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He strode the planet like a Christian colossus Since the time of Peter, only two popes have been designated as 'Great.' Will John Paul II become the third? MICHAEL VALPY explores the life of the man we knew simply as the Polish pope

Since the time of Peter, only two popes have been designated as 'Great.' Will John Paul II become the third? MICHAEL VALPY explores the life of the man we knew simply as the Polish pope

Showman, mystic, philosopher, poet, pastor and man of steel, John Paul II, the 264th Vicar of Christ and Bishop of Rome, was near death at age 84 today at his private Vatican apartment, one of history's most charismatic, controversial and possibly consequential popes.

To those who championed him, the Polish romantic nationalist born Karol Jozef Wojtyla was a towering force of humanistic and spiritual illumination and an unparalleled global evangelist who compelled a noisy world to pay attention to his words.

His semi-official biographer, the conservative U.S. Catholic theologian George Weigel, called him the most important pope since the Reformation of the 16th century and deemed him worthy of the appellation "Great" -- applied to only two other popes in history, Leo the Great in the fifth century and Gregory the Great a century-and-a-half later.

To his critics, however, he was a barrier to humanity's dignified progress, a menace to an overcrowded planet because of his rejection of artificial birth control and an out-of-touch papal autocrat who considerably widened the gulf between the church's progressive and conservative factions throughout his 25-year-long reign and bungled the horrific sexual-abuse scandals that soiled the Roman Catholic Church in North America.

The Irish writer Conor Cruise O'Brien accused him of trying to repeal the Enlightenment. The American theologian Richard McBrien, editor of the authoritative Encyclopedia of Catholicism, put John Paul's name neither on his list of outstanding popes nor even on his list of popes considered "good or above average."

What is certain is that he was the best-known name and face on Earth, his life as leader of the world's one billion Catholics a monumental canvas painted in bold and flamboyant colours. What, too, is certain is that the complex and many-layered impact of John Paul on his church and on his times will be debated for decades, even centuries, to come.

He was the barrel-chested athlete, the papal bull, who on Oct. 16, 1978, strode to the microphone on a balcony overlooking St. Peter's Square and spoke for the first time as pope to the thousands below, few of whom had ever heard of him.

It was his last second of anonymity. From that moment forward, he became history's most public spiritual leader, as much at home in jet planes and helicopters as in Michelangelo's Vatican, going where no pope had gone before -- to Africa, Asia, the Americas, to the homelands of Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism as well as godless communism -- routinely drawing crowds of half a million and more (two million for one mass alone in Manila) as he bestrode the planet like a soutaned colossus.

Whether he created his own celebrity status or the news media created it for him, his hardwired connection to the masses, especially to the young, attracted unprecedented and uncritical attention in the beginning years of his papacy -- attention that began to sour only as the media awoke to how alien he actually was to Western, specifically American, mainstream social values.

Indeed, paradoxically, for a man so incomparably visible as John Paul, it became apparent that he was always out of focus, a pastiche of apparent contradictions, his purpose and his intellect beyond the grasp of so many of his flock, as well as of the journalists who trekked after him around the world.

The theatrical ringmaster, the jet-set superstar (after his election as pope, he replaced his glasses with contact lenses that nicely showed off his eyes), who robustly flung himself to the ground at airports to kiss the soil of each country he visited, seemed at odds with the mystic who sought union with God through constant meditation and prayer -- as much as seven hours a day -- and declared that God meant him to suffer physical affliction, pain and would-be assassins' bullets.

The liberal who condemned unbridled capitalism, materialism and exploitation of workers seemed a dissonant match with the conservative who unswervingly opposed birth control, abortion, homosexuality, marriage for priests and an equal role for women in the church.

The Vatican II ecumenicist who proffered reconciliation to Orthodox Christianity and apologies to Jews for his church's centuries of abuse seemed a tough fit with the pontiff who declared in 2000 that only a single Church of Christ exists, and placed the anti-Semitic pope Pius IX on the track to sainthood.

And the resolute anti-Communist who missed no opportunity to undermine the Iron Curtain regimes of Eastern Europe seemed very much at variance with the aesthete who, like those same regimes, was wary of dissent and strong on moral uniformity -- and shared their scorn for the materialistic consumerism and permissiveness of the West.

Biographer Weigel offered the explanation that the Pope "played many complex roles" and criticized the media for trying to report on him as though he were the leader of a political party rather than a deeply spiritual man of God. John Paul himself told Mr. Weigel in 1996: "They try to understand me from the outside. But I can only be understood from the inside."

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