The Pope is not finished yet

After 20 years in the Vatican John Paul II aims to put his stamp on the next century, writes Anne Hanley in Rome
ON FRIDAY a frail, trembling 78-year-old will celebrate his 20th anniversary as one of the world's last absolute monarchs. He will do so without pomp and without festivities, working hard to finish a long-awaited encyclical, and contemplating a new millennium which he hopes to usher in personally with a list of mea culpas for his tiny state's actions during the previous one.

He will have the satisfaction of knowing that he has occupied the throne of St Peter's for longer than anyone else this century, and the painful awareness that, whatever his state of health, he has no choice but to remain there, a lonely figure at the head of a church which he has changed profoundly, and at the end of an era on which he has left an indelible mark.

Karol Jozef Wojtyla - Pope John Paul II - has an enviable number of records to his name. The first Polish pope; the first non-Italian to head the Catholic Church in 456 years; the first pope to have dirtied his hands with factory work; the most travelled pope. He has created more saints than any of his modern predecessors, and issued more letters and encyclicals.

He has met more foreign heads of state and government and has arguably had more influence in changing the course of world events than any of his predecessors since the great popes of the Renaissance.

He has also alienated more liberal Catholics than any other pontiff before him, sticking rigidly to conservative dogma and refusing to give any ground to late 20th-century changes of mores. And he has appointed almost 90 per cent of the cardinals who will be called upon to elect his successor, making it likely that his rigid principles will be carried forward into the next millennium by a new pope in his own likeness.

Born in the town of Wadowice in 1920, Karol Wojtyla grew up in a devout Catholic household, his faith instilled by a mother on whom he doted - a fact, perhaps, which explains his almost obsessive devotion to the Virgin Mary. She died when he was nine years old. He played football and wrote poetry and acted in plays, contemplating a life in the arts rather than in the church.

But during the rigours of Nazi-occupied wartime Poland, this employee of the German-owned Solvay chemicals plant opted for a secret training for the priesthood under Krakow's Archbishop Adam Sapieha. He was ordained in 1946 and, after an unremarkable few years keeping out of the way of trouble with his country's Communist rulers, he was consecrated as a bishop in 1958.

The man who, as pope, was to see the fall of communism, was looked upon kindly by the Polish regime, which viewed him as a malleable priest and backed him for the job of Archbishop of Krakow in 1964. They soon realised their mistake: the new bishop threw his weight behind student protests in 1968 and riots against food price increases in 1970.

Monsignor Wojtyla was a distant outsider to replace John Paul I when the consistory of cardinals met to elect a new pope in the Sistine Chapel in 1978. The choice of a pontiff from behind the Iron Curtain at a time when the first small cracks were appearing in the communist fortress grew in significance, however, when Ronald Reagan entered the White House in 1980. Together, the Vatican and Washington elicited solid international support for the burgeoning Solidarity labour union movement in Poland, while a strong hunch in Rome that the Kremlin's rising star, Mikhail Gorbachev, might prove a boon helped to temper hostility between the US and Moscow during the second half of the 1980s. In December 1989, the Pope and Mr Gorbachev came face to face in an emotional meeting in the Vatican.

If John Paul II has been a ground-breaker politically, he has been reactionary as far as the tenets of the Catholic church go. He has refused to budge an inch from an outright ban on artificial birth control, deigning last year only to recommend that priests grant absolution for contraception users who repent in the confessional and promise not to do it again. Abortion remains anathema; divorcees have no hope of a second church wedding.

The Pope's determination to restrict the priesthood to men - he wielded his infallibility on this topic in November 1995 - was so great that he was prepared to accept a cooling-off in ecumenical progress with the Anglican Church rather than abandon it. And to make sure that no wrong-thinking Catholic academics or philosophers should propound anything contrary to Vatican orthodoxy, he threatened them over the summer by adjusting canon law so that any wavering could lead to excommunication.

Critics of these conservative stances rarely pay much attention to his vindications of workers' rights, or his harsh words against the inequalities of extreme capital which he described as on a par with the extremes of communism.

Shot and near-fatally wounded in 1981, and operated on at various times since then for a tumour, a rumbling appendix and a broken hip, John Paul approaches his 20th anniversary with chronic Parkinson's disease which has slurred his speech and made his movements painful. Nothing daunted, the Pope made his 85th foreign trip, for a controversial beatification, to Croatia a week ago. A massive and demanding encyclical, Fides et Ratio (Faith and Reason) will be issued any day.

In it, John Paul will beg for an end to the modern minimalist approach to problems, urging superficial end-of-millennium mankind to return to the simplest, but most profound, questions posed by philosophy. He will suggest they shift their attention from phenomena to fundamentals through interaction between philosophy and faith.

The work, say Vatican commentators, is likely to be John Paul's final word to the church of the new millennium, a millennium he may never himself see. Though tired, ill, and eternally on his last legs, the Pope has other ideas.

His 20th anniversary will be marked by a mass in St Peter's next Sunday, but there is nothing more on the official agenda. The jubilee, on the other hand, will be a 15-month jamboree of the kind that the Pope loves. With a twinkle in his pained eyes each time the year 2000 is mentioned, John Paul has made it clear that he firmly intends to stick around for that date.