Pope a giant bent by illness

REUTERS

April 1, 2005

By Philip Pullella

VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - Adored by some, attacked by others, Pope John Paul is the most prominent religious leader and perhaps the most widely recognised person in the world.

In over a quarter century on the global stage, he has been both a champion of the downtrodden and an often contested defender of orthodoxy within his own church.

In recent years, the world has watched the decline in the health of the 84-year-old Pope, who suffers from Parkinson's disease and severe arthritis. He has been unable to complete his prepared speeches and has difficulty pronouncing his words.

The Pope was rushed to hospital in Rome twice in February 2005 with severe breathing problems, requiring a tracheotomy the second time around that temporarily robbed him of his voice.

John Paul dramatically failed in his efforts to speak in public for the second time in four days on Wednesday, and shortly afterwards doctors inserted a feeding tube to try to boost his strength.

The Vatican said on Thursday the pontiff was suffering from a very high fever caused by a urinary infection.

This revived fears among the world's 1.1 billion Catholics that one of the most historic pontificates was nearing an end. The massive media coverage around the world showed his appeal went far beyond the ranks of his own church.

The Polish Pope burst on the scene on October 16, 1978, when cardinals in a secret conclave chose him as the first non-Italian pontiff in four and a half centuries.

The third longest-serving pope in Roman Catholic history, the steely willed John Paul ushered his church into the new millennium despite his sapped stamina.

Historians say one of the pope's most lasting legacies will be his role in the fall of communism in Eastern Europe in 1989.

Poles believe his unflagging support for the banned Solidarity trade union while communists tried to crush it was a potent force keeping the movement alive.

Solidarity formed the East Bloc's first non-communist government in 1989, marking the start of a wave of freedom which saw Marxist regimes fall like dominoes across Europe.

"Behold the night is over, day has dawned anew," the Pope said during a triumphant visit to Czechoslovakia in 1990.

A decade after witnessing the fall of communism, he fulfilled another of his dreams. He visited the Holy Land in March 2000, and, praying at Jerusalem's Western Wall, he asked forgiveness for Catholic sins against Jews over the centuries.

A GLOBAL PULPIT

A tireless traveller who has clocked up some 1.25 million kilometres (775,000 miles) in 104 foreign trips to some 130 countries, the Pope is a familiar figure across the globe. He has drawn crowds of up to four million people.

He has been determined to use his office to draw attention to the plight of the world's neediest and oppressed while at the same time keeping a firm and conservative grip on his Church.

"I speak in the name of those who have no voice," he said on a trip to Africa in 1980.

For the Pope, those with no voice could mean the unborn child or the dissident rotting in jail.

He has felt just as much at ease lecturing dictators of the left and the right as he has telling leaders of world democracies that unbridled capitalism and globalisation are no panacea to the world's post-Cold War problems.

A strong defender of human rights and religious freedom, his calls for a "new world economic order" and defence of workers' rights have led some to call him "the socialist pope".

An untiring advocate of peace and nuclear disarmament, he has often warned that mankind was heading for Armageddon and in 2003 led the Vatican's campaign against the war in Iraq.

A former actor who wrote several plays, Pope John Paul has used his mastery of timing, levity and languages to communicate like few other world figures of modern times.

CHRISTIAN UNITY

An untiring advocate of Christian unity and inter-religious dialogue, he is the first pope to preach in a Protestant church and a synagogue and the first pope to set foot inside a mosque.

But ironically, over the past 25 years he also has been a visible source of deep division to his own church.

Many Catholics, particularly in developed countries, have disregarded his teachings against contraception, questioned his ban on women priests and campaigned for a liberal successor. They have also chafed under growing Vatican centralisation.

John Paul has not been swayed by their protests.

Concerned that many Catholics have strayed from traditional teachings, he has waged an unflagging battle against abortion, contraception, pre-marital sex, divorce, homosexuality and the breakdown of traditional family values.

From Haiti to the United States, from Brazil to Austria, he has revived conservative Catholic self-awareness and stressed obedience to the Church's hierarchy in the midst of dissent.

Liberal theologians balked, signing petitions accusing him of wielding too much power. But he once told reporters: "Church doctrine cannot be based on popular opinion."

He has appointed more than 95 percent of cardinals who could enter a conclave to elect his successor, thus stacking the odds the next pope will not tamper with his controversial teachings.

Karol Wojtyla was born on May 18, 1920, in a humble apartment house in the small town of Wadowice, near Krakow. His father was a non-commissioned officer in the Polish army and his mother died in 1929 when he was eight.

In 1938, Wojtyla moved to Krakow, where he entered the Jagellonian University. The Nazis closed the university when they invaded in 1939, and to escape death or deportation the students merged with the population, becoming labourers.

But he studied for the priesthood secretly during the occupation and was ordained a priest after the war in 1946.

He was made archbishop of Krakow in 1963 and promoted to cardinal in 1967, becoming one of Poland's leading anti-communist churchmen during the post-war period.

After the early death of John Paul I, Wojtyla became the 264th successor of St Peter and, at 58, the youngest Pope for more than a century.