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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John Paul's impact on the world has already been enormous, ranging from the global to the personal. He has covered more than half a million miles in his travels. Many believe his support of the trade union Solidarity in his native Poland was a precipitating event in the collapse of the Soviet bloc. After he was nearly killed in 1981, he visited and pardoned his would-be assassin in jail. Asked an awed Mehmet Ali Agca: "Tell me why it is that I could not kill you?" Even those who contest the words of John Paul do not argue with his integrity -- or his capacity to forgive those who trespass against him.

His power rests in the word, not the sword. As he has demonstrated throughout the 16 years of his papacy, John Paul needs no divisions. He is an army of one, and his empire is both as ethereal and as ubiquitous as the soul. In a slum in Nairobi, Mary Kamati is dying of AIDS. In her mud house hangs a portrait of John Paul. "This is the only Pope who has come to this part of the world," she says. During his most recent visit, he sprinkled her with holy water. "That," she says, eyes trembling, "is the way to heaven."

In 1994 the Pope's health visibly deteriorated. His left hand shakes, and he hobbles with a cane, the result of bone-replacement surgery. Asked about his health, he offered an "Oh, so-so" to TIME. It is thus with increased urgency that John Paul has presented himself, the defender of Roman Catholic doctrine, as a moral compass for believers and nonbelievers alike. He spread through every means at his disposal a message not of expedience or compromise but of right and wrong; amid so much fear of the future, John Paul dared to speak of hope. He did not say what everyone wanted to hear, and many within and beyond his church took offense. But his fidelity to what he believes people need to hear remained adamant and unwavering. "He'll go down in history as the greatest of our modern Popes," says the Rev. Billy Graham. "He's been the strong conscience of the whole Christian world."

And then there was the sorry state of the globe he proposed to save. Patches of the Third World sank further into revolutionary bloodshed, disease and famine. The developed nations began to resemble weird updatings of Hieronymous Bosch: panoramas of tormented bodies, lashed, flailed and torn by the instruments of material self-gratification. Secular leaders dithered and disagreed and then did nothing about the slow death of Bosnia, the massacres in Rwanda.

Private behavior appeared equally adrift. People trained to know better showed that they did not, notably the younger members of Britain's royal family, who energetically pursued self-implosion, with TV documentaries and books their detonators of choice. In Los Angeles two separate juries could not agree on a verdict in the trials of Lyle and Erik Menendez, young men who admitted killing their parents, at close range, with shotguns. The nightly news became a saraband of sleaze: Tonya, Lorena, Michael, O.J.; after 10 days of claiming to have been the victim of a carjacking, a South Carolina mother confessed she pushed the vehicle into a lake with her two tiny sons strapped inside.

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