Pope John Paul, who died on Saturday at the age of 84, lived long enough to fulfil three of the greatest dreams of his papacy — championing the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe, heralding the third millennium and visiting the Holy Land to urge peace.
His 26-year papacy made history so often that the term became redundant, but he left behind a Church more divided than when he assumed the throne of St. Peter’s in 1978. He was the third-longest serving pontiff after St. Peter and Pius IX.
The Polish Pope’s reign began with a whirlwind of activity and for years he left most aides breathless.
Towards the end, the man once called “God’s Athlete” was a shadow of his former self. Unable to walk, he had to be wheeled around on platforms and his body, ravaged by Parkinson’s disease and arthritis, trembled out of control.
The Pope, the first from a Marxist country, saw his prayers and political struggles for a reunited Europe bear fruit in 1989 — 11 years after he was elected as the first non-Italian Pope in 455 years.
When the Berlin Wall finally fell, it was for him a response to an appeal he made in his first sermon as Pope in 1978: to tear down Europe’s political, economic and cultural divisions.
The realization of his second dream came to pass when he was an older and frail man.
Limping, faltering and trembling from the effects of his Parkinson’s, on Dec. 31, 1999, he walked across the Holy Door of St. Peter’s Basilica to lead his church of 1.1 billion members into the third millennium.
Thus he fulfilled a prophecy made by Polish Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski, who whispered into his ear seconds after he was elected in the Sistine Chapel: “If God has chosen you, he has chosen you to lead the Church into the next millennium.”
Another of the Pope’s major achievements was to bring the Catholic Church to an historic rapprochement with Jews after 2,000 years of hostility when the Vatican formally recognized the state of Israel in 1993.
That led to the realization of a third dream in March 2000 when he made a long-desired trip to the Holy Land, visiting Israel and the Palestinian territories and calling for peace at every stop along the way.
In a momentous gesture that brought tears to many eyes, he left a personal note in the cracks of Judaism’s sacred Western Wall in Jerusalem asking for forgiveness for the past sins of Christians against Jews.
Towards the end of his papacy he tried desperately — but failed — to persuade world leaders to avoid war in Iraq in 2003, sending peace envoys to both President Bush and Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
“I belong to that generation that remembers well, that has experienced, and thanks to God survived the Second World War. That is why I also have the duty to remind all those young people who have not had that experience, to remember and to say: ‘Never again war!”‘
Several days later the Pope was frustrated as war began.
A conservative who left his mark on the Church and the world, he was adored by the masses from Bolivia to Boston as he quickly became the most traveled pontiff in history.
He appointed some 95 percent of the cardinals who could enter a conclave to elect his successor, stacking the odds that the new pope would be a conservative in his own stamp who would not tamper with controversial church teachings.
MESSENGER LOVED BUT NOT THE MESSAGE
Many of the world’s Catholics, particularly in developed countries, loved the preacher but not what he preached. They disregarded his teachings against contraception and contested his ban on women priests.
His rugged Slavic face, white hair, easy laugh and deep concentration in prayer became his trademark, as did his custom to kneel and kiss the ground each time he set foot on fresh foreign soil.
A former actor who wrote several plays and many poems, Pope John Paul used his mastery of timing, levity and languages to communicate like few other world figures of modern times.
“They’re examining me so much in here I didn’t even know some organs existed,” he quipped to a crowd while in hospital for a broken leg in 1994.
Only the second pope to travel by plane and the first to enter a hospital as a patient and take “normal” holidays, his itinerant papacy gave the world a new word: “Popemobile” — a bullet-roof bubble-topped jeep.
It allowed millions to glimpse him and kept him safe from assassination attempts like the one that nearly took his life in 1981, when he was shot in St. Peter’s Square.
But even the most energetic papacy began to slow down in 1992, when the Pope underwent surgery to remove a tumor from his colon. He suffered a dislocated shoulder in 1993 and the broken leg in 1994 left him with a limp.
In his later years, the Pope was increasingly frail and clearly frustrated by his aging state.
His frailty had its ups and downs. In Slovakia in September 2003, for the first time ever on a trip, he was unable to complete his arrival address.
The next month, his weakness again moved millions during the week-long festivities for the 25th anniversary of his papacy, when the entire list of who’s who in the Roman Catholic Church came to Rome to fete a gentle giant bent by illness.
© Reuters 2005