Even as he snubbed Margaret Thatcher and prayed for peace in implicit criticism of Britain — whose troops were battling Catholic Argentines — the pontiff received a rapturous welcome and was described in glowing terms by the Archbishop of Canterbury.
His successor, Benedict XVI, can expect a far cooler — if not at times downright hostile — reception in his upcoming state visit.
It all underscores the contrasting public fortunes of the two leaders of the church. John Paul was an international superstar who could send a thrill even through non-Catholics and made many people forget how at odds he was with their personal views. Benedict seems to step into crisis and controversy at every turn when he ventures abroad on bridge-building missions.
In 1982, Robert Runcie, then Archbishop of Canterbury, said John Paul came to Britain "with the grace of a pilgrim and a prophet." Runcie's successor, Rowan Williams, told the BBC in April that Benedict would be welcomed "as a valued partner, and that's about it."
Benedict's visit has been fraught with controversy ever since it was announced by Buckingham Palace in May.
There have been complaints over the costs to British taxpayers for the Sept. 16-19 trip, anger and revulsion over the church's clerical sex abuse crisis, and a feeling of betrayal among Anglicans upset over the Vatican's efforts to woo conservative members of their church.
Although the Polish-born John Paul held virtually the same views on church doctrine as Benedict, he was at the height of his popularity at the time, celebrated for standing up to communism during the Cold War. His charisma helped him make strong connections with people who did not share his faith or conservative social views. Problems of pedophile priests were already brewing but kept from public knowledge, only coming out when the abuse scandal exploded in the United States toward the end of his papacy.
Top British politicians say they welcome Benedict's visit, but seem compelled to state their differences with him.
During a televised debate in April before general elections, David Cameron, now prime minister, said he wanted the visit to be a success but "do I agree with everything the pope says? No."
"I don't agree with him about contraception. I don't agree with him about homosexuality and I think the Catholic church has got some very, very serious work to do to unearth and come to term with some of the appalling things that have happened and they need to do that but I do think we should respect people of faith," Cameron said.
Benedict will meet with the queen at a castle in Scotland shortly after arriving and with Cameron in London on Saturday.
John Paul's visit was two years in the planning, but only confirmed days before departure because of complaints from Argentina, which was at war with Britain after invading the Falkland islands, which it claims are its own and refers to as Las Malvinas. The pope agreed to visit Argentina shortly after returning from England, where he prayed for peace during every public event.
"We cannot forget that an armed conflict is taking place — brothers in Christ fighting in a war that imperils peace in the world," he said during one Mass.
John Paul also dropped plans to meet with Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher; the official reason was to stress that it was a pastoral and not a state visit.
But he did meet with Queen Elizabeth, whose ancestor, Henry VIII, established the Church of England after breaking with Rome in 1534 over the Vatican's refusal to annul his first marriage to Catherine of Aragon.
John Paul said he felt "deeply moved" to be the first pope on English soil in what was described as a pilgrimage of reconciliation to a country that officially discriminated against Catholics until the 1820s.
Catholics, less than 10 percent of the population, still face a problem marrying into the royal family. They can marry in, but the royal loses his or her place in the succession.
There were scattered demonstrations during John Paul's visit, mainly by small groups calling the pope "Anti-Christ" and by followers of the Rev. Ian Paisley, the militant Northern Ireland Protestant leader.
In contrast, for this papal visit, a group called Protest the Pope has lined up gay, feminist and secular groups to stage protests against the visit — and there has even been talk of serving the pope with an arrest warrant because of the abuse scandal.
Although Benedict has not been accused of any crime, some British lawyers have questioned whether the pope should have immunity as a head of state and whether he could be prosecuted under the principle of universal jurisdiction for an alleged systematic cover-up of sexual abuses by priests.
The German-born Benedict has never sought to be a crowd pleaser like his predecessor, having assumed the papacy after two decades in the back rooms of power as the Vatican's ideological chief. At 83, he is 20 years older than John Paul when he made his British pilgrimage and drew an estimated 2 million people to his events.
Benedict, who speaks good English among other European languages, seems more comfortable among small groups.
Monsignor Mark Langham, the British-born Vatican official in charge of relations with Anglicans, recalled the excitement of John Paul's visit as he spoke to The Associated Press at the English College seminary in Rome's historic center. Forty-four of its former students were martyred in England in past centuries.
"The Falklands war was going on, the forthcoming marriage of Prince Charles and Lady Diana had just been announced, the pope was coming. We felt we were living through history. The enthusiasm, the excitement was something you could feel."
He acknowledged that the atmosphere over Benedict's trip is not the same.
"We're in a different era now, and Pope Benedict is not Pope John Paul II. I think for various reasons there have been problems and issues. What I have noticed is that in the last few weeks and days, excitement is ratcheting up and I think people are beginning to take up and take notice about what's going to happen."
And what will happen on this visit?
"I think it will be one perhaps where people came to see John Paul, they'll come to hear Pope Benedict," Langham said.
Associated Press writer Nicole Winfield in Rome contributed to this report.