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Pope John Paul II 1920~2005

An influential pontiff

John Paul II transformed the papacy but conservative views alienated some

John Paul II was the third-longest serving pope in history.

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(CNN) -- Voicing a strong moral vision, Pope John Paul II forged a legacy as one of the Catholic Church's most influential and controversial leaders. The 264th pontiff traveled more and beatified more people than any pope in history.

Supporters and critics alike agree on the immense significance of his 26-year papacy.

During that period he played a key role in the fall of communism, brought the Catholic message to an unprecedented number of people around the world, and endeared himself to billions with his warmth, charisma, courage and integrity.

As TIME magazine noted when naming him Man of the Year in 1994, he generated an electricity "unmatched by anyone else on earth."

At the same time, however, he was a profoundly conservative leader whose moral opinions alienated many, and whose centralizing instincts stifled the move toward a more open, democratic church.

A surprise choice as pope

John Paul II was born Karol Jozef Wojtyla on May 18, 1920, at Wadowice, Poland, the third child of a devoutly Catholic retired army officer-turned-tailor.

Pope child
Wojtyla, the son of a devoutly Catholic retired Polish army officer, was a surprise choice as pope.  

A brilliant student and athlete -- he excelled at skiing, swimming, kayaking and soccer -- his earliest passions were religion, poetry and the theater.

Following the German invasion of Poland in 1939 he worked first as a stonecutter, then in a chemical plant, while at the same time studying at an underground seminary in Krakow.

In 1941, Wojtyla and some friends started an underground theater, called the Rhapsodic Theater, to present works in Polish in defiance of the Nazis.

He was eventually ordained in 1946, assuming priestly duties in 1949 as chaplain to university students at Krakow's St. Florian's Church.

For the next 30 years he rose steadily through the church hierarchy. He became the auxiliary bishop of Krakow in 1958 and was appointed archbishop of Krakow in January 1964. He was officially installed as archbishop in March 1964.

During this time he made a name for himself both as a formidable theologian -- he taught at the Krakow Seminary and the Catholic University of Lublin -- and as a staunch defender of Catholic interests.

"I am not afraid of them," he once commented when asked if he feared Poland's communist authorities. "They are afraid of me."

He was elevated to cardinal in a secret consistory on June 26, 1967, and was formally installed in a Vatican ceremony two days later.

Despite his prominence and the respect in which he was held by his fellow Catholics, his election as Pope John Paul II on October 16, 1978 -- the first-ever Slavic pope, and the first non-Italian to occupy the post for 455 years -- came as a surprise.

"I was afraid to receive this nomination," he told the crowd that had gathered in St. Peter's Square in Rome to acclaim his elevation. "But I did it in the spirit of obedience to our Lord and in the total confidence in his mother, the most holy Madonna."

A hard act to follow

John Paul II proved one of the most energetic and hard-working men ever to occupy the papal see, visiting more than 120 countries, delivering more than 2,000 public addresses and issuing a plethora of encyclicals and apostolic letters.

His papacy divides into two distinct halves.

"In the first 10 years his great concern was with communism," explains Catholic commentator Jonathon Luxmore, who has been based in Warsaw, Poland, since 1988.

"Since then his focus has been more on the ills of Western society and on spreading the message that the collapse of communism shouldn't necessarily mean the triumph of liberal capitalism."

John Paul's role in the fall of communism was a subtle but crucial one. His visit to Poland in 1979, eight months after his elevation to the papal throne, saw the first mass gatherings ever witnessed in the communist state, sparking a chain of events that led to the eventual crumbling of Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski's regime 10 years later.

His stand against what he saw as the moral failure of Western capitalism, on the other hand, was notably less successful.

While his outspoken views on human rights gained him many admirers, his preaching in such areas as sexual mores, science and the role of women in the church alienated many young, female and liberal Catholics.

Giovanni Ferro agrees: "He was what you might call a revolutionary conservative. In some areas, such as the preparedness to enter into dialogue with other religions, he was very forward-minded.

"In other areas, however, he was an extremely reactionary, traditionalist pope. He maintained all sorts of opposing currents in the church, with the result that his successor will probably be faced with a great crisis of direction."

In the end it is perhaps too early to provide any definitive judgment on one of the longest and most widely discussed reigns in papal history. Pope John Paul II was the third longest serving pontiff in history, behind St. Peter's 32 years and Pope Pius IX's 31 years, seven months.

His humanity, love of children and ceaseless efforts to bring the Catholic message to as wide an audience as possible marked him as one of the dominant and most respected figures of the 20th century and early 21st century.

At the same time, he has left a legacy of division and uncertainty within the church that could take his successor many years to resolve.

"One thing is for certain," says Luxmore. "He is going to be a terrifically hard act to follow."

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