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Pope John Paul II Marks 25 Tumultuous Years

The pontiff's role in shaping events is unrivaled by any cleric in modern history. Aides say he now wants to use his illness as inspiration.

October 16, 2003|Tracy Wilkinson | Times Staff Writer

VATICAN CITY — A quarter-century ago, when a relatively unknown Polish archbishop became pope, Jimmy Carter was president of the United States and the Soviet Union was a superpower. Leftist revolution swept into Latin America, championed in some cases by Roman Catholic priests. Israel and Egypt made peace. The world's first test-tube baby was born.

The planet now is a very different place, and John Paul II, who today marks his 25th anniversary in power, has had a hand in shaping events to a degree unrivaled by any other religious figure in modern history.

His election on Oct. 16, 1978, "was itself a breaker of precedents," the Jesuit magazine America said in an editorial this month, "and ever since his election, John Paul II's pontificate has been setting records that none of his predecessors could have imagined."

He is stooped, slumped and sick now, a shadow of the robust, athletic man who became the first non-Italian pope in 4 1/2 centuries. But he soldiers on, determined, his aides say, to work and preach until his life ends, serving in his waning years as a symbol of perseverance and faith over adversity.

On Wednesday, in his weekly audience at St. Peter's Square, John Paul invited tens of thousands of pilgrims to join him today to "praise the Lord and thank him for this happy event." He again had difficulty speaking but withstood an hour of ceremony.

Through the decades, John Paul has transformed the papacy and become a crusader who helped bring about the fall of communism, fostered a historic reconciliation between Catholics and Jews, and remained a steady -- if often ignored -- voice for peace and against war, including the wars waged by the West.

He also has imposed a conservative theological doctrine that brooks no dissent, and he has opposed in unwavering fashion the ordination of female priests, birth control, abortion and gay marriage.

Though a champion of the poor, he also has suppressed the leftist liberation theology that put priests in the trenches alongside the poor.

The force of his personality and moral authority have made him a hero in much of Europe and Latin America and some of the exotic places he has ventured to as part of a mission to make the church and the Holy See more visible.

Yet his orthodoxy and the sexual abuse scandal plaguing the U.S. church have contributed to the growing alienation from the Vatican of the American faithful, who account for a small but affluent percentage of the world's 1 billion Roman Catholics.

"The pope is meant to be a bridge builder, and on the international front, he's very much done that," said the Rev. Keith Pecklers, a Jesuit professor of theology at Rome's Pontifical Gregorian University. "But if you look back 25 years, the Catholic Church today is significantly more polarized and divided than when he was elected."

When the final analysis of this pope's legacy is written, then, it will be a story of contrasts, of ambitious goals, phenomenal successes and harsh disappointments -- of, in the words of one headline writer, revolution and rigidity.

Similarly, as he celebrates his anniversary, the joy of the moment is tinged with sadness.

The pope's physical pain is clear to all; even cardinals speak openly of his mortality and no longer hide their alarm when the pope abruptly falls silent in the midst of a speech, unable to continue, as he did on a trip to Slovakia last month.

"I am increasingly aware that the day is drawing near when I will have to present myself to God to account to him for my entire life," he told Polish pilgrims during celebrations marking his 83rd birthday in May. "I entrust myself to divine mercy and to the mother of God."

John Paul has for years been afflicted with Parkinson's disease, arthritis and other ailments; he was shot by a would-be assassin in 1981 and underwent surgeries to replace a hip and remove a tumor.

His infirmities have triggered a debate within the church over whether he should resign and, since it seems unlikely that he will, what would happen if he were to become incapacitated.

"From all I can see he is very much in control," said Cardinal Roger Mahony, the archbishop of Los Angeles, who was in Rome on Wednesday for the anniversary. "Is he managing all aspects of the church like before? Of course not."

The last pope to resign was Celestine V in 1294. Ever since, popes have died in office. But John Paul's predecessors did not live with the same high profile that he does and easily could retreat into privacy without world alarm.

There are no provisions for substitution of a pope who falls into a coma or becomes so ill he can't function.

Aides and doctors have urged John Paul to curtail his activities, and though he certainly does less now than he used to, he refuses to stop altogether. He will not hear of resignation, but he speaks of his death with growing candor.

"I think that now, after 25 years, he started closing a door behind him," Marek Skwarnicki, a longtime friend, said in a telephone interview from Krakow, Poland.

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