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Saturday, April 02, 2005

Pope John Paul II, 1920-2005

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The Holy Father, Pope John Paul II has died at the age of 84, after an extended illness. The pope passed away Saturday evening in his Vatican apartment, surrounded by close aides. During his youth, then-Karol Wojtyla was a top student and athlete. Later, as the Third Reich swept through Eastern Europe, the young man resisted the imposition of Nazi culture by participating in an underground theater company, writing plays and composing poetry. Wojtyla pursed his religious studies despite ongoing arrests of seminarians by the German occupation. After his ordination to the priesthood in 1946, Wojtyla became a parish priest and a professor of ethics and theology. In 1958 he was named the auxiliary bishop of Krakow. In 1963, Pope Paul VI elevated Wojtyla to archbishop of that diocese. Four years later, he became a cardinal. In 1978, Wojtyla participated in the conclave that elected Albino Luciani Pope John Paul I. After only 33 days in office, Pope John Paul I died. On October 16, 1978, Wojtyla was elected pope, becoming the first non-Italian to serve as bishop of Rome in nearly 500 years. The pope did not have a coronation and eschewed the Papal Tiara, preferring instead to emphasize serving his flock. But his reach didn't end at the boundaries of the Catholic world. He traveled to England and knelt in prayer with the Archbishop of Canterbury. He conferred with Orthodox leaders in Romania, marking the visit to an Orthodox country in nearly a millennium. In 2002, he visited the mostly Muslim nation of Azerbaijan, home to only 120 Catholics. All told, John Paul II was the most-traveled pontiff in Church history, having visited more countries than all his predecessors combined. Among those journeys was his 2000 trip to Israel, part of his efforts to reach across the Jewish-Christian divide:

... [D]uring a visit to Yad Vashem, the Pope said, ''As bishop of Rome and successor of the Apostle Peter, I assure the Jewish people that the Catholic Church, motivated by the Gospel law of truth and love, and by no political considerations, is deeply saddened by the hatred, acts of persecution and displays of anti-Semitism directed against the Jews by Christians at any time and in any place.'' He also met with Holocaust survivors, including several from Wadowice, his own home town in Poland and impressed Israelis with the warmth he showed toward them.
During his 26-year pontificate, the Holy Father was a staunch defender of traditional Church teachings. A landmark encyclical, Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life), reaffirmed official Catholic opposition to abortion, euthanasia and capital punishment:

It is the proclamation that Jesus has a unique relationship with every person, which enables us to see in every human face the face of Christ. It is the call for a "sincere gift of self" as the fullest way to realize our personal freedom. It also involves making clear all the consequences of this Gospel. These can be summed up as follows: human life, as a gift of God, is sacred and inviolable. For this reason procured abortion and euthanasia are absolutely unacceptable. Not only must human life not be taken, but it must be protected with loving concern. The meaning of life is found in giving and receiving love, and in this light human sexuality and procreation reach their true and full significance. Love also gives meaning to suffering and death; despite the mystery which surrounds them, they can become saving events. Respect for life requires that science and technology should always be at the service of man and his integral development. Society as a whole must respect, defend and promote the dignity of every human person, at every moment and in every condition of that person's life.
The pope was targeted for assassination by the Soviet Union for his support of the Polish Solidarity movement, which led to the downfall of Communism in that nation:

The leader of the Solidarity labor union movement and Poland's first freely elected post-communist president, Lech Walesa, said the pope was largely responsible for the fall of communism throughout Eastern Europe. "The pope told me: 'Do not be afraid, change the face of the globe,' " Walesa said in an interview with Poland's TVN24 channel, describing a meeting with the pontiff during his visit to Poland in 1979, a year before the largest Solidarity strike and 10 years before the fall of the Berlin Wall. "And, after that visit, the 10 or so people who were active in the anti-communist opposition expanded into 10 million people ready to protest, ready to strike, people who trusted that communism could be defeated," Walesa said.
Al-Qaeda terrorists also unsuccessfully plotted his death:
Documents found in a block of flats in Karachi, Pakistan, used as a hideout by [Khalid Sheikh] Mohammed show that he visited the Philippines on a number of occasions to finalise details for the assassination attempt. Local Islamic militants would have been used to detonate explosives while the Pope was saying Mass.

In addition to the assassination attempts, the pope was weakened in recent years due to the onslaught of Parkinson's disease, severe arthritis, and several cancer treatments. The College of Cardinals has been summoned to Rome to prepare for the Conclave that will elect the Pope's successor. Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord, and may perpetual light shine upon him. May the souls of all the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace.

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