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Much-loved Pope not without paradox

BEFORE the Second Vatican Council convened in 1962, a little-known Polish bishop called Karol Wojtyla wrote to the organisers, telling them that the world wanted to know what the Catholic Church had to say about the human condition.

Karol Wojtyla went on to become Supreme Pontiff of the Church, one of the greatest men of his age and one of the greatest Popes of any age. When he died in 2005, a Cuban cardinal said that he had "carried the moral weight of the world" for 26 years. But argument continues about whether he ever answered the question he himself asked in 1962.

As so frequently with such a towering figure, his life and reign had their consistent threads but also their paradoxes.

On doctrine, particularly on birth control, he was a rigid conservative, much criticised for the ban on Catholics using condoms in the Third World. But on ecumenism, he was a liberal, reaching out not only to other Christian churches but to non-Christian religions.

He beatified more people than any previous Pope, and it seems somehow appropriate that his own beatification has occurred so soon after his death. The timescale, and the process itself, have raised doubts and questioning among both liberals and conservatives. The popular view, however, is overwhelmingly positive -- witness the enormous attendance at the ceremony in St Peter's Square yesterday.

Perhaps no country, apart from Poland, viewed him with more love and admiration than Ireland. The fervour inspired by his visit here in 1979 has never been forgotten.

But the visit was followed by one of the most calamitous episodes in the history of the church: the clerical sex abuse scandal. The scandal itself, the cover-ups and the inadequacy of Catholicism's leaders at all levels were a world-wide phenomenon; but in Ireland, the shock to faith and trust, the damage to the authority and reputation of the church, were immeasurable.

In a generation's time, the reputation of John Paul II may rest less on his record of religious leadership than his contribution to global politics.

Late in his life, he conceded what every interested person had known or suspected -- that he had played a role in the overthrow of communism and the freeing of his beloved Poland. He gave no details. Nor did he boast. Like his forgiveness for Mehmet Ali Agca, the man who tried to kill him, it was part of his moral mission.

Irish Independent