ROME - Even non-Catholic tourists standing in St. Peter's Square, facing the magnificent basilica built by Michaelangelo and Bernini, could sense that something was up. Inside his Vatican apartment overlooking the square, a frail and stooped Pope Paul II was preparing to celebrate the 25th anniversary of his election as head of the Roman Catholic Church, a milestone matched by only three of his 264 predecessors. Tour guides, meanwhile, pointed out the window where the pope delivers his blessing and answered questions about news reports that the 83-year-old pontiff, wracked with Parkinson's disease and other infirmities, is close to death.
We left Rome the day before, but by all accounts the anniversary ceremonies on Thursday were worthy of a king. With one of the world's most majestic cathedrals as his backdrop, the first non-Italian pope in 455 years was wheeled out to the outdoor altar in what resembled a throne on wheels. He was dressed in golden vestments and a jeweled miter. But the regal trappings could not hide his frailty. He read only the first and last sections of his prepared sermon, leaving it to a senior Vatican official to read the long stretch in between.
"Forgive any bad done," the pope said in a feeble voice, "and multiply the good."
The Financial Times last week said this pope will go down in history as "John Paul the Great." His critics would disagree, but they cannot deny that he has been the most important religious leader of his time, perhaps of the last century. The pope is more than just the leader of the world's more than 1-billion Catholics, a modern-day Roman Empire. He is also a world leader whose moral and political authority can sway events and governments. He commands the spotlight wherever he goes (he has visited 125 countries so far) and his words can rattle presidents, prime ministers and dictators.
Before he became John Paul II, he was Polish Cardinal Karol Wojtyla, living behind the Iron Curtain. As pope, he early on stood up to the communist authorities in his native land, warning them against trying to break the back of the trade unionist movement Solidarity. He is widely credited with playing an important role in the defeat of communism and the collapse of the Soviet Union.
American conservatives were drawn to John Paul II not only by his muscular anticommunism but by his unyielding opposition to abortion, contraception and homosexuality - the same issues that have earned the pope harsh criticism from liberals. But the fact is that this pope defies ideological labeling. Liberals should cheer his record on human rights, worker rights, the environment, racism, interfaith tolerance, war and poverty. It is their blind spot in judging this pope.
John Paul II may be remembered more for standing up to communism than for his criticism of capitalism, a system that he faults for tossing crumbs to the poor. He calls for a system that "demands that the market be appropriately controlled by the forces of society and by the state so as to guarantee that the basic needs of the whole society are satisfied." That is a pretty radical message.
His prolife message is seamless - he opposes both abortion and the death penalty and anything else that is part of what he calls a "culture of death."
"To choose life involves rejecting every form of violence - the violence of poverty and hunger, the violence of armed conflict, the violence of drug trafficking, the violence of racism," he said in appealing to Missouri Gov. Mel Carnahan to commute a prisoner's death sentence a few years ago.
John L. Allen Jr., Vatican correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter, wrote last December that no Democrat or Republican could win his party's nomination for president running on this pope's record because he would be seen as too liberal. He is right about that. Yet, many liberals insist of seeing only that part of his record that supports their view of the pope as a hidebound conservative who has taken the church back to its medieval roots.
The pope's traditionalist message on social issues plays well in the developing countries of Latin America, Asia and Africa, where the church is thriving, but it has alienated many Catholics in the United States and Europe, where there are demands for liberal reforms and a steady decline in church attendance.
In many ways, John Paul II has been a fearless and gifted pope who deserves most of the praise he has been getting. But his legacy will be tarnished by two issues that, in my view, have seriously eroded the church's moral authority - his failure to address the sex abuse scandal in the American church and his preaching against the use of condoms in AIDS-ravaged Africa and Asia. I cannot understand how he can decry the "culture of death" and at the same time oppose a means to save lives.
That said, I believe this world is a better place because of the papacy of John Paul II.