Cover Story

A Shepherd and A statesman

COVER STORY: He challenged and endured Nazi and Communist tyrannies. He helped institute reforms that opened the Bible to millions of Catholics. He stood fast for traditional morality in an age of relativism. Last week, with his health in serious decline, millions used the occasion of his 25th anniversary as pope to remember (and say farewell to) Pope John Paul II, man of courage and man of conviction

Issue: "John Paul II: In memoriam," Oct. 25, 2003

Zenon Kiszko's name or the role he played in the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe probably won't make it into any history books. Mr. Kiszko, the Communist Party's No. 2 man in Poland and "speaker" of the nominal parliament, certainly didn't know he was playing such a role in late 1962 and early 1963, but he was.

Mr. Kiszko held veto power over key church appointments. He already had nixed at least six of Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski's nominees to fill the important See of Krakow in southern Poland. In what has to be one of history's most monumental miscalculations, Mr. Kiszko schemed instead to have a young bishop named Karol Wojtyla [voh-TILL-ah] selected as Krakow's archbishop. Party leaders apparently thought the intellectual cleric was someone who wouldn't rock the boat.

And so it was that a committed communist leader ensured the rapid advancement of a priest who would go on to become Pope John Paul II, an unyielding force in the peaceful demise of Soviet-empowered communism.

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Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, when cautioned during World War II against displeasing Pope Pius XII, mocked: "How many divisions does the pope have?" None was in sight in 1989, but communism in Eastern Europe was finished, and Pope John Paul II had been in the thick of the nonviolent battle.

Many of the world's estimated 1 billion Roman Catholics last week celebrated his 25th anniversary as pope. For news media worldwide, it was an opportunity to explore his legacy as his health rapidly deteriorated.

Karol Wojtyla was born into a devout Catholic family on May 18, 1920, in Wadowice, near the German border. Physically fit most of his life, he loved the outdoors, especially walking, biking, and skiing. Early on, he devoted himself to intellectual and artistic pursuits, becoming popular among fellow students and colleagues in the theater.

Other attributes throughout his years: a passion for God and holiness of life, rock-solid integrity, single-minded determination to accomplish the task at hand, unmistakable courage, concern for the poor and oppressed.

After Germany invaded and occupied Poland in 1939, the young Mr. Wojtyla left university classrooms and went to work in a quarry and a chemical factory. In 1942 he commenced studies for the priesthood in an underground seminary.

"It is good to resist," he told his countrymen. He clung to this principle throughout the Nazi and Soviet eras, as a priest, seminary professor, bishop, archbishop, and pope. He was by no means passive in resistance. For example, he confronted authorities, demanding building permits for churches and defending church ministry to young people.

On June 2, 1979, he stood in Warsaw's Victory Square. It was his first visit to his homeland as pope. Millions had come to see him as he traveled about. Scholar George Weigel, author of 992-page Witness to Hope, probably the best biography of John Paul II, describes the scene. The church had issued 230,000 tickets for the Mass at the square, but 300,000 people wedged themselves in, and more than twice that many filled surrounding streets. The pope began preaching what Mr. Weigel says may have been the greatest sermon of his life. It was about the sovereign power of God to transform life through redemption in Christ.

The crowd began to chant, "We want God, we want God." The pope boomed forth: "Christ cannot be kept out of the history of man in any part of the globe, at any longitude or latitude of geography. The exclusion of Christ from the history of man is an act against man. Without Christ it is impossible to understand the history of Poland." The crowd chanted, "We want God, we want God in the family, we want God in the schools, we want God in books, we want God."

Poland no longer was a communist country, Mr. Weigel wrote. "Poland was a Catholic nation saddled with a communist state."

But John Paul II will be known for much more than his opposition to totalitarianism. He was a human-rights campaigner, an advocate for the world's needy, and a blistering critic of the West for its secularism, materialism, and abandonment of moral values. He opposed war and dispatched emissaries to try to avoid or stop it. He was a defender of life when the world's dominant societies drifted toward what he called a "culture of death." He clamped down on doctrinal waywardness in academia; he wanted to ensure that Catholic higher education remained Catholic. He censured liberal prelates in Europe who wandered off the path doctrinally, and he sent some unrepentant scholars packing.


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