John Paul II : Empire of the Spirit

In a time of moral confusion, John Paul II is resolute about his ideals and eager to impose them on a world that often differs with him

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People who see him -- and countless millions have -- do not forget him. His appearances generate an electricity unmatched by anyone else on earth. That explains, for instance, why in rural Kenyan villages thousands of children, plus many cats and roosters and even hotels, are named John Paul. Charisma is the only conceivable reason why a CD featuring him saying the rosary -- in Latin -- against a background of Bach and Handel is currently ascending the charts in Europe. It also accounts for the dazed reaction of a young woman who found herself, along with the thousands around her in a sports stadium in Denver, cheering and applauding him: "I don't react that way to rock groups. What is it that he has?"

Pope John Paul II has, among many other things, the world's bully-est pulpit. Few of his predecessors over the past 2,000 years have spoken from it as often and as forcefully as he. When he talks, it is not only to his flock of nearly a billion; he expects the world to listen. And the flock and the world listen, not always liking what they hear. This year he cast the net of his message wider than ever: Crossing the Threshold of Hope, his meditations on topics ranging from the existence of God to the mistreatment of women, became an immediate best seller in 12 countries. It is an unprecedented case of mass proselytizing by a Pontiff -- arcane but personal, expansive but resolute about its moral message.

John Paul can also impose his will, and there was no more formidable and controversial example of this than the Vatican's intervention at the U.N.'s International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo in September. There the Pope's emissaries defeated a U.S.-backed proposition John Paul feared would encourage abortions worldwide. The consequences may be global and -- critics predict -- catastrophic, particularly in the teeming Third World, where John Paul is so admired.

The Pontiff was unfazed by the widespread opprobrium. His popular book and his unpopular diplomacy, he explained to TIME two weeks ago, share one philosophical core: "It always goes back to the sanctity of the human being." He added, "The Pope must be a moral force." In a year when so many people lamented the decline in moral values or made excuses for bad behavior, Pope John Paul II forcefully set forth his vision of the good life and urged the world to follow it. For such rectitude -- or recklessness, as his detractors would have it -- he is TIME's Man of the Year.

The Pope is, in Catholic belief, a direct successor of St. Peter's, the rock on whom Jesus Christ built his church. As such, John Paul sees it as his duty to trouble the living stream of modernity. He stands solidly against much that the secular world deems progressive: the notion, for example, that humans | share with God the right to determine who will and will not be born. He also lectures against much that the secular world deems inevitable: the abysmal inequalities between the wealthy and the wretched of the earth, the sufferings of those condemned to lives of squalor, poverty and oppression. "He really has a will and a determination to help humanity through spirituality," says the Dalai Lama. "That is marvelous. That is good. I know how difficult it is for leaders on these issues."

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