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The paradoxical pope

WHEN JOHN Paul II in 1979 made his first trip back to Poland as pope, he was determined to change the course of modern history. The stirring sermons exhorting human freedom, spiritual freedom, had long resonance through the final decade of the Cold War. He orchestrated clandestine support to Solidarity leaders in Poland, keeping pressure on the Communist regime. In 1989, when we watched the Soviet Empire crumble on television, John Paul stood a victor on the world stage, his very person transcending Stalin's famously cynical remark: ''How many divisions has the Pope?"

In like measure, the middle years of his papacy demonstrated a remarkable honesty about a runaway consumerist mentality in Western capitalism and the church's own sins, committed in the Crusades, toward Jews, Muslims, even Galileo.

These and other virtues secure his role as one of history's great popes. An actor in his youth, he had a charm and charisma that captivated millions on his many travels. With a refined sense of drama, he turned his final days into a farewell act that, as many have said, made his physical suffering a reminder of Christ's sacrifice.

And yet, as the great media machinery gears up for the funeral and conclave at the Vatican to choose his successor, the solemnity and pageantry are likely to obscure another reality: that of the fractured church that this pope leaves behind.

More men have left the priesthood than entered in recent decades, yet John Paul was intransigent on the law of mandatory celibacy. Instead, against mounting evidence of sexual conflicts in a troubled clerical world, he refused to engage in the fearless introspection of the church internal.

This papacy is riddled with paradoxes.

A champion of human rights to people under the boot heel of dicatorships, he chose as secretary of state Cardinal Angelo Sodano, a former papal ambassador to Chile who befriended the sadistic dictator Pinochet and tried to intervene on Pinochet's behalf when he was facing indictment by a Spanish court.

Several weeks ago, when Sodano met with Secretary of State Condaleeza Rice, he awkwardly asked her help in defusing a sex abuse lawsuit filed against the Vatican by a Kentucky lawyer, something over which she had no control.

Within the Roman Curia, Sodano was a powerful supporter of another man he befriended in Chile who stands today, arguably, as the most notorious priest in Rome: Marcial Maciel Degollado, a Mexican who founded a religious order called the Legion of Christ. Maciel was accused in 1976 and 1979 of sexually assaulting seminarians. After years of being ignored by John Paul, eight ex-Legion members filed a canon law case against Maciel.

Over the last decade, as the clergy abuse crisis slowly spread in Ireland, Austria, North America, Australia, and Chile, John Paul's scattered comments were contradictory, expressing sympathy for victims while scolding the media for sensationalism even as he refused the request of US bishops to give them a streamlined process to defrock pedophiles. His response to the worst crisis of the modern church was passive to a fault.

As American Catholics reeled from the news of the abuse scandals, John Paul in a November 2004 ceremony at the Vatican praised Maciel in glowing terms. Meanwhile, a sign of a split emerged at the highest levels of the Vatican, Sodano ever the champion of Maciel, while Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the chief theologian, reopened the dormant investigation of the Legion founder.

The great issue to Catholics in the developed world is how to rejuvenate the priesthood. Huge seminaries are nearly barren. The church that denounces homosexuality in often harsh terms has become a magnet to gay priests. Meanwhile, many dioceses face litigation over past abuse cases. All of this, to use a favored phrase of John Paul, is a ''sign of contradiction."

Historians will puzzle through this paradoxical legacy for generations to come. For many of us so heartened by the vigorous John Paul in those heady years following the collapse of the Berlin Wall, there is an ache at the spectacle of the enfeebled pontiff -- God bless him -- in such a long twilight, his church strickened by internal contradictions, more than we ever imagined.

Jason Berry's books include ''Vows of Silence: The Abuse of Power in the Papacy of John Paul II" and ''Lead Us Not Into Temptation."

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