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in July, Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev visited Warsaw and signaled Moscow's recognition that the Polish government could not rule without Solidarity's cooperation. On April 5, 1989, the two sides signed agreements legalizing Solidarity and calling for open parliamentary elections in the summer.

And in December 1990, Solidarity's leader, Lech Walesa, became president of Poland.

Years later, Gorbachev would write: "One can say that everything that happened in eastern Europe in recent years would have been impossible without the pope's efforts and the enormous role, including the political role, he has played in the world arena."

By then, both Gorbachev and Reagan had departed the world stage, and only the aging pope was left to rail at a new world he had helped bring about.

For a decade, his Poland was the crucible of the Cold War, and the pope was the hinge on which history swung. Today his position is much less straightforward.

For a century and a half, the Catholic Church had battled against socialism and Marxism. For more than 70 years, it had fought the communist system as its arch-enemy. The whole culture and social doctrine of 20th-century Catholicism had been shaped by this tremendous duel. Now, suddenly, the stage was bare.

For the Catholic Church, 1991 was a crucial year. At the point when the Soviet Union had not yet collapsed but had already lost its superpower status, John Paul II had to face the fact that the church might also become less relevant politically and socially.

The first test came with the gulf war in January. Having decided to launch Operation Desert Storm, President George Bush paid no heed to the pope's urgent appeals to negotiate a last-minute Iraqi retreat from Kuwait. Bush treated the pope much as he treated Gorbachev; as a second-rate ally. He showered him with expressions of esteem and then ignored him.

A short time later, the Holy See received another jolting wake-up call. The government of Israel vetoed the Vatican's participation in a conference in Madrid that was intended to pave the way for direct dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians. The reason cited was that the two states did not have diplomatic relations, but such a rebuff would never have been dealt during the Cold War.

When the pope traveled to the free Baltic countries in the autumn of 1993, he stunned his audience in Riga by declaring, "The exploitation produced by inhuman capitalism was a real evil, and that's the kernel of truth in Marxism."

Some months later, in an interview with Jan Gawronski, a Polish-born Italian deputy to the European parliament, John Paul II went even further: "These seeds of truth (in Marxism) shouldn't be destroyed, shouldn't be blown away by the wind. . . . The supporters of capitalism in its extreme forms tend to overlook the good things achieved by communism -- its efforts to overcome unemployment, its concern for the poor."

Upon hearing this statement, back in Moscow, Gorbachev cracked a smile: "Very interesting," he told an Italian friend. "It looks as if the pope is beginning to understand that there are positive values in socialism, and that they'll remain positive for the future, too.

In recent years, the pope has inveighed more and more forcefully against materialism in the West, his anger taking on global dimensions. He describes the 20th century as an era in which false prophets and false teachers have won the day.

But it's not just Western materialism that Karol Wojtyla sees as the enemy. With increasing frankness, the pope presents an apocalyptic vision of all Western culture.

In an interview, he reduced modern history to "the struggle against God, the systematic elimination of all that is Christian." His belief that such an assault "has to a large degree dominated thought and life in the West for three centuries" has been silently rejected by many in the church and has caused problems for many non-Catholics who were interested in a church open to dialogue with the contemporary world.

John Paul II's political influence has been reduced, and the new world he helped to bring about fills him with anger and fear.

In the twilight of his pontificate, John Paul II is dogged by signs of his increasing frailty, but he still dreams of taking a great pilgrimage in the footsteps of Abraham. Retracing the path of Abraham means leaving Ur in Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq) passing through Haran (Syria), Lebanon, Jordan, Israel and Palestine and going all the way to Egypt, the land of the Pharaohs.

When John Paul talks about this, his face becomes transfigured.

John Paul II doesn't want the 21st century to proceed under the shadow of hatred between Muslims and Christians. He's aware of the dangers of Islamic fundamentalism and has denounced Muslim countries that promote "discrimination against Jews, Christians and members of other religious families," who cannot so much as gather to pray in private.

But at the same time, he's convinced that he has to take advantage of the message of tolerance that is part of Muhammad's legacy. The pope wants to see the cross, the crescent, and the star of David reconciled.

The pope has another dream -- a trip to Russia, to the far Solovetski Islands in the White Sea, where the Soviets built one of their most dreadful gulags -- for Orthodox bishops, clergy and religious dissidents. He would like to go there on a pilgrimage to honor the Christian martyrs of every denomination, thereby remembering all the victims of 20th-century totalitarian systems that have tried to uproot Christ from human life.

The pope has one more vision -- to cross the former bamboo curtain to permit the unification of Chinese Catholics with the Church of Rome and thus render the Chair of Peter more visibly universal. John Paul II's final struggle is to free Chinese Catholics from the chains of the communist regime.

The final phase of John Paul II's pontificate has been marked by pain and weakness. Suddenly, his body has stopped obeying him. People in the Apostolic Palace see him walking down the corridors, bent over and looking old beyond his years.

Still, his grand project is to celebrate the new millennium with a jubilee to bring humanity closer to God and to launch a new evangelization of the world. Some in the Vatican are convinced that the pope sees his own life span in terms of this goal -- that he perseveres from a deep conviction that he has been chosen to bring the Church into Christianity's third millennium.

Many of his actions and programs in recent years are meant as a legacy for his successors. He is ready to confess the guilt of the Catholic Church for burning at the stake men such as the great Bohemian religious leader Jan Hus (d. 1415), a forerunner of the Protestant Reformation.

He has also better learned to appreciate the historical importance of the women's liberation movement (a term he himself has been using of late). Constant pressure from women has forced the pope to admit that male-dominated Catholicism must address the question of power-sharing.

In March 1996, John Paul II issued a document stating that it is "urgent" that women be granted access to all levels in the Church where "decisions are worked out." Women, the pope said, help men revise their basic mental schemes.

But the most striking demarche of John Paul II was directed to other Christian churches. The pope has said he is ready to take a new look at the role of the Roman pontiff. He may even be opening the door slightly to the prospect of overcoming the absolutist structures of the Catholic Church in the next millennium.

He has invited other churches to join him in redefining the limits and modes of exercising papal authority. He has confessed: "Reforming the papacy, redefining its limits, is an enormous task . . . which I cannot bear till the end all by myself."

Thus Karol Wojtyla could be the last absolutist pope, the last sovereign of a Catholic spiritual monarchy that has endured for centuries.

From the book HIS HOLINESS: JOHN PAUL II AND THE HIDDEN HISTORY OF OUR TIME by Carl Bernstein and Marco Politi. Copyright 1996 by Carl Bernstein and Marco Politi. Published by arrangement with Doubleday, a division of Bantam Doubleday Dell Inc. Published by permission of Reader's Digest. Distributed by the Los Angeles Times Syndicate.

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