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Pope John Paul II Is Dead

  • Jeremy Bransten --> Pope John Paul II (file photo) Prague, 2 April 2005 (RFE/RL) -- John Paul II, the first Slavic pope, has died at the age of 84. He passed away at 9:37 p.m. at his private apartment in the Vatican.

The pope -- whose pontificate was the third-longest in the history of the Roman Catholic Church -- died after suffering heart and kidney failure following two hospitalizations in as many months.

Born Karol Jozef Wojtyla in 1920, John Paul was shaped by the cataclysms and crises of 20th-century Europe. As a young man, he survived the Nazi occupation of his native Poland, witnessed the Jewish Holocaust firsthand, and went on to lead the Roman Catholic Church as a beacon of hope during the dark years of communism in Eastern Europe.

Elected pope in the midst of the Cold War in 1978, John Paul played a key role in the defeat of totalitarianism across Eastern Europe.

Pope John Paul II, as he chose to be known, addressed the crowd in St. Peter's Square after his election by the Vatican's Sacred College of Cardinals on 16 October 1978: "I am not sure I can explain myself in your -- 'our' -- Italian language (long applause). If I make mistakes will you correct me?"

Karol Jozef Wojtyla was the first non-Italian pope to sit on the throne of St. Peter in 455 years. The cardinal of Krakow was also the first Slavic pontiff and, at the age of 58, the youngest pope in 132 years.

Those facts alone seemed to signal an upheaval was coming. But the revolution had only just begun. Less than eight months after becoming pope, Wojtyla returned to Poland.

His triumphant nine-day visit, during nationwide food shortages, embarrassed the communist authorities and helped sow the seeds of resistance in Poland. The pope would go on to lend vital support to the anticommunist Solidarity movement.

In 1995, John Paul reflected in an address to the United Nations General Assembly. He stressed his belief that Christian ideals helped inspire the people of Eastern Europe to cast off the chains of communism.

"The nonviolent revolutions of 1989 demonstrated that the quest for freedom cannot be suppressed," Pope John Paul said.. "It arises from a recognition of the inestimable dignity and value of the human person and it cannot fail to be accompanied by a commitment on behalf of the human person. Modern totalitarianism has been, first and foremost, an assault on the dignity of the person, an assault which has gone even to the point of denying the inalienable value of the individual's life. The revolutions of 1989 were made possible by the commitment of brave men and women inspired by different and an ultimately more profound and powerful vision."

Brave is a word many used for the pope in 1981, when he improbably survived after being shot twice at close range in Rome's St. Peter's Square.

His would-be assassin, Mehmet Ali Agca, at first told authorities he was with Bulgarian intelligence, known to work for the Soviet KGB. Agca later retracted that. And, when John Paul visited the prison to forgive him, a stunned Agca asked, "How did I not kill you?"

John Paul was to undergo -- and survive -- further hardships.

In the early 1990s, a pre-cancerous tumor was removed from his colon, fueling speculation his end was near. Such talk intensified when he had bone-replacement surgery after breaking his leg in 1994. He suffered from Parkinson's disease -- a fact officially acknowledged only in 2001.

As pontiff, his energy would carry him to more than 120 countries over a quarter century, making him the most traveled pope in history.

Like no one before, John Paul used the tools of the modern age to broadcast his message to all corners of the planet.

And with acting skills honed at Krakow's Jagiellonian University, he made countless appearances on television, at youth festivals and before crowds of a million pilgrims at a time -- usually in their native languages.

Following the Asian tsunami, the pope addressed Vatican pilgrims on 6 January 2005: "While I renew my prayers for the young victims of the [tsunami] in Asia, I do not forget those children who are victims of hunger and sickness, war and terrorism, or those children kidnapped, lost or exploited in vile trafficking."

Jesus himself, the pope often said, raised such concerns nearly 2,000 years ago.

Indeed, the substance of John Paul's message remained deeply anchored in tradition.

On such issues as abortion, birth control, homosexuality, divorce, and the ordination of women as priests, John Paul remained uncompromising and drew strong criticism -- even from within the church. He once noted: "The church cannot be an association of free thinkers .... You cannot take a vote on the truth."

John Paul urged priests to be morally and socially engaged, but warned them against direct involvement in politics. He criticized the doctrine of "liberation theology," for example, while touring Latin America.

The pope stayed true to his vision of Catholicism as a faith at once modern in its concern for humanity's moral and social needs, and yet unchangeable in its guiding principles. To him, the two principles went hand in hand.

The pope also worked to break down ethnic and ecumenical barriers. In a visit to the Holy Lands in 2000, John Paul made a historic formal apology on behalf of the Catholic Church for anti-Semitism.

"I assure the Jewish people that the Catholic Church is deeply saddened by the hatred, acts of persecution and displays of anti-Semitism directed against the Jews by Christians at any time and in any places," he said.

Legacies are often mixed. Often, they take years to be fairly evaluated. But one thing is clear: Karol Wojtyla helped to shape the times he lived in -- as much as they shaped him.