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Energy, action were hallmarks of pontificate

Pope John Paul II, the former Karol Wojtyla, at age 12.
Pope John Paul II, the former Karol Wojtyla, at age 12.
Associated Press

VATICAN CITY — Pope John Paul II assailed moral perils as he traveled the world, a crowd-pleasing superpastor whose 26-year papacy carried the Roman Catholic Church into Christianity's third millennium and emboldened Eastern Europeans to bring down the communist system.

As the first non-Italian pontiff in 455 years and the first from Poland, John Paul brought a back-to-basics conservatism infused with a common touch and a longing to heal ancient religious wounds. And he survived an assassination attempt to become the third-longest-serving pope.

In his final days, the 84-year-old pontiff sought to set an example of a dignified death. A letter released on Good Friday reflected on his hospitalization as "a patient alongside other patients, uniting in the Eucharist my own sufferings with those of Christ."

John Paul's Polish roots nourished a doctrinal conservatism — opposition to contraception, abortion, women priests — that rankled liberal Catholics in the United States and Western Europe.

A sex-abuse scandal among clergy plunged his church into moral crisis, with allegations that he didn't react to it swiftly enough. And while championing the world's poor, he rebuked Latin American priests who sought to involve the church politically through "liberation theology."

No pope ever traveled so much or so far: He visited more than 120 nations during the third-longest papacy in history.

No pope delivered so many speeches: He warned in vain against wars in Iraq and the Balkans, deplored the fate of Palestinians and called for reconciliation with Jews.

No pope wrote so much, or so popularly: He produced 14 encyclicals and the best-selling book "Crossing the Threshold of Hope." He recited the rosary on a best-selling CD.

And no pope celebrated so many Masses for so many of what are now the world's 1 billion Roman Catholics: his open-air ceremonies drew tens of thousands to St. Peter's Square and became a hallmark of papal visits abroad.

In his later years, although stooped and frail from a variety of ailments that included Parkinson's disease, John Paul realized his dream of bringing his church into the new millennium. He marked it by making pilgrimages to the very roots of Western faith, Mount Sinai and the Holy Land.

Fulfilling another goal, he took the unprecedented step of asking God's forgiveness for the sins of Catholics through the ages in an apology intended to cleanse and reinvigorate his religion.

But he also faced a moral crisis within the ranks of his own clergy, when a sex-abuse scandal rocked the church in the United States and other countries late in his papacy.

"The abuse which has caused this crisis is by every standard wrong and rightly considered a crime by society," he told cardinals from the United States summoned to the Vatican in 2002. "It is also an appalling sin in the eyes of God."

His reign in the waning years of the 20th century allowed John Paul to shape the church for the next. He placed like-minded conservatives in key positions and named most of the cardinals who will choose his successor.

John Paul made clear his church was no democracy, and codified church teaching in a new Catechism of the Catholic Church, the first major revision in 400 years.

His approach to doctrine was unyieldingly conservative. In his view, there were rights and wrongs that no moral shading could change.

He reaffirmed the church's ban on artificial birth control and denounced in vitro fertilization, abortion, euthanasia, divorce, sex outside marriage, homosexual relations and same-sex unions.

He demanded celibacy of Roman Catholic priests and said yet again that the priesthood was not open to women. He did give in to the demands of liberal Catholics to allow altar girls.

John Paul favored the conservative, militant Catholic group Opus Dei, and beatified its founder.

He criticized liberation theology, a movement strong in Latin America that emphasizes political activism by the church on behalf of the poor. He told priests worldwide to get out of politics, and some did.

John Paul II became pontiff in 1978 — the "year of the three popes." His predecessor, John Paul I, had been pope only 33 days, succeeding Paul VI, who died after a 15-year reign.

At 58, John Paul II was the youngest pope in 125 years. He brought a new vitality to the Vatican and quickly became the most accessible modern pope, sitting down for meals with factory workers, skiing and wading into crowds to embrace the faithful.

He was a ready target for a 23-year-old Turk, Mehmet Ali Agca, who gravely wounded the pope in 1981 in St. Peter's Square. John Paul later visited Agca in prison and forgave him. The reasons behind the assassination attempt have never been made clear.

John Paul made an untiring effort to get to know and endear himself to all of "God's children." He sought reconciliation with the Jews — Christianity's "older brothers as he put it. He visited a mosque in Damascus as part of efforts to improve relations with Muslims. He called divisions among Christians "a scandal."

But to communists, he gave no quarter.

"Nazi paganism and Marxist dogma are both basically totalitarian ideologies and tend to become substitute religions," he wrote in 1989.

John Paul's trips to his homeland — where for years the church had been the unifying opposition force — prompted an explosion of anti-communist feeling. His 1979 pilgrimage helped foster the birth of Solidarity; his 1983 and 1987 tours kept alive the spirit of the trade union movement after a government crackdown.

In 1991, with the Iron Curtain gone, the pope returned to a free Poland for the first time, and cautioned freedom should not be taken lightly.

"We cannot simply possess freedom, we must constantly fight for it. We fight for it by putting it to good use and using it in the cause of truth," he said.

Although his pace slowed in the 1990s after surgery for a bowel tumor, a broken leg and a hip replacement, and an appendectomy, John Paul was a constant voyager. He traveled a distance equal to nearly 1 1/2 trips to the moon.

His tours began with a swing through the Dominican Republic, Mexico and the Bahamas in 1979. He went to the United States that same year, and returned in 1987, 1993, 1995 and 1999.

In 1998 he visited communist Cuba, welcomed by Fidel Castro.

His travels took him to predominantly Catholic countries like the Philippines and to nations like Japan, where there are few Catholics.

Explaining his stop at the tiny island of Guam in 1981, he said: "To me, a small place is just as important as any big diocese. I don't want them to feel they are left alone."

The pope's hard line toward communism initially earned him the Kremlin's wrath. But the rise of Mikhail Gorbachev in 1985 opened a new era. Eager to invigorate his doddering superpower and win allies abroad, he lifted restrictions on religion, and in 1989 became the first Soviet leader to visit the pope at the Vatican.

The Vatican formally recognized Israel in 1993. The pope — who had drawn criticism for meeting with Palestine Liberation Organization chief Yasser Arafat in 1982 — then pushed for diplomatic relations with Palestinians.

In 1994, ahead of the U.N. population conference in Egypt, John Paul spearheaded a crusade that saw the Vatican join some Muslim states in attacking the Clinton administration for supporting abortion.

Born Karol Joseph Wojtyla (pronounced Voy-TI-wa) in Wadowice, Poland, on May 18, 1920, the pope's father was a foundry worker and an army officer, his mother a former teacher. By age 20, his only sibling and both parents were dead, and Poland had been occupied by the Nazis.

Wojtyla studied for the priesthood and was ordained in 1946. He then went to Rome for more study. He returned to Poland, earned a doctorate in theology and taught at universities in Lublin and Krakow.

He became auxiliary bishop of Krakow in 1958 and bishop in 1964. Three years later, Paul VI made him cardinal.