John Paul II: Beloved pope who left reformists cold

John Paul II: Beloved pope who left reformists cold
File photo of the late Pope John Paul II

VATICAN CITY - Pope John Paul II, who will be made a saint on April 27 along with John XXIII, was an inspirational figure who helped topple communism but alienated many with his conservative views.

The first non-Italian pope in more than 400 years, and the first from eastern Europe, Polish Karol Wojtyla was immensely popular, eschewing the pomp that surrounded his predecessors and seeking contact with ordinary people.

The pontiff, who died in 2005, was beatified in May 2011, giving him the status of "blessed" for the world's 1.2 billion Catholics and placing him one step away from sainthood.

During a papacy lasting nearly 27 years, John Paul II travelled far and wide, often greeted by massive crowds as he championed peace, denounced human rights abuses and deplored the decadence of the modern world.

He left one of his most momentous acts for the twilight of his papacy - an attempt to purify the soul of the Roman Catholic Church with a sweeping apology for sins and errors committed during its 2,000 years of existence.

John Paul II was born in a small town near Krakow, in southern Poland, on May 18, 1920.

His mother died when he was eight and his father raised him, teaching him German and football.

He studied at the Jagiellonian University in Krakow where he became fascinated by theatre and wrote a number of plays.

John Paul was never a member of the Polish resistance, but the experience of war caused him to consider the priesthood.

He became a parish priest and rose steadily through the Church hierarchy, eventually rising to cardinal.

When he was elected pope in October 1978, John Paul II was 58, a robust sportsman and a relative outsider amid the vast bureaucracy of the Holy See.

He spent his holidays hiking, skiing or kayaking, and refused to be penned in by the Vatican, sometimes sneaking out of the tiny state incognito.

His first foreign visit was to his native Poland.

Despite Soviet warnings, communist authorities were unable to head off the pope's 1979 visit, when he appeared before million-strong crowds speaking powerfully for human rights.

The upshot was a huge, reinvigorated anti-communist working-class movement, the birth of Solidarity, and the steady thaw of the Soviet glacier that lay over central and eastern Europe.

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