Pope Paul VI made him a cardinal in 1967, at the young age of 47. During the 1970s, the church entered a period of serious crisis. Even as it tried to change with the times, the numbers of people entering the priesthood and the religious orders dropped dramatically. The profundity of this crisis may well have prepared the way for the selection of a non-Italian pope.
Our photo gallery spans the pope's youth to his last days at the vatican.
When a deadlock emerged at the papal conclave of October 1978, the College of Cardinals made a historic break with tradition by selecting Karol Wojtyla. By choosing the name John Paul II, the Polish pontiff indicated that he intended to continue the work of his immediate predecessors. But from the start, he gave the papacy a new spirit. "The church of silence is no longer silent," he proclaimed. "Now it speaks with the voice of the pope." At the same time, he showed himself to be spontaneous and adroit in dealing with the crowds. "If I make a mistake, correct me," he said with self-deprecating humor as he addressed a crowd in St. Peter's Square in his heavily accented Italian. In years to come, the church indeed did speak with the voice of the pope. But John Paul II proved less open to "correction" by the faithful.
In fact, his attempt to impose greater religious orthodoxy on an increasingly secular world would leave a complex and even contradictory legacy. John Paul opened the Vatican to the world, challenged dictators, and spoke out for human rights and religious freedom, but he also discouraged debate within the church itself. Even so, increasing numbers of practicing Catholics would feel free to disagree with the pope on a host of issuescontraception, divorce, abortion, the role of women in the church, and the requirement of a celibate priesthood, a rule that, some critics say, indirectly fostered 2002's scandal over sexually abusive priests in the American church. During John Paul's stewardship, the number of Roman Catholics in the world reached more than 1 billion, but the number of people willing to take vows as priests and nuns continued to decline, raising important and unresolved questions for the future.
John Paul quickly set the tone for his papacy by traveling nearly as much in his first year as Pope Paul VI had during his entire reign. Significantly, the new pope's first foreign destinations were the Dominican Republic and Mexico, indicating a clear shift in the church's focus. "My Polish origins, the history of my people...helped me a lot...to understand situations of injustice in the Third World," he told biographer David Willey.
It is equally significant that Wojtyla's second foreign tripin June 1979was to Poland. His ascension to the throne of St. Peter came at a moment when Cold War tensions were at a particularly high pitch. The Soviet Union was struggling with its unpopular invasion of Afghanistan, and Polish workers were on the brink of revolt. "Poland, homeland of mine," the new pope proclaimed before vast numbers of his fellow citizens. "Thank you, O Lord, for making us Polish!"