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Italy Loses a Pope, Friend, Believer
APRIL 3, 2005 - Italians and the rest of the world's 1.2 billion Catholics spent the end of the week praying for Pope John Paul II, who was clinging to life until he passed away on Saturday after a long battle with Parkinson disease, a brain disorder that appears when about 80% of the dopamine-producing cells that control muscle movement in the brain are damaged. The faithful gathered just outside of Rome in Vatican City's St. Peter's Square (Piazza di San Pietro) to keep vigil at the bedside of the Catholic Church's leader since the news broke earlier in the week that he was in grave condition. Even though Pope John Paul II was the first non-Italian pontiff since 1522, he lived up to his name as the people's "pope" - and won over the Italians with his mission of peace and his charismatic personality.
For Catholics 26 and under (like myself), he is the only pope ever known. He was named Pope on October 16, 1978 and was the first to come from Poland, a country largely devoted to Catholicism for ages. His face was like that of an angel. Even though he was ultra conservative in his stances against pre-marital sex, homosexuality and women in the priesthood, he was still considered a radical. He helped bring an end to communism in Europe after a 1979 visit to his home country Poland, when he inspired the masses to challenge their government. He wisely and kindly used his position as pontiff to make bold political statements that others did not have the courage to make.
He was a man of his word. In 1981, he was shot in the stomach by Turkish terrorist Mehmet Ali Agca in St. Peter's Square in Rome. He survived the serious injury after hours in surgery and weeks in a Roman hospital. He forgave the shooter days afterward and befriended Agca after visiting him in prison a couple of years later. According to recent reports Agca was devastated to hear that the pope had passed away. It was Pope John Paul II's forgiveness that made him the last of the true role models. There was a reason to aspire to his level of character. In the modern world, that can not really be said of too many people.
Pope John Paul II also traveled the world and brought his message of goodness to everyone. He carried out Jesus' work in 120 countries, including those that others had given up on. Despite his anti-communist position, he went to meet with Cuban dictator Fidel Castro. He formally recognized Israel in 1994 and made the pilgrimage to place a prayer in the Western Wall in 2000. Israeli Vice Premier Shimon Peres said that the Pope represented our global partnership. No pope had done more for the Jews, added religious leaders. He was the first pope to admit that the Romans, not the Hebrews, killed Jesus - and he apologized for the Holocaust.
The pontiff was a true spiritual leader who gave credence to other faiths and showed tolerance. He brought people back to the church and convinced others to convert. Until the very end, he worked his magic. Before this week many were saying that the Italians, about 98 percent of whom say they're Catholic, had lost their religion. But the Italians turned out in full force to care for their ailing pope. They shed tears and lit candles. Now, they mourn.
In the weeks to come, they will welcome another pope into their Vatican City. Despite speculation, who will be the next pope remains a mystery. Some say the post will have to go to an Italian again because it's been so long since one has led the church. Others feel someone from the third world will be chosen as a sign of solidarity. Traditional Catholics believe God is the one to decide who will lead his disciples. If that truly is the case, then the Lord above has big shoes to fill with his next hire. And Italy knows it.
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