Pope John Paul II
Six months into his papacy, John Paul II visited Poland for the first time as Pope. Huge crowds of adoring Poles met him everywhere he went. The outpouring of affection for their native son created an acute source of embarrassment for Poland’s Communist government.
One of the 20th century’s most defining moments occurred during the Pope’s return to his native Poland in 1979. Although this proud country was still locked in Communist grips, more than three million Poles – the largest gathering of humanity in the nation’s history – descended on Warsaw to see their fellow countryman. Long denied the opportunity to worship, the crowd chanted, “We want God! We want God!”
During this trip, Pope John Paul II lit a fuse that led to the non-violent overthrow of communism across Europe. Speaking to an adoring crowd, the Pope declared, “You are men. You have dignity. Don’t crawl on your bellies.” And they listened. Fourteen months later, the Solidarity movement was born in a Lenin shipyard. Emboldened by the Pope’s message of human dignity, millions of Poles stepped forward to demand freedom. That they succeeded in throwing off the reins of communism without firing a single shot, or falling victim to a civil war, speaks volumes about the Pope’s influence.
The Pope’s defense of human rights extended well beyond his native country and the Catholic Church. John Paul II’s criticism of dictators Alfredo Stroessner of Paraguay, Augusto Pinochet of Chile, and the Philippines’ Ferdinand Marcos encouraged opposition movements that led to their eventual downfall.
Pope John Paul II met privately with Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasir Arafat in 1982. Four years later, he made a historic visit to Rome’s main synagogue. Throughout his reign, audiences were granted to United States Presidents Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush.
On December 1, 1989, Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev visited the Vatican in the historic first meeting between a Kremlin chief and a Pope. In 1996, John Paul II traveled to Cuba to meet with President Fidel Castro. As a measure of respect, Castro arrived at the meeting dressed in a formal suit instead of his customary combat fatigues.
Pope John Paul II made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 2000. In a note left at Jerusalem’s Western Wall, the Pope expressed sorrow for the suffering of Jews at the hands of Christians. Occurring at a Jewish holy site, his words were seen as a powerful step in the reconciliation of Catholics and Jews.
In the first papal Mass ever held in Egypt, John Paul II urged reconciliation between the Vatican and the Egyptian Coptic Church, which split from Rome in the fifth century A.D. He delivered the same message of reconciliation in Greece during a May 2001 visit.
During his papacy, John Paul II conducted more than 170 visits to 115 countries and inspired millions around the world. Although his health was failing, the Pope fulfilled his duties faithfully, well into his 84th year.
Due to illness, Pope John Paul II missed the Via Crucis procession on Good Friday, 2005. Giant screens erected in Rome’s Colosseum allowed the crowds to watch the Pope observing them as they traveled the Way of the Cross.
In April 2005, Pope John Paul II slipped into a peaceful state. The final words of this eloquent servant of God were spoken in his native Polish: “Let me go to the house of the Father.”