Karol Jozef Wojtyla was a towering force"> globeandmail.com: Showman, mystic, philosopher

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Showman, mystic, philosopher

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, Michael Valpy reports

Globe and Mail Update

Showman, mystic, philosopher, poet, pastor and man of steel, John Paul II, the 264th Vicar of Christ and Bishop of Rome, died early today in Rome's Gemelli Polyclinic hospital at age 84, 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."

John Wilkins, editor of the influential British Catholic magazine, The Tablet, once wrote that John Paul had many of the psychological characteristics of an orphan. "He listens widely, hears few and decides alone."

If his stature in history is debatable, his claim on statistics is set in concrete.

When he was enthroned in 1978, he became the first non-Italian pope in 455 years, the youngest pope — at 58 — in more than a century, and history's first Slavic pope. At his death, he was the fourth-longest-reigning pope.

He was by far the most-travelled pope (to more than 130 nations) and the most prolific pope (author of 13 encyclicals and, indeed, author of published poems, plays, essays and academic writings filling more than three metres of bookshelf space).

He created the most cardinals (more than 200) and authorized the most canonizations of saints (more than 475) and beatifications (about 1,300).

He routinely celebrated masses before millions, once strode to a microphone in New York City's Madison Square Garden to bellow at chanting, adoring teenagers: "Woo-hoo-woo — John Paul II — he loves you!" and, until he required a hip replacement in his 70s, often sneaked away from the Vatican on quiet winter mornings to go skiing.

He was obsessed by romantic symbols, like the start of a new millennium — "A key to my pontificate," he called it — and saw life to be dramatically structured around the gap between "Who I am" and "Who I ought to be." He thought of himself as the spiritual reincarnation of St. Stanislaus of Krakow, the 11th-century Polish bishop, martyr and patron saint whose name he briefly considered taking as pope.

He transformed the papacy from a stiff, remote Vatican bureaucrat's office into a colourful global stage for moral teaching and evangelism.

He was a seminal figure, a moral giant, in the collapse of the Soviet empire and European communism — although not its central architect, as portrayed by some American journalists and overimaginative popular historians. In the words of former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev in 1992: "Everything that happened in Eastern Europe in these last few years could have been impossible without this pope."

He was an academic philosopher — among the most scholarly of popes — writing on marriage, love, Thomas Aquinas, the Christian mysticism of John of the Cross (the subject of his doctoral dissertation), on how culture far more than political ideology or economics shapes humanity's path through history and on how atheism undermines human dignity and freedom.

He wrote a play, The Jeweller's Shop, a reflection on married love, that became a Burt Lancaster film. Columbia Records put out a CD of his prayers — recited by Britney Spears, Celine Dion, 'Nsync and other celebrities.

He became the first pope to write a bestseller (on yellow legal pads, during long plane trips), 1994's Crossing the Threshold of Hope, published in 21 languages and sold in 40 countries, for which he received an advance of $9-million (U.S.), surpassing advances paid to Ronald Reagan, Marlon Brando and Colin Powell. (Like most of his writing, it's a dense read: an assessment of the villains of philosophy who have chipped away at religion.)

He refused to modify his church's opposition to birth control. He had, in fact, as archbishop of Krakow and a favourite of Pope Paul VI, written most of Paul's 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae that affirmed the church's prohibition against birth control and shocked the liberal Catholic churches of North America and Western Europe.

He apologized to women for his church's treatment of them, but refused to follow the lead of Roman Catholicism's sister church, the Anglican Communion, and allow the ordination of women as priests.

He refused to consider ending the celibacy rule for priests. He refused to soften the church's rules against remarriage of divorced persons. In his papacy, the Vatican labelled homosexuality unnatural and abhorrent and campaigned against legislation extending benefits and legal protections to same-sex couples.

He was severely criticized by American Catholics for failing to intervene early and firmly as allegations of priestly sexual abuse of young people spread throughout the U.S. church.

It was said that his inaction, his solidarity with the U.S. Catholic hierarchy and the apparent feelings of John Paul and his inner circle that the allegations contained more anti-Rome media fluff than substance were horrendously destructive to U.S. Catholicism.

He liked good wine, good food (usually Polish) and almost never ate alone. He delighted in unwrapping gifts. He sent regular handwritten postcards to all the priests he had ordained. He kept in touch with his school and university friends and held reunions with them at the Vatican.

Weakened in the final years of his papacy by disease, shattered bones and the bullet from a 1981 assassination attempt, he became a heroic, struggling figure, a poster pope for the elderly, "a body pulled by a soul," in the words of his spokesman and adviser, Joaquin Navarro-Valls — propelling himself in pain and fatigue through his world travels and weekly audiences in St. Peter's Square, awash in constant media speculation that he was at death's door.

In 1994, after fracturing his thigh in a bathtub fall, he hobbled slowly to his presiding chair in a roomful of bishops in the Vatican, lowered himself with great difficulty into his seat and muttered to the assembly: Eppur, si muove — "And yet, it moves," Galileo's defiant declaration to his Inquisition judges in 1633 after they had sentenced him to life imprisonment for declaring Earth orbits the sun, not the other way around as implied in Scripture.

A Vatican insider once told Britain's Guardian newspaper: "Know the man and his background, and [all] these years are perfectly in line."

Karol Jozef Wojtyla (Voy-TEE-wah) was born May 18, 1920, in the medieval Polish town of Wadowice in the foothills of the Carpathians.

He was a fat boy, then a gifted athlete and brilliant student, nicknamed Lolek — the diminutive of Karol — the son of a minor army officer and the convent-educated daughter of an upholsterer.

The family lived in a house owned by a Jewish merchant, Yechiel Balamuth, later killed at the Belzec extermination camp with his wife and three daughters. Adjoining the Wojtylas' apartment was a flat occupied by the Jewish Beer family, whose daughter "Ginka" — Regina, two years older than Lolek — was his close friend, fellow high-school actor and one of the more beautiful girls in town.

(When Wadowice's Nazi sympathizers began smashing the windows of Jewish shops, Ginka left to study medicine in Palestine. Young Karol went to the train station to say goodbye and was too emotionally distraught to speak. Fifty years passed before he saw her again: at a papal audience in St. Peter's where, in front of thousands, he held her hand and prayed for two minutes.)

When he was nine, his mother died of kidney disease and congestive heart failure. When he was 12, his brother, Edmund, a physician, died of scarlet fever contracted from a patient. "These are events," he said many years later, "that became deeply engraved in my memory, my brother's death perhaps even deeper than my mother's death. . . ."

When Karol was 20, his father died, leaving him an orphan. He cried all night beside his father's body and spoke painfully the rest of his life about the loneliness he felt. "At the age of 20, I had already lost all the people I loved."

He was shaped by three men.

As a high-school student, he was guided by drama teacher Mieczyslaw Kotlarczyk, who awakened in him a passionate love for theatre, Polish mythology and history and 19th-century Polish literature.

After graduation, he and his father — now retired — moved to Krakow so that Lolek could enroll in Jagiellonian University and pursue a degree in Polish literature. He thought at that point of becoming a professional actor. He joined the drama school of the Krakow Theatre Brotherhood, the Circle of Polish Philology, and the Lovers of Polish Language Association. He attended the Living Word lectures on the use of language and speech on the stage.

He took private French lessons, studied Russian, medieval Slavonics, drama, the use of "Humour, Comicality and Irony" in literature, and the principles of Polish etymology.

He was handsome, popular, but no one from those days ever remembered him dating. He read his poems at literary evenings in the Blue Room of Krakow's Catholic House.

He joined the university branch of the Marian Sodality, attended mass every Sunday and often on weekdays, and went on pilgrimages to Poland's Shrine of the Black Madonna. Classmates pinned a card to his desk: "Karol Wojtyla — Apprentice Saint."

The German occupation of Poland began in September, 1939, just after he completed his first year at university — an occupation that intended "the Polish nation [to] be transformed into an intellectual ghetto" with the "nobility, priesthood and Jews . . . liquidated," "the teachers and other Polish intellectuals . . . removed immediately," the population of Warsaw turned into slaves to produce for the Nazi economy. Krakow, Poland's second urban centre, was rebuilt as a model German city.

Know the man and his background.

Millions of Poles, Jews and non-Jews, were exterminated or shipped to slave-labour camps. Twenty per cent of the population died. Jagiellonian University was closed, and many of its professors were imprisoned, tortured or killed. Lolek's Jewish friends disappeared. At any hour of any day, the Gestapo could be at the door.

Hundreds of churches were closed. More than 5,000 priests and nuns were killed or deported to labour camps. Catholic seminaries were closed and their students arrested or executed. Theatres were shut. Art collections were removed. Polish public life ceased to exist.

In 1942, Karol Wojtyla, then working as an assistant dynamiter in a quarry, walked to the residence of Krakow's Archbishop Adam Stefan Sapieha and asked to enter the priesthood.

The archbishop was known as the uncrowned king of Poland. He was an icy patrician who possessed great natural authority. He once kept dignitaries waiting while he visited a homeless shelter. He treated the Nazi occupiers with contempt. He issued baptismal certificates to Jews so they could escape the death camps.

Each night at 9, he shut himself in his chapel for a private conversation with God about his problems.

He became Karol's surrogate father, mentor and role model.

The third great influence on the young man's life was Jan Tyranowski, a tailor, lay activist in the church, and mystic.

He introduced the young Wojtyla to the theology of John of the Cross, the medieval Spanish Carmelite priest, poet and mystic. John taught that intense meditative or contemplative prayer led to the experience of becoming "God by participation," whereby the soul, strengthened and purified by faith and shed of the dominance of earthly pleasure and satisfaction, achieves contemplation and union with God.

Jan Tyranowski transformed Karol Wojtyla's concept of faith. His 1948 doctoral thesis was an exploration of John of the Cross's personal encounters with God, his experience of "being with" God that transcends all sense and knowledge of human existence.

Karol himself engaged in meditative prayer, often prostrate on the floor with his arms at right angles in the shape of the cross, entering into what he called his "audience with God," a world beyond language. His spokesman, Dr. Navarro-Valls, frequently told journalists that it was the Pope's meditative powers that enabled him to triumph over his diseased and weakened body.

With the defeat of the Nazis and their replacement by the Russian-backed Communists in Poland, Archbishop Sapieha wanted young, intellectual, charismatic priests to engage with students in the new atheistic Communist state.

He had the perfect priest in young Father Wojtyla, who gathered 200 undergraduates around him calling themselves the Srodowisko ("the milieu") or Rodzinka ("the little family").

They followed him into the church to meet God and their own souls, into the mountains to hike, ski and kayak. He was their intellectual lamp. He engaged them on spirituality and on the nature of being human, on love and family life, on sex as the icon of the interior life of God. He wrote a bestselling book on sex, entitled Love and Responsibility.

His path from university chaplain in Krakow to the See of Rome was breathtaking: a bishop at 38, archbishop at 44, cardinal at 47. And when, at 58, he was elected pope, it may have been a surprise to the crowd in St. Peter's Square — but not to Cardinal Wojtyla or the hierarchy of his church.

As the dazzling intellectual of Vatican II — the great 1960s reform council of the church — and the right-hand adviser of Paul VI, the Polish cardinal who was fluent in seven languages was anything but unknown.

He entered his papacy with the constitution of a horse and the energy of a freight train.

He was determined, through his own evangelism, to bring spirituality and the church in from the margins of a secular and materialistic world, to bring sunlight of hope and love to what he called the 20th century's "culture of death."

When he began his globetrotting, he had no real plan behind it.

"With the passing of time," he later said, "I found these travels more and more useful in developing policies. My presence in a particular country added a direct witness, something that was immediately understandable.

"To speak about peace in Hiroshima, for example, was to give a thousand times more meaning to the message."

In the romance of the millennial year — 2000 — he visited St. Catherine's monastery in the Sinai desert where Moses purportedly received the Ten Commandments from God, and he prayed in Jerusalem at the Western Wall of the Second Temple, the holiest site of Judaism.

He was three times in Canada: for a 12-day tour in 1984, a more brief visit in 1987, and a trip to Toronto in 2002 to preside over his church's World Youth Day.

George Weigel ends his biography of John Paul with a story.

Two long-time members of the Srodowisko are staying at the Pope's summer home in Castel Gandolfo. Their bedroom is just below his. Before dawn each day, they hear his cane thump-thumping across the floor. One morning at breakfast, they ask him why he gets up so early.

Because, said the leader of one billion Catholics, "I like to watch the sun rise."

Michael Valpy is The Globe and Mail's religion and ethics reporter.

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