The man who inspired faith and hope

The news that the world had been waiting for with a mixture of grim resignation and sadness finally came. Heartfelt tributes immediately started flowing from around the globe. “The Holy Father died Saturday evening at 21.37 (Italian time) in his private apartment,” the Vatican said in a statement.

The news was immediately met with long applause, an Italian sign of respect. Bells tolled and people in the square openly wept at the news. Many in the crowd talked openly of ‘John Paul the Great’, an indication that the charismatic pontiff’s legacy will endure for decades to come.

Pope John Paul II, who has died at the age of 84, was seen in the flesh by more people than any other pope in history. Pop John Paul II was the most-travelled Pope ever, visiting 129 different countries in 102 foreign trips plus 143 trips within Italy and as Bishop of Rome he had visited 301 of the 334 parishes, some of them several times.

He had made more Saints than any of his predecessors over the past 500 years combined — a total of 476 so far in 2003 — plus 1,315 Blesseds proclaimed, among them, Maximillian Kolbe, Sister Faustina, Father Escriva, Padre Pio, Mother Teresa of Calcutta, Juan Diego of Guadalupe, Jacinta and Francisco of Fatima.

He had 700 audiences and meetings held with Heads of State, 231 audiences and meetings with Prime Ministers... plus the hundreds he met in his trips.

In the history of four centuries, Pope John Paul II was the first to be elected from outside Italy. His insight, farsightedness and vision made him the most successful Pope in history.

On May 13, 1981, John Paul II was shot and nearly killed by Mehmet Ali, a Turkish gunman, as he entered St Peter’s Square to address an audience. He was eventually sentenced to life imprisonment. Two days after the Christmas of 1983, John Paul visited the prison where his would-be assassin was being held. The two spoke privately for sometime. John Paul II said of the meeting, “What we talked about will have toremain a secret between him and me. I spoke to him as a brother whom I have pardoned and who has my complete trust.” Another assassination attempt took place on May 12, 1982, in Fatima, Portugal when a man tried to stab John Paul II with a bayonet, but was stopped by security guards. He served a six-year sentence that was followed by his expulsion from Portugal.

Pope revolutionised the modern papacy. Where previous pontiffs remained distant, never straying far from the Vatican, John Paul maintained a busy travel schedule. Since the start of his Pontificate on October 16, 1978, Pope John Paul II completed 102 pastoral visits outside of Italy and 144 within Italy, visiting almost 130 countries during his 26 years as Pope. He logged more kilometres of travel than all other popes combined.

The Pope was a friend of the Jewish people because he knew Jewish people. Indeed, he became the first Pope to visit a synagogue and the first to visit the memorial at Auschwitz to victims of the Holocaust. In ending the Catholic-Jewish estrangement, he called Jews “our elder brothers.”

Respectfully removing his shoes, John Paul became the first pope to enter a Mosque when he toured a 1,300-year-old Islamic house of worship in Damascus, Syria and in 2000 he met the top political leaders of Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian authority.

Pope John Paul II received Palestine Liberation Organisation leader Yasser Arafat at the Vatican, provoking criticism from Israel and Jewish groups on September 15, 1982.

He had also met and established dialogue with many Buddhist and Hindu leaders and with atheists and Communists as Gorbachev and Fidel Castro.

The funeral of Pope John Paul II is expected to take place on April 7. His final hours were marked by an overwhelming number of younger people who kept vigil outside his Vatican apartments. In his last message, specifically to the youth of the world, he said: “I came for you, no wit’s you who have come to me. I thank you.”