The final hours approach for a tough, dynamic communicator

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The Independent Online

After one of the most extraordinary careers in the Catholic church's history the Polish Pope, known as "the Great Communicator", is finally running out of road.

After one of the most extraordinary careers in the Catholic church's history the Polish Pope, known as "the Great Communicator", is finally running out of road.

His last hours appear to be upon him. The Vatican did not confirm last night that John Paul II had received the last rites but church sources said it was "likely", given the precarious state of his health. A top conservative cardinal in Vienna said the Pope was "approaching the end of his life". A priest in the Vatican said the only hope was a miracle.

For years this Pope, now 84, was a byword for dynamism, charisma and extroversion, none of them qualities often looked for in the Vatican's Curia. For many years after that - until the last few, gruelling months, in fact - he was the quintessence of will-power, continuing to travel when all advisers told him to stop, meeting the faithful in St Peter's every Wednesday, greeting them from his apartment window every Sunday, and continuing to assert his role on the world stage long after he had become an invalid.

His last really memorable intervention was his passionate opposition to the Iraq war, with his thundering condemnation of unprovoked aggression and his decision to welcome Saddam Hussein's foreign minister, Tariq Aziz, only weeks before the allied invasion. And when President Bush came to call last year, the Pope didn't hesitate to read him a lecture about aggression.

Karol Wojtyla, to give him his Polish name, has been many popes to many people. To non-Catholics he was the champion of Polish Catholicism against the communist regime, whose backing of the shipyard workers' union Solidarnosc was crucial in precipitating the fall of communism across the Eastern bloc.

For many Catholics, by contrast, and especially those in Britain and America, he has been a maddeningly conservative figure, rolling back the liberalism championed by Pope John XXIII at the Second Vatican Council, promoting hard-line figures and organisations such as Opus Dei, denouncing every cause dear to the liberal Catholic heart from birth control to Latin American "liberation theology", and imposing what many saw as a stultifying, "pope-centric" authoritarianism on a church that was struggling to be true to its enormous diversities.

He has been a pope of rocky certainties, imposed with the grim gravitas of an Old Testament prophet. Attempts by liberals to open up new doctrinal interpretations were fiercely stamped on by the Cardinal they called the "enforcer of the faith", his right-hand man Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. He made vigorous moves to improve relations with Judaism, the Eastern Orthodox churches and Islam, but within Catholicism he insisted on the traditional verities. He believed that, when a Turkish gunman tried to assassinate him in 1981, the Virgin Mary intervened to change the direction of the bullet and save his life.

In the past few tragic months the one-time actor and playwright has embraced one final role: the embodiment of stoical suffering, the agony of a man who, as he said of Jesus, "did not come down from the cross".