Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - April 14, 2005

The son of a teacher

The huge crowds who gathered from all over the world last week when Pope John Paul II died illustrated how much he was revered. Flags from many different countries, including his native Poland, flew in the strong breeze.

I'm not Catholic, yet I followed the news of his death and funeral with great interest - just as millions of others did. I read the articles in a special 12-page Kansas City Star section and the several pages devoted to his life in the Manhattan Mercury. I watched a special two-hour PBS show, a CBS Sunday morning segment that Charles Kuralt had done several years ago and other national and international coverage of his life and death.

I was just beginning my work as a reporter in Costa Rica when he was installed as pope in 1978. A New York Times News Service article from that time speculated how he might help shape the world, particularly Eastern Europe. Excerpts of that article follow:

"By electing Poland's Karol Wojtyla to the papacy, the Roman Catholic Church has thrust world politics into a wholly new dimension with extraordinary and far-reaching consequences which can be fully measured only with the passage of time. . .

". . . the elevation of the 58-year-old Polish prelate to the Holy See as Pope John Paul II constitutes a global political event of vast proportions.

"His broad outlook on the world, his abiding interest in international affairs, his knowledge of Communism, his activist background in Polish politics, and his personality appear to assure that John Paul II will rapidly emerge as a diplomatic voice and influence of vast significance perhaps unequaled in modern times."

While religious leaders, politicians, journalists and others will analyze the legacy of Pope John Paul II in the weeks, months and years to come, it's clear the 1978 analysis was prophetic. The Pope's support of the Solidarity movement in Poland helped to bring about that country's independence from Soviet rule, the subsequent fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the eventual end of the Soviet Union.

But it wasn't just his public presence that inspired. Those who had personal audiences with him were awed.

"You didn't charm him, he charmed you," said Kuralt, whose TV segment, "The Visit," described behind-the-scenes activities in the Vatican.

My cousin, who met the Pope when he was stationed in Italy recently observed, "I remember his piercing blue eyes and firm hand, even though he looked frail then."

My sister Gaila and her husband saw the Pope when he visited Bolivia in 1988.

"The poor houses all along the route from the airport to the center of town were painted white. That was pretty incredible. Humberto and I watched him in his Papa Movil (Popemobile) from Humberto's office window in Plaza del Estudiante. I remember that he looked up through the top (since it's all glass) and waved at everybody in the windows in the buildings. I could swear that he looked right at us. We filmed him of course. He gave a service in El Alto and the Catholics made a Papal Cross there."

The things that struck me personally included his willingness to reach out to all faiths, his interest in international affairs, his belief that non-violence is the way to effect change and his intensity.

He was the first pope to visit a synagogue and the first to ask forgiveness for what the Catholic Church might have done over the years to hurt others. He also met with Muslims, Hindus and those of other faiths. He was compassionate with the poor and unbending in chastising heads of state for choosing war over diplomacy.

Before he died, this strong, yet gentle, pontiff had visited 170 countries and met with 737 heads of state. After his death, kings, queens, presidents, prime ministers and religious leaders as well as common people traveled to Rome to say goodbye. Whether Catholic or not and whether they always agreed with him, many were touched and taught by this simple son of a teacher from a small village in Poland.

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