A charismatic, yet controversial, leader who captured the
attention and admiration of the world for more than a quarter
century, Pope John Paul II died on Saturday, ending one of the
longest papal reigns in history.
During his 26 years, he redefined the papacy as that of pastor
and evangelist, extending the reach of the church with his savvy use
of the media and indefatigable travels to more than 130 nations.
"No human being in history ... had ever spoken to so many people,
in so many different cultural contexts," according to papal
biographer George Weigel, who was close to the pope.
While deeply disappointed by the decline of Catholicism in
Europe, John Paul II presided over rapid growth of the church in
Africa and Asia, which fueled a 40 percent increase worldwide,
according to church statistics.
Yet while widely respected for his courage and personal holiness,
John Paul II was often a controversial figure globally for his
conservative stance on issues such as contraception. He stirred
dissent within the church as well, presid-ing over a growing
polarization between conservative and liberal wings.
Tested in the crucibles of Nazism and communism, the Polish-born
pope became an eloquent voice for freedom and justice, as well as
the defender of traditional Catholicism.
He stirred millions - Catholic and non-Catholic alike - by
demonstrating that a voice of strong faith and moral conviction
could leave an imprint on the modern world.
For many, Pope John Paul II stands as one of the great leaders of
the 20th century.
"He'll go down in history as the most important world leader in
the second half of the century," predicts political scientist Thomas
Reese, editor of America magazine, a Catholic weekly. "He started
the avalanche that wiped out communism. His courage and political
shrewdness in dealing with the regime in Poland was extraordinary."
Former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, among many others, has
acknowledged the pope's catalytic role.
The white-clad figure used his bully pulpit to speak out
forcefully on moral issues, from abortion and euthanasia to the
death penalty, war, and biotechnology. He also criticized the
inequities of capitalism. This did not always win him favor.
Within his own flock, a growing number of liberal Catholics
questioned his hard-line stances on social issues.
On the world stage, his opposition to the Iraq war created
strains with the US administration. And the Vatican has been widely
criticized for opposing contraceptive methods that could protect
people from HIV/AIDS or reduce the demand for abortion.
Over the past year, the church initiated a campaign to protect
marriage between a man and a woman, including opposition to civil
unions for gays and lesbians.
While conservative on issues of personal morality, John Paul II
was liberal on social and economic justice, advocating reliance on
international law and calling on wealthy nations to address global
poverty. His remonstrances had little impact on world leaders, but
they did help inspire the grass-roots Jubilee 2000 campaign that won
debt relief for the world's poorest countries.
To the pope, the secular, materialistic values of contemporary
society - utilitarian world views that fail to put human dignity at
the center of concern - represented "a struggle against God." As a
philosopher, he used his prolific writings to lay out a Christian
alternative to the humanistic philosophies of modern times.
"His profound insight into what it means to be truly human will
be shaping Catholic thought for many generations," says Alan
Schreck, a theologian at Franciscan University in Steubenville,