Pope John Paul II

Members of an entire generation of Catholics have been baptized, received their first Holy Communion, been confirmed and married under one pope. Thousands of priests have been ordained and have celebrated the silver anniversary of their ordination under one Holy Father. Presidents, prime ministers, kings and dictators have come and gone by the dozens during the 26 years that John Paul II oversaw the Roman Catholic Church and took his place on the world stage.
John Paul was an extraordinary figure in religion and politics. Absent the influence of John Paul, the first Polish pope in history, the fall of Communism in his native land would have been a bloody revolution. So says Lech Welesa, the former shipyard worker who was in the forefront of the anti-Communist movement in which the Polish flag and pictures of John Paul became powerful symbols.
One of John Paul's predecessors, Pope Paul VI, took the first tentative steps outside Italy during his papacy. John Paul took flight. An Associated Press compilation credited him with visiting 129 countries in 104 foreign visits. He covered 723,723 miles, which is about 30 times around the globe.
He touched millions
During those trips, he became the man seen in the flesh by the most people in the history of the world, from the 4 million who attended a single mass in Manila in 1985 to 100 in a chapel in Iceland to nearly 18 million who saw him during audiences over the years in Rome.
And those trips gave the world press unprecedented access to the pope, because he would talk directly to reporters while in flight -- something earthbound popes did not deign to do.
The list of things he did that other popes did not was considerable. He was first pope in history to visit a synagogue, the first to pay his respects at Auschwitz, and the first to give diplomatic recognition to Israel. He was also the only pope to meet with Yasser Arafat.
He did not shy from controversy and did not wilt in the heat of battle. He was an uncompromising humanitarian and an unapologetic conservative in matters of doctrine. He was physically tough -- he survived an assassination attempt in 1981 -- and spiritually gentle -- he visited his attacker, Mehmet Ali Agca, in prison and personally forgave him.
He was the first pope pictured on the ski slopes and the only pope whose physical deterioration was witnessed by millions.
Wednesday, certainly knowing that he was dying, John Paul made a brief appearance at his apartment window.
The pope died Saturday night, but the lights in his apartment were left burning, a fitting symbol for a man whose accomplishments bridged two centuries and will survive for a long time to come.

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