Pope John Paul II: 1920-2005

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ROME – Pope John Paul II died late on Saturday night, April 2, ending one of the longest and most influential pontificates in the history of the Catholic Church.

The Holy Father remained “extraordinarily serene” during his final illness, according to his spokesman, Joaquin Navarro-Valls. He had suffered heart failure the previous evening while being treated for an infection of his urinary tract. As his condition deteriorated rapidly during the day on Friday and then Saturday, with his body wracked by septic shock and kidney failure, the Pope remained in prayer with his closest aides, losing consciousness only late in the evening before his death.

Pope John Paul was 84 years old at the time of his death. He had been afflicted by Parkinson’s disease, causing a serious curtailment of his activities, for several years. In February 2005, he was hospitalized twice for severe respiratory problems. Doctors at the Gemelli Hospital had inserted a tube in his throat to ease his breathing, and earlier this week the Vatican had disclosed that a feeding tube had also been inserted to provide him with supplementary nourishment because of his difficulty in swallowing.

The Pope’s last public appearance came on Easter Sunday, when he came to the balcony of his apartment in the apostolic palace to deliver the traditional Urbi et Orbi blessing. During that public appearance the Pope was in obvious pain, and unable to speak.

In October 1978, Cardinal Karol Wojtyla of Krakow, Poland, was elected the 264th Roman Pontiff– the youngest Pope of the 20th century and the first non-Italian to serve as leader of the Catholic world in over 400 years. He took the name John Paul II, and in a memorable first appearance as Pope, immediately won the hearts of the Roman crowd as he greeted them with the words of Jesus, which would echo throughout his 26-year pontificate: “Be not afraid!”

Only two Popes– Blessed Pius IX, who served over 31 years, and St. Peter himself– have held the papacy for longer than John Paul II. During his extraordinary pontificate, he became the most widely recognized man in human history, traveling to greet millions of people all around the world, and earning credit as one of the principal architects of the fall of Soviet Communism. His years in the papacy saw a series of “firsts,” and an astonishing output of encyclicals, apostolic letters, and other writings.

Born in Wadowice, Poland, on May 18, 1920, Karol Wojtyla was raised primarily by his father, a military officer also named Karol, after his mother’s death in 1929. When his father died in 1941, he was left alone, as a student in Krakow’s Jagiellonian Unversity. During the occupation of Poland by Nazi forces in World War II, he was pressed into labor as a stonecutter, then in a chemical factory, but worked with the Polish underground and maintained an avid interest in theater.

In 1942 the young Wojtyla entered a clandestine seminary, and after the war, in 1946, he was ordained by Cardinal Adam Sapieha of Krakow. He continued his studies in Rome under the famous French Dominican, Father Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, and earned degrees in theology and philosophy, with a dissertation on the mystical works of St. John of the Cross. He returned to Poland to teach at the Krakow seminary, while also serving as a parish priest, and forming friendships with a number of young families– friendships that remained intact throughout his life.

At the age of just 38 he was named an auxiliary bishop of Krakow by Pope Pius XII, and in 1962 he became the city’s archbishop. He was raised to the College of Cardinals by Pope Paul VI at the age of 47.

The scholarly young Polish prelate was an influential figure in the deliberations of the Second Vatican Council, taking a particularly active role in the writing of Gaudium et Spes (doc) , the dogmatic constitution on the Church and the modern world.

In August 1978, he took part in the conclave that elected Cardinal Albino Luciani of Venice to become Pope John Paul I; when that Pontiff died abruptly after just 33 days, he again entered the conclave– to emerge as Pope John Paul II.

During visits to his native Poland, John Paul II proved to be a lightning-rod for the growing opposition to the country’s Communist regime. On May 13, 1981, he was shot and severely wounded by Mehmet Ali Agca in an assassination attempt that took place immediately after a public audience in St. Peter’s Square. Vatican officials immediately suspected that the leaders of the Soviet Union had authorized the attempt on the Pope’s life– a hypothesis that appears to have been confirmed by documents recently discovered in the archives of the East German secret service.

Alongside his historic role in the fall of Communism, John Paul II has also been the world’s most influential defender of the dignity of human life; his memorable calls for the development of a “culture of life”– and his parallel denunciations of the “culture of death”– have been instrumental in rallying opposition to abortion, contraception, euthanasia, and embryonic-tissue research.

The Polish Pontiff was an ardent exponent of Christian unity, who made special efforts to reach out to other Christian churches. He was especially insistent on the need to bring together the Eastern and Western Christian traditions, saying that the Church must “breathe with both lungs.”

By far the most traveled Pontiff in history, John Paul II made 104 trips outside Italy during his pontificate, as well as 146 inside the country. His long papacy saw a huge increase in the number of saints formally recognized by the Church; he beatified 1,338 people, and canonized 482. He was the author of 14 encyclicals, 15 apostolic exhortations, 11 apostolic constitutions, 45 apostolic letters, and five books that appeared during the time he served as Pope.

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