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Globally, that may not have been the majority assessment. The Pope was wildly popular among the faithful in Africa and Latin America, whose growing numbers of Catholics constitute the church's long-term future. Along with an increasingly confident generation of conservatives in the West, they would affirm the assertion by Archbishop Jean-Louis Tauran, a former Vatican Foreign Minister under John Paul, that "in this crazy world, he is the only moral reference." Then, too, a remarkable number of fans came from other creeds. The Rev. Billy Graham said, "He'll go down in history as the greatest of our modern Popes. He has been the strong conscience of the whole Christian world." "We believe the world needs him because he speaks for peace, for the poor and the deprived," said Chief Mufti Selim Mehmed, head of Bulgaria's large Muslim community, after meeting the Pope in 2002.
A YOUNG MAN OF DESTINY
The key to John Paul's early papacy and to his almost instantaneous rise to heroic status was the very aspect that made his election in 1978 so stunning. Unlike generations of Italian Popes brought up to pronounce on the world's great events yet largely cloistered from them, Karol Wojtyla lived in the early 20th century world about as intensely as it was imaginable to do and still survive it. Born in 1920, as Poland, a once great power, was moving toward its postwar sovereignty after more than a century of bitter subjugation, the army officer's son planned to study the Polish language at Krakow's Jagiellonian University. That aspiration--along with Poland's short-lived autonomy--was dashed when Germany invaded in 1939 and Wojtyla was plunged into a firsthand study of successive totalitarianisms. Forced to work at a limestone quarry, he risked his life by studying at a clandestine seminary and narrowly escaping arrest by the Nazis by hiding in a basement apartment. Observing his countrymen in bondage and hearing of Jewish friends carted off to certain death, the long-pious youth gravitated to the church, one of the few centers of even passive resistance.