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     Volume 4 Issue 41 | April 8, 2005 |

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Mourning the Pope

The first Polish pontiff -- and at 58, the youngest Pope of the 20th Century -- he had risen swiftly through the ranks of Catholic clergy to become Archbishop of Krakow. His career -- although rapid -- was not spectacular. Although respected, he was little known outside Vatican circles, and few experts tipped him as successor to Pope John Paul, who died after only 33 days in office.

Karol Wojtyla took the name of John Paul II after being elected in a two-day session of the College of Cardinals sitting in the Sistine Chapel. Born near Krakow in 1920, the young Karol Wojtyla devoted his energies to sports including football and skiing. An avid theatre lover, at one time he also considered becoming an actor.

During the Nazi occupation in World War II he studied theology -- in hiding for part of the time -- and was eventually ordained a priest in 1946. He was quickly promoted, becoming archbishop in 1964 and cardinal in 1967. An outside candidate, his approach to the papacy was dynamic. John Paul II has never been a man to remain shrouded behind the walls of the Vatican.

He travelled constantly. After his appointment, he quickly established himself as an instantly recognisable figurehead to the world's largest Christian community. He visited more than 100 countries and was estimated to have effectively circled the globe 27 times.

However, his desire for closeness with people almost led to his death. In 1981 he was shot and seriously wounded by Mehmet Ali Agca, a Turkish fanatic, in St Peter's square. After a long recovery he visited and forgave his would-be assassin.

Despite the Pope's "progressive, hands-on leadership", he was not without his critics, particularly over his views on contentious issues such as divorce, contraception and abortion. At a Vatican conference in 2001 he spoke out against laws allowing divorce, abortion, homosexual unions and rights for unmarried couples.

Critics both inside and outside the church say such views risk alienating many Catholics and are out of touch with a rapidly changing world. In recent years, the Pope had been dogged by ill health and has become increasingly frail. He had a tumour removed from his colon in 1992, dislocated his shoulder in 1993, broke his femur in 1994 and had his appendix removed in 1996.

In 2001 an orthopaedic surgeon confirmed what had been suspected for some time -- that the Pope was suffering from Parkinson's disease. In October 2003, St Peter's square in Rome was filled with pilgrims from around the world as Pope John Paul II celebrated his Silver Jubilee.

Just five months later, on 14 March 2004, the remarkable life of the pontiff reached another milestone when his papacy became the third longest in the history of the Catholic Church. The Pope marked his 84th birthday in May of that year, but despite deteriorating health refused to let up his gruelling schedule of appearances and foreign trips.

The Pope held a weekly audience on Wednesdays and until his latest bout of ill health led to the cancellation of his engagements, had not missed one since September 2003.
He died last Saturday of ill health in Rome.

This obituary was first published in BBC Online.



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