By Denis Barnett
in Vatican CityApril 03, 2005
POPE John Paul II died today after a long struggle against crippling infirmity which inspired Christians the world over.His death ended a tumultuous 26-year reign that shaped world politics and plunged 1.1 billion Roman Catholics into mourning.
The 84-year-old pontiff died at 9.37pm Italian time (5.37am AEST), according to a Vatican statement, two days after suffering heart failure brought on by two months of acute breathing problems and other infections.
"The Holy Father died this evening at 9:37pm in his private apartment," said the brief statement.
"All the procedures forseen by the Apostolic Constitution 'Universi Dominici gregis' promulgated by John Paul II on 22 February 1996 have been set in motion."
Church bells rang out across Rome after the news.
News of his death touched not only Catholics from his native Poland to the Americas, from Africa to Asia, but untold numbers of other admirers of one of the most popular and recognisable popes in history.
During his pontificate - the third longest in 2000 years of Christianity - he was a master at reaching the masses through the media, displaying public relations skills unknown to his predecessors while at home at the Vatican, as well as on his visits to 129 countries.
But, after he was rushed to hospital on February 1 with breathing problems, his final illness silenced the voice which had given hope to millions living under oppression while frustrating those who rejected his deeply conservative moral views.
In one of the most poignant moments of his pontificate, he was unable to give his traditional message to worshippers in Saint Peter's Square outside the Vatican on Easter Sunday and could barely raise his hand in silent blessing.
After that, his health worsened quickly. A few days later he was given the Viaticum, popularly known as the last rites.
His health continued to deteriorate. He slipped in and out of consciousness and his heart weakened. His blood pressure fell, but Vatican officials said he remained "serene", accepting his fate.
The first non-Italian pope in four-and-a-half centuries, and the first ever from eastern Europe, Karol Wojtyla was the 263rd successor to Saint Peter as Bishop of Rome.
A warm and earthy figure, he was immensely popular, imposing his own style and agenda on the papacy, eschewing the pomp that surrounded his forebears and seeking contact with ordinary people.
Born in a small town near Krakow, in southern Poland, the son of an army officer, on May 18, 1920, he was brought up by his father after the death of his mother when he was eight. His elder brother, a doctor, died in 1932 during an outbreak of scarlet fever.
He became a parish priest and rose steadily through the Church hierarchy until, as bishop of Krakow, he became widely known to Western ecclesiastical authorities during the Second Vatican Council from 1962 to 1965.
When Cardinal Wojtyla was elected pope in October 1978, he was 58, a robust sportsman and a relative outsider amid the vast bureaucracy of the Holy See.
The advent of a Polish pope provided an immeasurable boost to his countrymen, and the upshot was a reinvigorated anti-communist working class movement, the birth of the communist bloc's first independent trade union, Solidarity, and the steady thaw of the communist glacier that lay over eastern Europe.
Perhaps his finest hour came when he stood before fellow Poles in 1979 and said "Do not be afraid", prompting millions to rally to the cause of Lech Walesa whose "Solidarnosc" movement was fighting to end communist rule in Poland.
In 1981 the pope was nearly killed in an assassination attempt by rightwing Turkish fanatic Mehmet Ali Agca, who shot him at close range in Saint Peter's Square. He survived after extensive surgery, but his health was badly affected thereafter.
At the same time, Church reformers, the young, and Third World congregations in the grip of a devastating AIDS epidemic became dismayed at his refusal to give ground on contraception and the use of condoms.
"For the Catholic Church, this pontificate, despite its positive aspects, has really been a disaster," said Swiss theologian Hans Kung in 2003.
"Many women have turned away from the Church because of the pope's position on contraception and the ordination of women."
In the United States, high-profile scandals involving several pedophile priests shook the foundations of the Catholic Church until the Vatican belatedly sanctioned a policy of "zero tolerance" toward such behaviour.
"There is no place in the priesthood and religious life for those who would harm the young," John Paul said at the height of the scandals.
During two and a half decades as pope, John Paul met almost every significant head of state or government, from US presidents Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton to Kremlin leaders Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin, from emperor Hirohito of Japan to Queen Elizabeth of Britain, from the Israeli leadership to Arab monarchs and presidents.
Under his leadership, the Vatican opened diplomatic relations with Israel in 1993 and he was the first pope to pray in a synagogue in 1986.
But Vatican policy-making assumed an increasingly authoritarian stamp. He issued 13 encyclicals, including three on socio-economic questions, and wrote several best-selling books.
In the mid-1990s he became increasingly frail, suffering from Parkinson's disease, arthritis and other ailments.
Despite his infirmities, he continued travelling as widely as possible, making a historic visits to Cuba and embarking on a gruelling program of events for the Church's Jubilee year in 2000.