some of his subordinates were much more outspoken, with one calling the attack a “crime against peace” and another saying he felt sorry for Saddam.
Raymond Flynn, U.S. ambassador to the Vatican during the Clinton administration, called John Paul II “a remarkable pastor and pioneer and pathfinder.”
“He will be remembered as a lion for peace, and a warrior for social justice and human rights, and a courageous advocate for promoting the culture of life in the world,” said Mr. Flynn, a former Democratic mayor of Boston.
“President Reagan remarked on what a determined, courageous man he was. He looked into the face of communism, and they blinked.”
• Julia Duin and Larry Witham contributed to this article.