Vatican City, April 2: Adored by many, attacked by others, Pope John Paul is the most prominent religious leader and perhaps the most widely recognised person in the world.
He was nearing death on Saturday after more than a quarter of a century on the global stage, where he was both a champion of the downtrodden and an often contested defender of orthodoxy within his own church.
For years, the world has watched the decline in the health of the 84-year-old Polish Pope, who suffers from Parkinson’s disease and severe arthritis. He has been barely able to speak at all since throat surgery in February.
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His sharp decline in recent days has prompted an outpouring of prayer by the world’s 1.1 billion Roman Catholics and massive global media coverage which has once again demonstrated that his personal appeal goes far beyond the ranks of his own church.
John Paul burst on the scene on Oct. 16, 1978, when cardinals in a closed-door conclave chose him as the first non-Italian pontiff in four and a half centuries.
Having survived an assassin’s bullet in 1981 to become the third longest-serving pope in history, the iron-willed Pole ushered the Church into the new millennium despite his sapped stamina. Historians say one of his lasting legacies will be his role in undermining communism in eastern Europe in 1989.
Fellow Poles believe his unflagging support for the banned Solidarity trade union while communists tried to crush it was a potent force that kept the movement alive.
Solidarity formed the East Bloc’s first non-communist government in 1989, marking the start of a wave of freedom which saw Marxist regimes fall like dominoes across Europe.
“Behold the night is over, day has dawned anew,” the Pope said during a triumphant visit to Czechoslovakia in 1990.
Amid the triumphs were disasters. In John Paul’s later years his church has been rocked by allegation after allegation of sexual abuse of children by priests in the United States and several other countries.
Such cases led to prosecutions, multi-million dollar lawsuits and the undermining of respect for the clergy.
The Pope was accused of being too slow to tackle the scandal, after it emerged that priests known to American Church authorities to have abused children had been transferred from parish to parish instead of being sacked.
A decade after witnessing the fall of communism, John Paul visited the strife-torn Holy Land in March 2000, and, praying at Jerusalem’s Western Wall, he asked forgiveness for Catholic sins against Jews over the centuries.
A tireless traveller who has clocked up some 1.25 million km (775,000 miles) in 104 foreign trips to 129 countries and territories, the Pope is a familiar figure across the globe. He has regularly drawn huge crowds, the largest estimated at four million people for an outdoor Mass in Manila in 1995.
He has been determined to use his office to draw attention to the plight of the world’s neediest and oppressed while at the same time kept a firm and conservative grip on his Church.
“I speak in the name of those who have no voice,” he said on a trip to Africa in 1980.
For the Pope, those with no voice can mean the unborn child or the dissident rotting in jail.
He has appeared as much at ease lecturing dictators of the left and the right as when telling leaders of world democracies that unbridled capitalism and globalisation are no panacea to the world’s post-Cold War problems.
A strong defender of human rights and religious freedom, his calls for a “new world economic order” and defence of workers’ rights once led some to call him “the socialist pope”.
An untiring advocate of peace and nuclear disarmament, he has often warned that mankind is heading for Armageddon and in 2003 led the Vatican’s campaign against the war in Iraq.
A former actor who wrote several plays, Pope John Paul has used his mastery of timing, levity and languages to communicate like few other world figures of modern times.
An untiring advocate of Christian unity and inter-religious dialogue, he was the first pope to preach in a Protestant church and to set foot inside a mosque, as well as a synagogue.
But he has also been a visible source of deep division in his own church.
Many Catholics, particularly in developed countries, have disregarded his teachings against contraception, questioned his ban on women priests and campaigned for a liberal successor. They have also chafed under growing Vatican centralisation.
John Paul has not been swayed by their protests.
Concerned that many Catholics have strayed from traditional teachings, he has waged an unflagging battle against abortion, contraception, pre-marital sex, divorce, homosexuality and the breakdown of traditional family values.
From Haiti and the United States, Brazil to Austria, he has revived conservative Catholic self-awareness and stressed obedience to the Church’s hierarchy in the midst of dissent.
Liberal theologians have balked, signing petitions that accuse him of wielding too much power. But he once told reporters: “Church doctrine cannot be based on popular opinion.”
He has appointed 115 of the 117 cardinals destined to enter a conclave to elect his successor, thus stacking the odds the next pope will not tamper with his more controversial teachings.
Karol Wojtyla was born on May 18, 1920, in a humble apartment house in the small town of Wadowice, near Krakow. His father was a non-commissioned officer in the Polish army and his mother died in 1929 when he was eight.
In 1938, Wojtyla moved to Krakow, where he entered the Jagellonian University. The Nazis closed the university when they invaded in 1939, and to escape death or deportation the students merged with the population, becoming labourers.
But he studied for the priesthood secretly during the occupation and was ordained a priest after the war in 1946.
He was made archbishop of Krakow in 1963 and promoted to cardinal in 1967, becoming one of Poland’s leading anti-communist churchmen during the postwar period.
After the early death of John Paul I, who reigned for only a month, Wojtyla became the 264th successor of St Peter and, at 58, the youngest Pope for more than a century.