A tireless and outspoken campaigner for world peace and humanitarian causes, Pope John Paul II was the most traveled pontiff in history, criss-crossing the globe on missions that were often as political as they were religious.
In his overseas journeys, the pope visited communist Cuba, Muslim Syria, India and war-torn Bosnia. A native of Poland, he played a crucial role in the downfall of communism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union.
In the most significant papal trip, John Paul II became the first pope in history to officially visit Israel when he fulfilled a lifelong dream to tour the Holy Land and walk in the steps of Jesus Christ.
The March 2000 pilgrimage through the Middle East broke down long-standing religious barriers and was a crowning moment in the pope's quest, throughout his 26-year papacy, to reconcile Christians and Jews.
During his visit to Jerusalem, the pope spoke at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial (search) before an audience that included then Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak.
"I have come to pay homage to the millions of Jewish people who, stripped of everything, especially human dignity, were murdered in the Holocaust," the pope said.
In 1998, the Vatican had formally apologized for the Roman Catholic Church's inaction during the Holocaust under Pope Pius XII (search).
After the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the U.S., the pope said he was "heartbroken" over what had happened but urged restraint in capturing those responsible.
"We must not let what has happened lead to a deepening of divisions," he said. "Religion must never be used as a reason for conflict."
John Paul II's term of service was marred beginning in January 2002, when news broke of thousands of incidents of sex abuse by Catholic clergy and a widespread effort by Church leadership to cover up the scandal and protect the priests involved.
It wasn't until March of that year that the pope broke his silence on the matter, however, in a pre-Easter letter to priests.
"Grave scandal is caused, with the result that a dark shadow of suspicion is cast over all the other fine priests who perform their ministry with honesty and integrity and often with heroic self-sacrifice," he said.
John Paul II held an emergency summit with cardinals in April 2002, and during July of that year made his first comments to the public about the abuse scandal, which had swept across North America and parts of Europe.
"The harm done by some priests and religious to the young and vulnerable fills us all with a deep sense of sadness and shame," the pope told an estimated 800,000 people at the World Youth Day Mass in Toronto.
But by far, he added, most church figures are people "whose only wish is to serve and do good. Be close to them and support them."
"If you love Jesus, love the Church. Do not be discouraged by the sins and failings of some of her members," John Paul II said.
While some Catholics were satisfied with the Pope's handling of the matter, others said it fell far short of the apology that the Church should have made.
Meanwhile, in less tumultuous times, John Paul II established the first diplomatic ties between the Vatican and Israel. On another occasion, he joined forces with Muslim leaders to protest the legalization of abortion in many countries.
Respected as both a philosopher and an intellectual, the pope spoke eight languages (though he wrote only in Polish) and demonstrated a skill for diplomacy. In 1994, he was named Time magazine's "Man of the Year," in which he was depicted as an individual of intellectual prowess and mystical zeal.
But while John Paul II was often progressive with the external workings of the church, he held strong traditional views on many of the incendiary moral issues of the 20th century. He considered abortion to be a form of "murder," and condemned medical experimentation on human embryos.
Equally adamant in his opposition to assisted suicide and euthanasia, he termed the practices "intolerable and too burdensome."
He was vehemently opposed to homosexual sex, pre- and extra-marital sex, and the use of contraception. In 1995, he dismissed a French bishop who supported the use of condoms by people with AIDS.
He also continued the 2,000-year moratorium on women becoming priests, which drew harsh criticism from women's groups who felt they were being alienated from involvement in the church.
An athlete known for his vigor and zeal, the pope survived an assassination attempt in May 1981. But his health became a recurring issue in the later years of his papacy. Eventually diagnosed with Parkinson's disease, the pope endured a series of falls, surgeries and illnesses.
Early Life and Election
Born Karol Wojtyla in Wadowice, Poland on May 18, 1920, the future pope's early years were marked by personal suffering and tragedy. The son of a poor Polish soldier, he lost his mother at age 8, his brother at age 12 and his father at age 20.
A top student from his earliest grades, Wojtyla loved the theater and pursued acting in college. He performed in an underground drama group and wrote six plays, and continued to perform throughout his theology training.
During the Nazi occupation of Poland, Wojtyla worked as a stone cutter at a quarry, an experience he captured in some of his original poetry. He was ordained a priest in 1946.
In the 1950s, he earned doctoral degrees in philosophy and theology at Jagellonian University in Krakow, Poland, and then served as a professor at the Catholic University of Lublin.
In 1958, Wojtyla was appointed Auxiliary Bishop to Archbishop Baziak of Krakow, and was named Archbishop of Krakow in 1964. On June 28, 1967, he was consecrated a cardinal in the Sistine Chapel.
Following the 1978 death of Pope John Paul I after only 32 days as pontiff, Karol Cardinal Wojtyla was narrowly elected pope on October 16, 1978 and was officially installed on October 22, 1978 at age 58. Having taken the name John Paul II to honor his predecessor, he was the church's 264th pope and the first non-Italian pope in 455 years.
In May 1981, about 2½ years into his papacy, John Paul II was seriously wounded during an assassination attempt in St. Peter's Square by Turkish gunman Mehmet Ali Agca.
Though once an avid skier, mountain climber and swimmer who routinely kept 18-hour days, in later years the pope underwent hip surgery and had a tumor removed from his colon. In his final years, he walked with a cane or was supported on the arm of another.
But his physical ailments did not detract from his mental prowess. John Paul II's letters, sermons and speeches fill nearly 150 volumes. He wrote 12 encyclicals and published "Crossing the Threshold of Hope" in 1994, answering a series of theological questions.
As pope, John Paul II's popularity was apparent in both the massive crowds that greeted his appearances and the opinion polls that gave him high rankings.
Said to have humanized the figure of the pope through his ability to connect with people he met from all walks of life, experts attributed his popularity to the great pains he took to stress the dignity and worth of each individual, regardless of religious beliefs.
Pope John Paul II died on April 2, 2005, in his bed at the Vatican. He was 84.