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Pope's spirit remains strong



Published: Wed, April 3, 2002 @ 12:00 a.m.



For nearly a quarter of a century, Pope John Paul II has led the Catholic Church with vigor, resolve and a dedication to duty that has been inspirational.

His triumphant return to his native Poland within months of his ascendancy in 1978 drew a million people to his feet. He became history's best-traveled pope, logging a half-million miles in visits to more than 125 countries. Many of those countries he visited more than once -- he came to the United States seven times.

He redefined the world's image of a pope.

How he worked: In his 1978 book, "The Making of Popes," Andrew M. Greeley described how the new pope worked a crowd. "His moves, his presence, his smile, his friendliness, his gestures ... have pleased everyone... He is great with crowds -- shaking hands, smiling, talking, kissing babies."

Images such as those, combined with mental pictures of a pope who skied the Alps, a pope who survived an assassin's bullet, a pope who said Mass in packed stadiums or open fields before hundreds of thousands of people at a time are among John Paul II's legacies.

He has been a champion of human rights and unbending conservative on social issues such as abortion, homosexuality and contraception.

Years ago, there was talk of the pope's failing health and a possibility that he might step aside. Such thoughts were not even given serious consideration at the time because it was a given the John Paul II intended to oversee his church's Great Jubilee of the Year 2000.

That year is now past. John Paul II is approaching the age of 82. Cardinals of the church are consigned to inactive status at 80.

Image of determination: Regardless of the pope's age or years of service, no one who saw videotape of him at Holy Week and Easter services could help being moved by his determination. But admiration aside, many people had to wonder if the time has not come for John Paul II to begin the process of stepping aside.

This thought had to occur especially to American Catholics who see their church in crisis over recent revelations of sexual abuse by some priests over a period of decades.

There are important questions facing the church on how to respond to a crisis that has not gotten the level of attention it should get from the Vatican.

Pope John Paul II should recognize that the church today needs a level of energetic leadership at least equal to that which he brought to the papacy in 1978.




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