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Pope John Paul II, champion of pro-life and pro-family causes, dies at the age of 84

Updated 6:40 p.m. Eastern, April 2

ROME (BP)–Pope John Paul II, who played a key role in the demise of communism and who championed pro-life and pro-family causes worldwide, died April 2 at the Vatican. He was 84.

Born Karol Wojtyla in 1920, the pope served from 1978 to 2005 and was easily the most-traveled pontiff in history. A firm believer in the protection of human life from conception until natural death, he frequently spoke out against abortion, euthanasia and — in his latter years — cloning and embryonic stem cell research.

Earlier this year in a new book, “Memory and Identity,” he said same-sex “marriage” was part of a “new ideology of evil.”

The pope and conservative evangelicals were worlds apart on theology and doctrine but found common ground on many social issues.

“I think history will record Pope John Paul II as one of the most significant, historic figures of the 20th century, on a par with great statesmen and world leaders,” said Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. “In many ways, he was as eloquent a spokesman for the inherent and intrinsic value of every human being as Winston Churchill was for freedom and liberty.”

The pope suffered from Parkinson’s disease which prevented him from traveling extensively in his final years and limited his public appearances in his final weeks. In his final days, he struggled to breathe and eat and could not even speak publicly.

“Pope John Paul II will go down in history as one of the most significant leaders of our time,” said R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky. “Conservative evangelicals will long remember this pope as a man who had the courage to confront communism and to call it what it was, at great personal risk.

“I think most evangelicals appreciate his concern for the sanctity of human life. This was a pope who could always be counted upon to defend human life at every stage. His public statements and courageous advocacy of life against what he called the culture of death will go down in history as, I think, the most significant mark of his leadership.”

Many social conservatives felt the pope himself was a living example of the culture of life he so advocated. In March, World magazine’s Gene Edward Veith wrote, “One does not have to be Catholic to appreciate the pope’s modeling of the ‘spirituality of suffering’ in his last days.”

But even in his final year of life, Pope John Paul II made his voice known in the world’s cultural battles:

— In November 2004 he condemned euthanasia, cloning and embryonic stem cell research.

“There are no lives that are not worth living,” he said. “There is no suffering, no matter how grave, that can justify killing a life. There are no reasons, no matter how noble, that make plausible the creation of human beings, destined to be used and destroyed.”

— In March 2004 he defended those diagnosed to be in vegetative states, saying their lives were worthy of protection. Feeding tubes, he said, should not be identified as medical treatments. Many social conservatives took his position as referencing the Terri Schiavo case.

“The sick person in a vegetative state, awaiting recovery or a natural end, still has the right to basic health care (nutrition, hydration, cleanliness, warmth, etc.), and to the prevention of complications related to his confinement to bed,” the text of his statement read. “He also has the right to appropriate rehabilitative care and to be monitored for clinical signs of eventual recovery. I should like particularly to underline how the administration of water and food, even when provided by artificial means, always represents a natural means of preserving life, not a medical act.”

— In February of this year in his aforementioned book, “Memory and Identity,” he compared abortion to the Holocaust.

“There is still, however, a legal extermination of human beings who have been conceived but not yet born,” he wrote. “And this time we are talking about an extermination which has been allowed by nothing less than democratically elected parliaments where one normally hears appeals for the civil progress of society and all humanity.”

— In the same book he also spoke out against the movement to legalize “gay marriage.”

“It is legitimate and necessary to ask oneself if this is not perhaps part of a new ideology of evil, perhaps more insidious and hidden, which attempts to pit human rights against the family and against man,” he wrote.

Pope John Paul II was the first Polish pope ever and the first non-Italian pope since the 16th century. Just three years after his inauguration, he survived a 1981 assassination attempt on his life.

“I admire Pope John Paul II for the strong stands he took on behalf of the sanctity of life, the importance of maintaining the one-man, one-woman definition of marriage and on so many other moral issues of our day,” Robert E. Reccord, president of the Southern Baptist North American Mission Board, said. “Even during his final days as the controversy over Terri Schiavo’s death swirled through the media in the United States, John Paul demonstrated the dignity and value of human life by the way he so gracefully handled his own death. He lived life with a humility and accessibility that made him among the most beloved people in the world and his contributions will be long remembered.”

In 1979, communist officials allowed the pope to visit his homeland — then communist — and millions came to greet him. His support for the 1980s Solidarity movement in Poland was considered critical to the government’s downfall. He sent messages of encouragement through priests to imprisoned Polish union leaders. By the end of the decade communism was crumbling worldwide.

“Next to Ronald Reagan there is no one who can be credited with helping bring down the fall of communism in the old Soviet Bloc than Pope John Paul II,” R. Philip Roberts, president of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Mo., said. “His stand for liberty and freedom of conscience in his fight against communism is to be commended. In this respect he was a man of tremendous courage, strength and perseverance.”

Said Land: “He rallied the captive nations of Eastern Europe to throw off the yoke of Soviet communism. Furthermore, he emerged as one of the most eloquent spokesmen anywhere in the world for religious freedom for all human beings as a universal right, and for the sanctity of all human life from conception to natural death and everywhere in between.”

Paige Patterson, president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, met Pope John Paul II twice — in the late 1970s and then in the early 1980s. Patterson was president of The Criswell College in Dallas at the time. He said the Roman Catholic leader was “affable on both occasions” and “sufficiently understanding of our evangelical position.”

“He did not ask or expect the kind of obeisance which would normally be accorded to him,” Patterson said. “I remember thinking when I left his presence, ‘Here is a pope who knows how to pope.’”

Patterson said that he and the pope discussed the biblical book of 1 Peter and then exchanged gifts. “I gave him a Criswell Study Bible and he gave me a rosary. I am not sure who won the exchange,” he said.

“While it would be difficult to imagine two people talking together with a theological divide as wide as the ocean and still finding much in common, this is exactly what transpired.”

The pope’s successor will be chosen by the world’s 119 cardinals, who will meet in 15-20 days in a special session known as a conclave. One of them will become the next pope. Initially, a two-thirds vote is required. However, according to an MSNBC.com story, a new rule allows the cardinals to elect the next pope by a simple majority if they fail to reach the two-thirds threshold within a week or so. The new rule was made by Pope John Paul II himself. The conclave will open following a period of mourning.

“John Paul II presented evangelicals with a pope in whom we found amazing ground of agreement and personal respect even as we believe the office he holds is not a biblical office,” Mohler said. “We saw the dangers of that from time to time, for instance in his pastoral statements on Hell and some other things that we felt did not show the same concern for biblical authority that he displayed on the question of life or the objectivity of truth.

“I think evangelicals also recognize that in the passing of John Paul II we may never see his likes again, and there’s a real sense of loss in that even as we continue to be greatly concerned about the institution of the papacy, we have great admiration for the man.”
— With reporting by Gregory Tomlin.

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