John Paul II: Beloved pope who left reformists cold

A nun prays near a portrait of Pope John Paul II in a Rome church on April 26, 2014. -- PHOTO: REUTERS 
A nun prays near a portrait of Pope John Paul II in a Rome church on April 26, 2014. -- PHOTO: REUTERS 
Catholic faithful gather along Via Della Conciliazione in front of St. Peter's Square to attend the canonisation ceremony of Popes John XXIII and John Paul II at the Vatican in Rome on April 27, 2014. -- PHOTO: REUTERS
A Catholic faithful raises an image of Pope John Paul II through the crowds while waiting to attend the canonisation ceremony of Popes John XXIII and John Paul II in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican on April 27, 2014. -- PHOTO: REUTERS
A view of the crowd that gathered for the canonisation mass of Popes John XXIII and John Paul II on St Peter's square at the Vatican on April 27, 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP
An image of Pope John Paul II is projected during a multimedia show in Krakow on April 26, 2014, the night before his canonisation at the Vatican. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

VATICAN CITY (AFP) - Pope John Paul II, who was made a saint on Sunday along with John XXIII, was a charismatic leader who helped topple communism but was criticised for failing to tackle the scourge of child sex abuse by priests.

The first non-Italian pope since the Renaissance, and the first from eastern Europe, Polish Karol Wojtyla was hugely popular, eschewing the pomp that surrounded his predecessors and seeking contact with ordinary people.

During a papacy that lasted nearly 27 years, John Paul II travelled far and wide, often greeted by massive crowds as he championed peace, denounced human rights abuses and deplored the decadence of the modern world.

Some of the most memorable moments of his papacy were his attempted assassination in St Peter's Square, his call on mobsters to repent and a meeting in which he kissed people with Aids at the height of the epidemic.

John Paul II also sponsored ultra-conservative Catholic movements like Opus Dei and the Legion of Christ in an effort to counter rising secularism in the West and win new followers, particularly in the developing world.

He left one of his most momentous acts for the twilight of his papacy - an attempt to purify the soul of the Roman Catholic Church with a sweeping apology for sins and errors committed during its 2,000-year existence.

Wojtyla was born on May 18, 1920 in a small town near the mediaeval city of Krakow in southern Poland, which was then at war with the Soviet Union.

His mother died when he was eight years old and his father raised him, teaching him German and football.

He studied literature in Krakow where he became fascinated by theatre and wrote a number of plays.

The experience of war caused John Paul to consider the priesthood and his childhood contacts with the large Jewish community of his area were credited for his desire to build closer relations with Judaism.

He became a parish priest and rose steadily through the Church hierarchy, eventually rising to cardinal.

When he was elected pope in October 1978, John Paul II was 58, a robust sportsman and a relative outsider amid the vast mostly Italian bureaucracy of the Holy See.

He spent his holidays hiking, skiing or kayaking, and refused to be penned in by the Vatican, sometimes sneaking out of the tiny state incognito.

His first foreign visit was to his native Poland.

Despite Soviet warnings, communist authorities were unable to head off the pope's 1979 trip, when he appeared before million-strong crowds speaking powerfully for human rights.

The upshot was a huge, reinvigorated anti-communist working-class movement, the birth of the Solidarity trade union, and the steady thaw of the Soviet glacier that lay over central and eastern Europe.

'A man of certainties, not doubts'

For all the pope's immense popularity, his moral teachings - notably on family values, homosexuality, birth control, euthanasia and abortion - stuck to traditional doctrine and alienated many Catholics.

Among them were reformers, young people and Third World congregations in the grip of the devastating AIDS epidemic where there was disappointment over his refusal to give ground on the issue of condom use.

Dogged by a rising wave of scandals of paedophile priests, the pope, at the behest of US bishops, approved new measures to punish clergymen committing sexual abuses but only after a long silence.

His refusal to denounce Marcial Maciel, the founder of the Legion of Christ and a serial sexual predator who abused male seminarians and fathered at least three children despite his vows of chastity, drew criticism.

But the Vatican has brushed off the accusations, with spokesman Federico Lombardi saying there was "no personal implication" of the pope in the scandal.

John Paul II's extraordinary life nearly came to an end in 1981 when a right-wing Turkish extremist, Mehmet Ali Agca, shot him twice at close range as he was riding an open-top "popemobile" in St Peter's Square.

Though the motives behind the assassination bid were never clear, conspiracy theories included a KGB-ordered hit and an attempt by radical Islamists to polish off the world's most prominent Christian leader.

The pope said the Virgin Mary saved his life, and had one of the bullets inserted into the diamond-studded crown of the Virgin of Fatima in Portugal.

He visited Agca in prison in 1983 to forgive him - another highlight of a reign in which John Paul II turned into a global media superstar.

He met virtually every major world leader of the time.

The United States, the Soviet Union and then Russia, the countries of the former Soviet bloc, Mexico, Israel, Jordan and the Palestine Liberation Organisation established diplomatic ties with the Vatican during his papacy.

John Paul II was the first pope to pray in a synagogue, in Rome; the first to enter a mosque in an Islamic country, in Damascus, Syria; and the first to preside a meeting of the heads of all the major world religions in 1986.

"He was a man of certainties, not doubts. A mystic who had both feet on the ground," one of his closest collaborators, Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, said.

He died aged 84 on April 2, 2005.

Key dates in the life of Pope John Paul II

May 18, 1920: Born Karol Jozef Wojtyla, in Wadowice, Poland, second son of retired Polish army sergeant and mother of Lithuanian origin.

1942: After losing all members of his immediate family, he decides to become a priest and studies secretly for ordination during Nazi occupation.

Nov 1, 1946: Ordained in Krakow. Later completes studies in Rome, returns to Poland.

Sept 28, 1958: Consecrated assistant Bishop of Krakow.

Jan 13, 1964: Named Archbishop of Krakow.

June 26, 1967: Created cardinal by Pope Paul VI.

Oct 16, 1978: Elected first non-Italian Pope in 455 years.

June 2-10, 1979: Returns to communist-ruled homeland, trip seen as factor in rise of Solidarity movement and fall of communism in the East Bloc 10 years later.

May 13, 1981: Shot by Turkish gunman Mehmet Ali Agca in St Peter's Square; saved by surgery.

May 12, 1982: Rebel Spanish priest Juan Fernandez Krohn tries to stab him in Fatima, Portugal.

April 13, 1986: Visits Rome's synagogue, the first visit by a pope to a Jewish temple since the times of the apostles, calls Jews "Our beloved elder brothers".

Dec 1, 1989: Receives Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev at the Vatican. This paves the way for re-establishment of Church hierarchy in Eastern bloc.

April 21, 1990: Visits Czechoslovakia to hail the collapse of communism with President Vaclav Havel.

July 15, 1992: Undergoes major surgery to remove intestinal tumour.

Oct 31, 1992: After 359 years, Pope rehabilitates Galileo, condemned by Church for saying Earth turns around the Sun.

Dec 28, 1993: Vatican and Israel agree to form full diplomatic ties.

April 28, 1994: Slips in bath and breaks thigh bone.

Oct 17, 1994: Becomes best-selling author with publication of Crossing the Threshold of Faith.

Jan 1, 2000: Opens Holy Door of St Peter's Basilica to usher in Christianity's third millennium.

March 13, 2000: Asks pardon for Church's past sins, including against Jews, heretics, women and minorities.

March 20-26, 2000: Visits Holy Land, including holy sites in Israel and Palestinian territories. At Jerusalem's Western Wall, he leaves a note asking God for forgiveness for wrongs done to the Jewish people over the centuries.

May 8, 2001: In Syria, becomes first Pope to enter a mosque.

Nov 22, 2001: Apologises to victims of sexual abuse by priests and other clergy.

January-March, 2003: Leads international church campaign to avert war in Iraq.

Oct 19, 2003: Beatifies Mother Teresa before a crowd of 300,000.

Feb 1, 2005: Taken to hospital in Rome with acute respiratory infection, stays for 10 days. He returns to the hospital in March to undergo a tracheotomy to help him breathe. In late March his health deteriorates rapidly but he refuses to return to hospital.

April 2, 2005: Pope dies in the Vatican. His last words are"Allow me to return to the house of the father".

April 8, 2005: His funeral is one of the biggest events ever in Rome and believed to be the largest gathering of heads of state and government in history.

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