John Paul II Touched Diverse Aspects of Society

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Byline: Stacy St. Clair and Kara Spak Daily Herald Staff Writers

From his years as an athletic young man in Nazi-occupied Poland to his days as a frail pontiff in Rome, John Paul II dedicated his life to championing Catholic morality.

History will hail him as an activist pope, a skilled statesman unafraid to speak out against communism or American foreign policy. It also will recall an uncompromising cleric who defended life with inflexible stances on abortion, capital punishment and euthanasia.

"We had a pope who was not afraid to attack wrongdoing," said David Cook, a philosophy professor at Wheaton College. "History will be kind to him in that regard."

The pope's fight against oppression began as a young man in Eastern Europe. Born Karol Wojtyla, he grew up in the shadows of St. Mary's Catholic Church in Wadowice, a small town in southern Poland.

When Germany invaded his homeland in 1939, the Nazis forced the then-19-year-old Wojtyla into labor at a chemical plant and quarry. While toiling there, he joined a dissident movement aimed at keeping Polish culture alive.

He attended the underground Jagiellonian University, reading banned literature and participating in theatrical activities. He began studying for the priesthood, convinced Catholicism was the key to maintaining his homeland's identity.

He later lamented his failure to protest the Nazi genocide and help save its victims. He became the first pope to visit a synagogue and often voiced support for the state of Israel.

On his first visit to Poland after becoming pope, he prayed at Auschwitz, the Nazi death camp a short distance from his boyhood home. It was a dramatic gesture, a signal to Christians to atone for the sins of the past.

"As Christians and Jews, following the example of the faith of Abraham, we are called to be a blessing to the world," he said in 1994. "This is the common task awaiting us. It is therefore necessary for us, Christians and Jews, to first be a blessing to each other."

Wojtyla became an ordained priest in 1946, as communism took hold of his war-shattered country. As a young priest, he fought against the vehement anti-Semitism that festered in Poland at the time by publicly befriending Jews and helping children separated from their parents during the Holocaust.

Historians believe the shame of remaining silent as mass murders took place in nearby death camps cemented the pope's resolve to fight communism. He recognized the Catholic Church was the only social and moral force able to counter an oppressive government.

As a young priest in the 1950s, he cultivated a spirit of independence among the parish youth. He took them on camping trips and on hikes through the Polish countryside, where he taught them about intellectual honesty and encouraged them to be free thinkers.

His affection for young Catholics would continue into his papacy, where he would call on the church's children to hear God's word.

He made his last visit to the United States in 1999 for a world youth rally in St. Louis. During the event, he referenced the 1998 home run race.

"I am told there was much excitement ... when Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa were competing to break the home run record," he said.

"You can feel the same great enthusiasm as you train for a different goal: the goal of following Christ, the goal of bringing his message to the world."

The mostly teenage crowd responded with delight.

"John Paul Two!" they chanted. "We love you!"

The pope's affable personality long bolstered the effectiveness of his message. By the time he became archbishop of Krakow in 1964, the communist government preferred to deal with Wojtyla because they believed him to be less confrontational than other Church leaders.

The Soviet-controlled leaders underestimated the steely resolve beneath the accommodating personality. …