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Pope Jan Pawel II (1920 - 2005)

It is widely agreed that John Paul II's greatest legacy to Poland, and to Eastern Europe, was his hand in the downfall of communism.

In June 1979, the newly elected Pope returned to Poland and preached to a million of his fellow country people, urging them not to "crawl on their bellies" under the yoke of communism. The speech delineated his vociferous support for his country's struggle against communism.

His unflagging advocacy for the banned Solidarity trade union, as communists attempted to destroy it, proved vital in keeping the movement alive. In 1989, Solidarity formed the first non-communist government, and sparked a wave of demands for democracy that tipped the scales and brought down the house of communism throughout Eastern Europe. During a triumphant visit to Czechoslovakia in 1990, he declared: "Behold the night is over, day has dawned anew."

The Pope's charismatic role as world leader was a far cry from his early life. Karol Wojtyla was born on May 18, 1920 in Wadowice, near Kraków. He was the son of a non-commissioned officer in the Polish army, and his early life was marred by tragedy. His mother died when he was nine, his brother when he was 12 and his father when he was 20. In 1938, Wojtyla moved to Kraków to study at the Jagellonian University. The Second World War interrupted his education and, even though the university was shut down, the future Pope continued his studies covertly, and was ordained a priest in 1946.

The Holy Father quickly rose through the ranks, becoming an archbishop in 1964 and a cardinal in 1967. When it came to the election of a new Pope in 1978, Wojtyla was an outsider, and although his career had been rapid, he had remained a fairly low-key member of the upper echelons of the Catholic Church.

If his rise to the Papacy was muted, his conduct in the position was the opposite. Dynamic and radical, he traveled constantly, bringing his message to the world and pushing the Catholic Church out of the Vatican and into the far corners of the world, quickly becoming an international figurehead with whom millions identified. His enthusiasm for contact with his flock almost proved fatal when in 1981 he was shot and seriously wounded by a Turkish fanatic, Mehmet Ali Agca in St Peter's Square. He subsequently visited his assailant in prison and forgave him. It is widely held that the third secret of Fatima foretold the event.

The Pope has always defended human rights and freedoms, and warned that mankind was heading for Armageddon. Fluent in at least seven languages, and capable in many more, he could command the attention of the world's spiritual and political leaders. His passing leaves a void at the heart of not just the Catholic Church and his home country, but also of international diplomacy and politics.

(WBJ 04.iv.05)

 
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