John Paul II: beloved pope who left reformists cold

John Paul II: beloved pope who left reformists cold
Pictures depicting the late Pope John Paul II are displayed in a shop in Rome.

VATICAN CITY - Pope John Paul II, who will be 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.

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