A Faithful Remembers….
By Maxwell Pereira
maxpk@vsnl.com

Karol Josef Wojtyla (pronounced Voy-tee-wah) was born in Wadowice, Poland on May 18, 1920 to an administrative officer in the Polish army and a former schoolteacher. When young, Karol was athletic, and enjoyed playing soccer as a goalkeeper. As a daredevil swimmer he ventured often to swim in a flooded Swaka River. An excellent student, he served as president of his school sodality too.

He also enjoyed hiking, skiing, backpacking, and kayaking – like most young people, for whom he had a special place in his heart even in later life. Karol’s love of the theatre made him cherish ambitions to study literature and become a professional actor. During Nazi occupation Karol clandestinely pursued his studies and his acting, while working as a stonecutter to support himself and to hold the work permit he needed to avoid deportation or imprisonment. Karol Wojtyla was active in the UNIA, a Christian democratic underground organization. At the cost of endangering personal safety, he helped Jews find refuge from the Nazis.

While convalescing from an accident, Karol considered a religious vocation and by 1942 was studying for the priesthood. He was ordained a priest on November 1, 1946. In 1958 Father Wojtyla was named auxiliary bishop of Krakow and four years later assumed leadership of the diocese with the title of vicar capitular. He was a visible leader, often taking a public stand against communism and government officials. In 1967 Pope Paul VI elevated him to a cardinal. By this time several of his poems and writings had been published including "Easter Vigils and Other Poems".

On October 16, 1978, at age 58, he was elected the Supreme Pontiff of Roman Catholics all over the world, the 261st successor to St Peter in Rome – to succeed Pope John Paul I. Assuming the name John Paul II, he was the first Polish pope and also the first non-Italian pope since Pope Adrian VI in 1522. The new pope continued the tradition started by Pope Paul VI to travel, and in 26 years of his Pontificate covered 100 countries around the Globe, in effect circumnavigating it three times and logging more hours by airplane and Pope-mobile than any one ever before.

A man in the papal chair in an era when the church confronted the real prospect of nuclear war in a world divided between East and West, he preached a culture of peace. But in 1981 after he returned from a visit to the United States, Pope John Paul II was shot in the abdomen and severely injured as he entered St. Peter's Square to address a general audience. But soon after the hospitalisation and full recovery, he went straight to the prison and met with his would-be assassin Mehmet Ali Agca, in true Christian spirit to forgive him for his deed.

Charismatic and full of intellectual vigour and energy, John Paul II amply performed roles also of a philosopher, theologian, rhetorician and writer - and he brought to the papacy a new dimension of conservative authority while reaching beyond religion into human rights and politics. His encyclicals covering a range of vital issues of social and economic justice, mass deprivation, rights of the poor and human dignity – earning him rightly the sobriquet as the ‘millennium pope’ for more reasons than one.

A man of firm convictions, he practised and lived by his convictions; steadfastdly and stubbornly cracking down on emerging influences of liberalism and radical Catholic dissent. Especially in matters of divorce, homosexuality, abortion rights and contraception, ordination of women, and absolute rule of priestly celibacy.

Uncompromising throughout in his views on Catholicism’s bête-noir – Communism, his papacy reigned over the collapse of the USSR and the erosion of communism around the world. Be it the fall of the Berlin Wall or the defeat of communism, for him these would eventually happen by itself. His moral authority is credited to have demolished communism. Even so, he proved no less intolerant of capitalism for its heartlessness and decadence. With courage he spoke against wars, and opposed US intervention in Central America in the 1980s, the 1991 Gulf War, and the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Always a supporter of the under dog, he advocated on behalf of the peoples of less developed countries in matters of third world debt; and in matters of extreme poverty – what he characterised as “perhaps the most pervasive and paralysing violation of human rights in our world”. And he opened up new vistas of dialogue for positive interactions with peoples of other religions – Jews, Muslims, and even Hindus. The first pope ever to set foot in a synagogue and a mosque. The peace processes between the Arabs and the Israelis, and elsewhere were not denied his touch.

The fast emerging threats of an advancing secular culture in Europe coupled with the growing thrust of Islam everywhere, the twin scourges of AIDS and poverty in Africa, a steady migration of a traditionally Catholic population in parts to Protestantism in Latin America, the crisis created by the scandal of sexual abuse by the clergy in the United States and the grappling with a fast-changing set of moral questions provoked by advances in medicine and genetics, as also the latest debate on euthanasia following the Shiavo case – are all a legacy left behind by a Pope despite his deft and effective handling of the same, with or without the criticism these issues and the church’s reaction/response thereto invariably attracted.

An ardent fan of the Blessed Mother Teresa, and an admirer of Mahatma Gandhi, John Paul II endeared himself to India, to which land and its people he specially devoted two of his visits – the first in 1986, and then again in 1999. His last official act was to sign the order elevating three Indian priests as Bishops.

900 words: 05.04.2005: Copy Right © Maxwell Pereira: 3725 Sec-23, Gurgaon-122002. You can interact with the author at http:// www.maxwellperira.com and maxpk@vsnl.com

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