He was simply the world's most charismatic Christian

The Pope's death brings to an end a long ministry fighting for human rights and his uncompromising but compassionate beliefs. Catherine Pepinster assesses the life and work of a man who became a priest under Nazi occupation and rose to bear witness ceaselessly around the world
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The Independent Online

It's difficult when a person has been in a position of power as long as John Paul II to imagine a future where they no longer dominate the scene; where their influence, once potent, fades away.

John Paul II's death yesterday leaves millions of Catholics across the world bereaved. Even those who were his critics are left strangely bereft. After 26 years as the Pope, this globe-trotting, authoritarian figure - who even in these last years of infirmity dominated the church - is no more.

The scenes in St Peter's Square in Rome last night were a tribute to the man's extraordinary hold on people's imagination. More than 30,000 came to St Peter's, the place that is so central to the life of the Catholic church, to wait for news of John Paul in his final hours, and to pray. But this was a vigil like no other - and how appropriate for a Pope who had traversed the world so many times. Billions joined the vigil around the world through their television screens, through the internet, and of course in churches, from the tiniest chapel in a Polish village to the greatest cathedrals of Christendom.

There were others too joining in this mighty pilgrimage of prayer for the Pope in his last, dying days: Christians of other denominations, Jews and Muslims had all come together to accompany the Pope in this final stage of a life that had begun 84 years ago in Poland and ended close to the tomb of St Peter, the apostle to whom Christ had entrusted the task of leading his church. To Peter, of course, Christ had said that he was the rock on which he would build his church, and last night Catholics around the world prayed for the man who had seemed, to them, such a sturdy rock on which the church had relied for so many years.

The crowds were also testament to the sense many Catholics had that this was a man whom they knew. He had visited so many of them after all, travelling to every continent bar Antarctica. He was a familiar figure in his Popemobile touring the crowds at the great set pieces of his visits, but even more than the Popemobile pontiff, he was the air-miles Pope. He left Rome countless times to go out to the world; last night the world came back to him.

While it is difficult now to imagine the Roman Catholic Church without John Paul II, it is also hard to recall today that the appointment of this man, who came to embody a particular type of uncompromising, yet compassionate, Catholicism, was a shocking decision. He was the first non-Italian Pope for 450 years; he came from behind the Iron Curtain; he was young, vigorous, and charismatic. Nobody had seen his like before. From the start there were no easy, weasel words of the kind beloved by politicians. He made that plain in his first visit to Ireland, when he denounced the sectarian terrorists: murder, he said, is murder.

That same uncompromising manner was evident in his denunciation of the worst excesses of capitalism, and throughout his papacy, John Paul II was a champion of the poor and the dispossessed of the developing world. Long before Bob Geldof or Bono discovered Third World debt, John Paul II was the advocate of those countries ground down by the greed of big business and Western profiteering. Human rights was the centrepiece of his papacy, something which was quickly evident in his opposition to Communism.

Throughout his life he was committed to opposing the terrible, flawed ideologies of the 20th century - not only Communism, but also Nazism and materialism. He was undeniably a catalyst for Solidarity in Poland, thereby helping to bring about the fall of Eastern Europe. Mikhail Gorbachev acknowledged that without him Communism would not have fallen. But if this is all John Paul II stood for, he would have long ago been canonised by the progressive wing of the Roman Catholic Church. This was a far more complicated Pope. A champion of political liberty, yes, but liberalism and libertarianism in the most personal realm - that of personal, sexual morality - were anathema to him.

John Paul II - Karol Wojtyla - was born in 1920 to a poor, religious family, in Wadowice, near Krakow, Poland - the most intensely Catholic country in Europe, if not the world. His father was a retired army officer. His mother died giving birth to a stillborn daughter when he was nine. Then, at the age of 12, one of his brothers died, leaving him to be raised by his deeply religious father.

As a gifted student of drama and literature, the stage seemed a natural place for him, but the Nazi occupation of Poland during the Second World War had a profound impact on Wojtyla, transforming his view of his place in the world. After working as a conscript labourer in stone quarries, he committed himself to the priesthood. Following his ordination in 1945, he studied in Rome for two years, and later became a lecturer in moral theology at the Catholic University of Lublin. His early years as a priest saw him also speaking out against another repressive regime, that of Communism. By the age of 38, the priest-cum-philosopher and student of ethics, was appointed bishop. Six years later, he was Archbishop of Krakow, and at 46, a cardinal.

That he was appointed Pope was as much a surprise to him as to anybody else. In 1978 he was summoned to Rome for what turned out to be that year's first conclave of cardinals in order to choose the successor to Paul VI. But within weeks, the new pope, John Paul I, was dead.

Wojtyla, as archbishop of Krakow, used to make himself available "at home" from time to time to anybody who needed his help. On the day that he was due to fly back to Rome for 1978's second conclave, an old woman turned up at his residence, asking for help. Her cat had gone missing, and she believed her neighbours had taken it. Could the cardinal help? Wojtyla put her in his car, drove to the neighbours, retrieved the cat, handed it over to its delighted owner, and left for the airport and the papacy.

His election caused euphoria throughout the church. This seemed the right Pope for the times. As a pastor working in Poland under a Communist regime, he had been used to shepherding his flock in hostile conditions. As the Holy Father, the role was different, but his past experience certainly seems to have coloured his papacy. After his opposition to Marxism, this was a Pope who was not prepared to compromise, whether it was in his denunciation of abortion, or capitalism, of homosexuality, or indeed of Marxist-inspired liberation theology in his own church.

Nor was he prepared to be a Vatican Pope - someone who only spoke to the world from the papal city. John Paul II travelled more widely than any other Pope in history, visiting every continent, and engaged in consultation with other Christian denominations and other faiths. He pressed the need for religious harmony, against conservative Catholic thinking, with a gathering of world leaders of faiths in Assisi in 1986, became the first Pope to visit a Jewish synagogue that same year, and the first Pope to enter an Islamic mosque in May 2001.

This was one of the great communicators - using charm and symbolic gestures to break down barriers that would once have seemed impenetrable. He used the same device to proffer hard-line messages. Sometimes those messages were to politicians, and in his time he ticked off Stroessner in Paraguay, Papa Doc Jnr in Haiti, and General Pinochet in Chile. They fell one by one. Western leaders were not immune from his criticism either: his objections to the war in Iraq being among his most memorable interventions. At other times his criticisms were delivered to members of his own church. His views on celibacy, contraception and abortion displayed a marked intransigence, yet in the later years of his pontificate, he frequently apologised for the church's past mistakes. One of the most important attempts at reconciliation was his work to mend centuries of ill-feeling, misunderstanding and persecution of the Jewish people by the Catholic church. He travelled to Jerusalem, placing in the Wailing Wall, that most precious of Jewish places, a letter of apology for the past. For all the talk of human rights and past mistakes, there remained a sense of deep crisis in the church, especially in the West, where there were falling congregations, falling vocations, and sexual crises involving paedophile priests, particularly in the United States.

Among the most disaffected in the church have been women who have been alienated by the church's stand on personal morality. Opinion polls continued to show substantial majorities of Western Catholics supporting birth control and divorce. John Paul II reiterated his teaching in his 1993 encyclical Veritatis Splendor in which he stressed the intrinsically evil nature of abortion, and would have no truck with any suggestion of exemptions.

John Paul II always maintained that strong commitment to human rights and in 1987 he declared that "the inalienable rights of the person must be recognised and respected by civil society and the political authority. Among such fundamental rights one should mention in this regard every human being's right to life and physical integrity from the moment of conception until death."

As well as linking abortion with capital punishment and euthanasia, he also extended his teaching on the importance of respect for every human to treatment of the human embryo, condemning what he called their treatment as "disposable biological material".

In Poland, John Paul had been not just a priest but a philosopher, and during the years of his papacy he developed a pro-life ethic which stretched not just from the cradle but from conception to the grave. It led to his nightmare vision of the "culture of death" which he saw as so prevalent in decadent Western society. It must have been a particular grief to him to see it grow in Eastern Europe too, after the walls of Communism which he helped bring crashing down, had gone.

Evangelium Vitae (1995) warned that a new cultural climate was developing which gave respect to crimes against life in the name of rights of individual freedom. Many female Catholics were also dismayed by his insistence that women priests were not only unacceptable, but that the issue was not open to debate. Although in 1988 his apostolic letter Mulieris Dignitatem re-emphasised the dignity of women, in 1994 he shocked many with another apostolic letter, Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, which stated that ordination for women was out of the question. He silenced not only the advocates of women's ordination but appeared to be binding his successors to it as well.

This was one of John Paul II's most concerted attempts at oppressing intellectual thinking in the church. Despite his own encyclical, Fides et Ratio, published in 1988, which intimated the importance of intellectual outreach, there has been a marked crackdown during this pontificate on radical thought in the fields of theology and scripture, and a promotion of Vatican orthodoxy.

The bishops, too, felt the strength of John Paul's will. The Second Vatican Council had brought a breath of fresh air to the Catholic church, and approved the doctrine that the church should be governed by all the bishops with the Pope at its head. But there was another doctrine too: that the Pope could lead the church as he saw fit. John Paul made sure he was most definitely in charge, overseeing appointments and limiting the ability of bishops to make local decisions, though he did agree to Cardinal Basil Hume allowing married Anglican clergy to convert to Catholicism and work as priests. While relationships with Archbishops of Canterbury were cordial, the once-longed-for unity with the Church of England became a lost cause, falling victim first to women's ordination and then to the rows within the Anglican Communion over gay priests.

There were other disputes in the Catholic church. There was resentment among bishops in Asia, Latin America and Africa, who had wanted their flocks to be able to worship in ways that made sense in their own culture. Instead they were to toe the Vatican line.

Yet for all the emphasis placed on orthodoxy, the Catholic church, during this pontificate, has failed to remain the church that it once was in its old European heartlands - and for one major reason. It does not have enough priests any more. No crisis is greater. As a sacramental church, it cannot function without its clergy. The laity can baptise someone in an emergency, they can distribute communion and couples can marry each other, but they cannot celebrate Mass, carry out consecration or absolve sins. In the Western world, priests are a dying breed. There has been a significant drop in vocations, with just dozens of priest emerging each year from seminaries. In the United States, for example, there were just 460 ordinations for the whole country in 1998.

There has, however, been a surge in entrants in Africa and in Eastern European countries such as Poland. But debate over married clergy has continued throughout this pontificate, with increasing numbers of priests abandoning their vocation to get married. As vocations continue to fall in the West, senior churchmen have indicated that they see no difficulty in changing the mandatory celibacy code to allow voluntary celibacy and a married priesthood.

What has really appalled the entire church has been the series of abuse scandals, particularly in America. The church has stood accused of cover-ups; many of those abused during their childhoods who have since come forward have described concerted attempts by church authorities to silence them. Court cases have led the church to have to pay out millions of dollars. Time and again, the accounts of abuse led the church to be perceived as more protective of its wayward priests than the children who were their victims. The Pope himself was vehement in his denouncements of wayward priests, ordering the American cardinals to Rome to explain the disaster which befell the church in the United States. Critics, however, believe that the Pope with his absolutist rule, had marginalised his bishops, often installing placemen too afraid to take proper charge, and in that sense was responsible for episcopal mismanagement.

It was at times like this that the Pope, despite the physical frailty of his last years, appeared to be as effective as ever in asserting his authority. But the illnesses grew more frequent, with the Pope clearly struggling to walk. The former athlete, footballer and skier became a hunched figure, bowed down with pain.

Yet he continued to travel and made his final journeys in the past two years to Slovakia and Switzerland. Then came his last visit - to Lourdes in August last year. It was almost unbearably poignant; the sick Pope, like so many of the sick before him, travelled to the French town with its healing waters, dedicated to the Virgin Mary, to whom he himself, the motherless Pope, had dedicated his entire papacy. It was a devotion that inspired his papal motto: totus tuus - all yours. I feel, he told the crowds, I have come to the end of my pilgrimage. It seemed as if he knew that death was not far off.

Was he a saint? He nearly became a martyr, after the assassination attempt in 1981. If he was a saint then it would seem entirely appropriate, not least because he canonised more of them - going on for 500 - than any other pontiff. But it would also be fitting, for he was the epitome of a modern Catholic hero. Sainthood has changed. Those acclaimed in recent years have enabled the Catholic church to do two things: to cannily embrace the need for icons in an age of celebrity and also to provide examples of those who can counter the materialist world and all it stands for. That, John Paul II attempted to do - and largely succeeded.

Catherine Pepinster is editor of 'The Tablet', the international Catholic weekly