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Poland: Pope John Paul II Celebrates Anniversary

Prague, 16 October 1997 (RFE/RL)_- It was 19 years ago today that Cardinal Karol Wojtyla, the little known Archbishop of the Polish city of Cracow, came to the throne of St Peter as the first non-Italian pope in 455 years.

John Paul II, as he called himself, has demonstrated from the very moment of his election that there was a new style in the Vatican. He has become a "pastoral pope," a "pope for all the world," a "peoples' pope."

A man of considerable personal charm, John Paul II has quickly become one of the greatest crowd pleasers in modern times. Millions of people turned out to catch a glimpse of him on his frequent tours of foreign lands.

But he has also been a controversial pope. Determined to restore order and discipline in the Roman Catholic Church of more than 700,000 members, he has alienated large segments of the Church's liberal wing. He has, for example, strongly defended the Church's long-term opposition to birth control, other than the so-called "natural methods,' and to abortion and to divorce.

His conservatism in doctrinal matters has been balanced, however, by social eloquence in behalf of the rights of the workers, the poor and the underprivileged.

The pope has been active in promoting ecumenism and toleration among various religious creeds. But he has failed to achieve a meaningful rapprochement with the Russian Orthodox Church.

John Paul II is credited by some with providing an inspiration for the political revolution that swept away Communist governments in the late 1980s and the early 1990s. He certainly set in motion the downfall of Communism in his native Poland. But his role in the dissolution of the Soviet Union itself is less obvious.

He maintained close contacts with Mikhail Gorbachev during the fateful time of change, however, reportedly having seen in Gorbachev a man with new ideas.

The two met for the first time in December 1989. The meeting led to the restoration of diplomatic relations between Russia and the Vatican after a break of more than 70 years.

John Paul II is 77 years old and suffers from a variety of illnesses. But the frailty of his health has not diminished his pastoral energy. And by now he has certainly put a distinct stamp on the papacy with his dynamic personality. Some of that will remain no matter who follows him.