Saturday, April 02, 2005

Pope John Paul II dies at age 84

VATICAN CITY, April 2, 2005 — Pope John Paul II died today at age 84, Vatican officials said. One of the most influential leaders of the 20th and early 21st centuries, he worked tirelessly to build a moral foundation in the modern world, while playing a crucial role in overthrowing communism and fostering peace.

Tens of thousands of the faithful had been waiting anxiously in St. Peter's Square for hours. The crowds began gathering Friday when the Vatican announced the pope was in "very grave" condition. He had suffered cardio-circular failure and septic shock late Thursday while being treated for a urinary infection, the Vatican said. By Friday afternoon, his breathing had become shallow and his kidneys were no longer functioning properly, it said.

The pope, who suffered from Parkinson's disease, had become increasingly frail in recent years, and over the last several weeks his health took a dramatic turn for the worse. He underwent a tracheotomy on Feb. 24 to help him breathe more easily after being hospitalized for the second time in a month with flu-like symptoms and respiratory trouble.

His illness forced him to skip most of the Holy Week observations, for the first time in his nearly 27-year papacy. John Paul appeared at his window on Easter Sunday, March 27, to bless the faithful thronging St. Peter's Square, but he was unable to speak.

He began receiving nutrition through a nasal feeding tube on Wednesday to boost his caloric intake. The next day the Vatican confirmed he had a high fever caused by a urinary tract infection. The pope was given the sacrament known as known as Anointing of the Sick, which is reserved for the very ill or dying. Over the next hours, he suffered septic shock and his condition continued to deteriorate.

Cardinal Karol Josef Wojtyla of Krakow, Poland, was elected the 264th leader of the Roman Catholic Church in 1978, at age 58. The first non-Italian to assume the papacy in 455 years, he took the name John Paul, following the lead of his predecessor, Pope John Paul I, who died after just 33 days as pontiff. In 2003, John Paul II marked the 25th year of his papacy.

In the 2,000-year history of the church, no other pope has traveled as far. Fluent in eight languages, John Paul II visited more than 100 countries on every continent but Antarctica, making a point of seeing not only world leaders, but those in hospitals, slums and prisons.

Speaking Out on Controversial Issues

John Paul often stunned political leaders by setting diplomacy aside and speaking out on controversial issues. In March 2000, he apologized for mistakes committed in the name of the church over the past two millenniums, including the Inquisition, the Crusades and the persecution of Jews. In January 1998, he made a historic visit to communist Cuba, where his appeals for freedom of speech, human rights and the release of political prisoners were the first noncommunist public speeches since 1959.

His trip, the first to Cuba of any pope, revitalized the Catholic religion on the island nation after almost 40 years of repression, even prompting President Fidel Castro to lift the ban on Christmas celebrations.

The peaceful revolution John Paul sparked in Cuba was much like the ones he supported in Eastern Europe and his native Poland. As a cardinal, he secretly aided the anti-communist struggle by smuggling money and supplies to the Catholic underground in what was then Czechoslovakia.

After becoming pope, John Paul II wrote letters of counsel to Solidarity trade union activists in Poland, where the communist regime imposed martial law in 1981.

His visits to Poland fueled the eventual success of the Solidarity movement there, which many see as the precipitating event in the collapse of the communist bloc. Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev proclaimed that without the support of John Paul, communism would have been "impossible" to overthrow. John Paul insisted, from first to last, that the Solidarity revolution be strictly nonviolent. It was.

Morality in the Modern World

On matters of personal morality — especially on matters related to sex and sexuality — John Paul led the church as a staunch traditionalist. He denounced birth control, capital punishment, divorce, homosexuality and the ordination of women. He issued a catechism of the Catholic Church, summarizing all the beliefs and moral tenets of the church.

"[The church] speaks to the human heart and magnifies the voice of human conscience," he said in an address to the U.N. General Assembly in October 1995.

"She seeks to educate and ennoble people so that they accept responsibility for themselves and for others. In the context of the community of nations, the church's message is simple yet absolutely critical for the survival of humanity and the world. The human person must be the true focus of all social, political and economic activity."

But despite his humanitarian efforts, allegations of sexual abuse at the hands of priests in the United States cast a shadow over the pope's image in the United States during his final years.

At least 325 of the United States' 46,000 priests were removed from duty or resigned because of molestation charges. Cardinal Bernard Law stepped down as archbishop of Boston in December 2002 after months of public outrage that he failed to protect children from pedophile priests.

And in June 2003, Phoenix Bishop Thomas J. O'Brien was forced to resign amid criminal charges stemming from a fatal hit-and-run accident. Just before the accident, O'Brien had been embroiled in controversy, winning immunity from prosecution after signing an agreement admitting he kept known pedophile priests in positions with access to children.

Advocate for Peace

As the millennium turned, John Paul II made a bold ecumenical move, issuing an official apology for the wrongs done by Catholics in the name of the church over the centuries. He apologized to women, Jews, Muslims and other groups. But his groundbreaking apology was only the latest step in a 20-year career to further peace and reconciliation.

In 1981, a Turkish gunman tried to assassinate John Paul in St. Peter's Square in Rome. The pope spent nearly three months in the hospital and later visited his attacker, Mehmet Ali Agca, in prison. The pope never revealed what was said in that conversation.

Italy released Agca on June 13, 2000, after imprisoning him for almost 20 years, for extradition to Turkey where he was imprisoned on other charges. The Vatican told the government John Paul supported the act of clemency.


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