Weak at the end, strong pope bestrode era

Published April 3, 2005

In recent years, it was often hard to look at him - a stooped figure, trembling in speech and body. So let us remember Pope John Paul II as he was that sweltering day in Miami, Sept. 11, 1987.

Almost a quarter of a million people had crowded into Tamiami Park. The pope, robust and rich-voiced, had just extolled "this beautiful land of sun." No sooner had he spoken than a tremendous bolt of lightning knocked out the PA system and a downpour of near-biblical proportions drenched the masses - and cut short the Mass.

"When the lightning hit, I went right out of my seat," recalled Bishop Emeritus Thomas Larkin. "I was watching him and he was very steady and wanted to go on."

At the Secret Service's behest, the pope reluctantly stopped - the first time he had canceled a Mass. Even as the fairgrounds turned into ankle-deep mud, hundreds stayed in hopes of catching one last glimpse.

In many ways, John Paul was the perfect pope for a celebrity-obsessed age. He drew bigger crowds than any rock star or politician. In his prime he was as fit as a pro athlete. He rode in a one-of-a-kind Popemobile.

He also was the most unexpected of popes - a non-Italian elected because his fellow cardinals couldn't agree on anyone else - but he went on to serve longer than all but two in history. For a generation and then some, John Paul II was the only pontiff millions of Catholics have known.

Even if you weren't Catholic, it was hard not to notice him. Over 27 years, he visited 129 countries and traveled 775,000 miles. In Iowa, kids were let out of school to see him; in Bethlehem, Arabs proudly posed for photographs when he made his millennium pilgrimage to the Holy Land.

Even Fidel Castro acted with unusual deference: He shed his fatigues and put on a suit to welcome the pope to Cuba in 1998.

John Paul's remarkable ability to connect with others - especially the struggling and oppressed - was rooted in his own childhood. He was born Karol Jozef Wojtyla in a little town in Poland; by the time he was 13, he had lost his mother and brother. He and his father, a tailor, lived in a tiny apartment and were so poor they kicked a soccer ball made of rags.

Unlike many of the anti-Semitic townspeople, the Wojtylas were friendly with local Jews. Years later, John Paul would become the first pope to visit a synagogue and the first to visit the Holocaust memorial at Auschwitz. And in 1993, the Vatican finally recognized the state of Israel.

"Jews are our elder brothers," he said.

When the Germans began rounding up Polish men in 1944, John Paul took refuge at the residence of the archbishop of Krakow. After the war he became an assistant pastor, and from there ascended the path that would lead to one of his greatest triumphs: his role in the fall of communism.

Soon after becoming pope in 1978, John Paul returned to Poland and was greeted by adoring crowds. Sick of repression and food shortages, they listened intently as he told them: "You are men. You have dignity. Don't crawl on your bellies."

A decade later, Poland's communist regime fell, triggering the collapse of other Soviet satellites and eventually the Soviet Union itself.

It was a magnificent and largely bloodless revolution. But in 2003, the pope's deep support for human rights clashed with his equally fervent belief in peace: The upcoming war in Iraq, he stated, would be a "defeat for humanity" that could not be morally or legally justified.

To some, John Paul's position seemed naive: Was it not better to stop a brutal dictator before he could kill more of his own people and perhaps millions of others?

It was the kind of difficult moral issue that increasingly put the church at odds with many of its followers.

When he assumed the papacy, John Paul projected a robust, progressive image that led many Catholics - especially in America and other Western nations - to think here was a pope who could pull their church into the modern age. For too long, many felt, the church had ignored the forces that were altering society: sexual permissiveness, the growing demands of women for equal rights, the increasing tolerance of homosexuality, abortion and artificial means of birth control.

But the longer he served, the more the pope seemed to resort to the old dictums. Women could not be priests. Priests could not marry. Married couples could practice only the rhythm method of preventing conception. And it became clear that the pope's messages of abstinence and celibacy were being dismissed even in staunchly Catholic countries.

In Italy - the pope's back yard - the Vatican's pronouncements on contraception are so widely ignored that Italians have one of the world's lowest birthrates.

In Ireland, which once had so many priests it exported them to other countries, the prospect of an ascetic life has proved so unattractive that just eight clerical students were expected to be ordained last year, down from almost 200 in 1990.

And, of course, there was The Scandal: hundreds of priests accused of molesting children, spawning lawsuits that already have cost the church more than $1-billion and driven countless Catholics even further from the fold. The Vatican was slow to acknowledge the shame and at times seemed more interested in protecting its own.

On balance, though, John Paul II ranks among the towering figures of his day. The pope was unyielding in his support for religious tolerance and his belief in the sanctity of human life.

Much will be made of the fact that Terri Schiavo and John Paul II died within days of each other - an ordinary young woman and an extraordinary old man whose final weeks raised the same difficult question: When is it time to let go?

In that, too, the pope was consistent. Although the man who once spoke multiple languages could no longer utter a single word in public, the simple wave of a hand spoke with life-affirming eloquence.