Pope John Paul II, who died at 84 (on Saturday),
was more than the leader of one of the world's major religions. He was a world figure.
As the first non-Italian pope in centuries, John Paul was involved in the collapse of atheist Communism and was able to witness the free exercise of religion in his native Poland.
But John Paul II was far more than the pope who battled Communism.
Though his church can be slow to change, John Paul was not slow to act. As the most-traveled pope in history, John Paul logged about 742,000 miles to about 130 nations, estimated the Vatican Information Service. He has brought the church to millions in the Third World.
He was an athletic man who was able to survive an assassination attempt in 1981. Just a few days later, he announced, "Pray for the brother who shot me, whom I have sincerely forgiven." The pope later met with his assailant. ...
John Paul had a softer side. Bernie Sans, director of liturgical music at Christ the King Catholic Church in Arlington, met the pope twice in the 1980s. Sans brought church choirs to the Vatican when he lived in Milwaukee. During the first visit in 1982, he stood next to the pope on the steps of St. Peter's Basilica, kissed the pope's ring, shook the pope's hand and chatted with him.
"It was a little scary, being in the presence of greatness," Sans said, "but there was something about His Holiness that was relaxing. He made everybody laugh, put everyone at ease and made you feel right at home."
During John Paul's tenure, the Catholic Church dealt with a number of difficult issues: abortion, sex abuse among the priesthood, contraception, demands for married priests and female priests.
He was firm in his beliefs. He proposed a "culture of life" versus a "culture of death," which refers to opposition to abortion, euthanasia and the death penalty.
John Paul made at least five trips to the United States. His encyclical on America in 1999 summarized his attempt to speak more broadly than to faithful Catholics.
"Clearly, America's Christian identity is not synonymous with Catholic identity. The presence of other Christian communities, to a greater or lesser degree in the different parts of America, means that the ecumenical commitment to seek unity among all those who believe in Christ is especially urgent."
He publicly apologized to Jews for the failings of the church. "The history of salvation makes clear our special relationship with the Jewish people," Pope John Paul II said in the 1999 encyclical. "Consequently, any negative attitude in their regard must be avoided, since, in order to be a blessing for the world, Jews and Christians need first to be a blessing for each other."
The legacy of Pope John Paul II can only be described as larger than life, or to be more accurate, as spiritual.
The Florida Times-Union (Jacksonville, Fla.)
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