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Vatican: Analysis From Washington -- A Transforming Power

Washington, 18 May 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Pope John Paul II turns 80 today, an event that has prompted some to call for his resignation but far more to note the role the leader of more than one billion Roman Catholics has played in transforming the world.

The pope's obvious physical infirmities and his own reaffirmation of the principle that cardinals over 80 not participate in papal elections has led a few to call for his resignation either out of sympathy for the pope as a human being or because they disagree with his positions on one or another question.

John Paul, however, has clearly signaled that he intends to continue in office: He recently told someone who asked whether he might resign because of the difficulties he has with walking by observing that "I don't run the Church with my feet."

For that reason and because of what he has done, most of the attention to this papal birthday has focused not on the infirmities of age but rather on his accomplishments. During his 22 years on the throne of St. Peter -- the longest papacy of the 20th century and the seventh longest of all time -- John Paul has accomplished far more both inside the church and beyond.

Inside the church, he has now appointed more than 90 percent of the cardinals who will eventually choose his successor, thus providing a kind of guarantee that the individual chosen to follow him will share his ideals and approach.

But as important as that may be for the survival and growth of the Church in the 21st century, John Paul's work beyond the confines of the Church has had a greater immediate impact.

The first non-Italian pope in more than 400 years and the first Polish pope ever, John Paul brought a new spirit to the Vatican's dealings with the East and helped to restore freedom both in his homeland and across Eastern Europe, thus accelerating the collapse of communism and the Soviet empire.

The most traveled pope in history, John Paul has reached out to Catholics throughout the world; and the most ecumenically committed in many years, he has expanded ties with Christians and non-Christians alike. Moreover, he has taken the lead in promoting Jewish-Christian understanding, even offering an apology for the Church's past failures in that area.

And he has done all that while remaining true to the principles he believes are the bedrock of Church teachings -- on controversial questions such as abortion, homosexuality, and the defense of the family -- even when they have been unpopular with many of those who otherwise admire what he has achieved.

A growing recognition of just what John Paul has done is reflected in the feelings of many people around the world. A poll taken in Italy, for example, found that 79 percent of Italians believe that this Polish pope has changed the course of history.

Aharon Lopez, Israel's ambassador to the Vatican -- a position that John Paul made possible -- spoke for many when he said that this pope has been "the right person at the right place at the right time."

And Father Tom Reese, a longtime scholar of Vatican affairs, said that he believes that John Paul will be remembered as "the greatest world leader of the second half of the 20th century. His role in the fall of communism was absolutely crucial." Reese suggested that the secret of the pope's success has been that he has sounded "a clear call" in "uncertain" times.

More than half a century ago, Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin dismissively asked about the influence of one of the pope's predecessors: "How many divisions does the pope have?" But five years ago, Lithuanian leader Vytautas Landsbergis asked of Pope John Paul II "where in the world would we be without him?"

That question, one that has certainly occurred not only to those who admire this pope but also to those who attempted to restrict his influence, is likely to be repeated ever more often as John Paul continues his papacy.