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Pope John Paul II Leaves Faithful with Legacy of Firm Beliefs

Millions of people around the world are mourning the death of Pope John Paul II. He died at age 84 from health problems including Parkinson’s disease. Pope John Paul was a champion of the poor and oppressed.

Once an energetic man who traveled around the world, Pope John Paul II spent his later years frail and in ill health. Toward the end of his life, he had trouble standing and walking. His voice weak, he found it difficult addressing crowds who flocked to hear him speak and celebrate mass.

But Father David O'Connell, President of Catholic University in Washington, believes this pope left a lasting legacy, even as his health deteriorated.

"For making the pope known to the whole world as a leader, as a man of compassion, and as a man of deep conviction who loved the world and served the world," he said.

Pope John Paul was born Karol Wojtyla in Poland on May 18, 1920. As a youth, he enjoyed sports and the theater. He was a university student when World War II began. When he decided to become a priest in 1942, he had to study in secret after the Nazis had cracked down on religious teaching.

In 1964, the Polish cleric became the archbishop of Krakow, Poland and three years later he was selected as a cardinal-one of the highest ranking members of the Catholic church below the pope.

Pope John Paul was chosen to lead the Catholic Church in 1978. At 58-years-old, he was one of the youngest popes in history. When the white plume of smoke emerged from the Vatican announcing a new pontiff had been selected, the world was shocked to discover he was from communist Poland - the first non-Italian pope in more than 450 years.

Chester Gillis is head of the theology department at Georgetown University in Washington. He says the pope was instrumental in contributing to the fall of communism in Eastern Europe. He also says although the Catholic Church has more followers than any other faith, under Pope John Paul the face of Catholicism changed.

"The growth in the church is in what would be called the Third World - in Asia, in Africa, for example, somewhat in Latin America,” said professor Gillis. “And so it's increasingly a church of the third world and increasingly a church of the poor."

Pope John Paul spoke a number of languages and traveled the globe. He appealed to heads of state to use non-violent means to resolve international conflicts. The Pontiff met with key political leaders including Fidel Castro of Cuba, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and President George Bush.

Father O'Connell of Catholic University says the pope saw his role as being a moral authority for our time.

"And he was absolutely fearless in that pursuit of being that voice for the world, a voice that challenged and a voice that spoke a sense of truth, an importance of truth and moral truth. I think he was an absolute person. He believed in absolute truth. He believed in God. He believed that God's revelation, whether it be through the scriptures, or through the traditions and teachings of the church were things that had something to say to everyone, not just to Catholics," added Father O'Connell.

Millions of people came to listen to the pope and hear him say Mass. But his insistence on getting close to crowds almost cost him his life. In 1981, while blessing several people at the Vatican in St. Peter's Square, a Turkish gunman shot and seriously wounded him. From his hospital bed, the pope forgave him.

On social issues, the pope was considered a hero to some Catholics, and a conservative disappointment to others. He remained staunchly against marriage for priests, the ordination of women, birth control and abortion.

Father O'Connell emphasized the point. "His talking about abortion reflects his consistent belief and conviction and the consistent belief of the Catholic church in the sacredness of human life and every human life from the moment of conception to the moment of natural death. And he was unwavering in his speaking about that, writing about that, and dealing with that issue within our world."

During his reign Pope John Paul often talked about his hopes for the world's young people and expressed concern about their future.

Professor Gillis of Georgetown University says the sex abuse scandals involving priests and children had to be a huge disappointment to him. "For him, spiritually, it was unthinkable that anyone in the priesthood would perpetrate such heinous crimes, sin in his category probably, and that it would be as extensive as it was and that bishops would tolerate it or cover it up. It just didn't seem possible to him."

Pope John Paul made great efforts to reach out to people of other faiths. He unsuccessfully worked to achieve reconciliation with the Orthodox Church. He was the first pope to visit a Jewish synagogue and apologized for Catholics who failed to help Jews against Nazi persecution.

Professor Gillis says the pope respected other faiths. "I think he understood that this is a world -- is not simply the Christian world any longer - although Christianity is the largest religion in the world. It’s a world of religions and of deep equal commitments in other religions to what Christians and what Catholic Christians have. And I think that was extremely important what is increasingly a multi-cultural and multi-religious society, virtually everywhere in the world and everywhere you go. So he advanced the cause of inter-religious dialogue and understanding other religions."

Although the Catholic leader's decisions were controversial to some people, he was often respected for his tenacity and sincerity. He canonized more saints and handpicked more cardinals than any other pontiff in history.

Soon those cardinals will vote for the next pope. But today, they are filled with mourning for the man they and many other Catholics believe, reflected the teachings of God.