His visit had an electrifying effect on the nation and helped ignite the Solidarity labor movement, which played an important role in the overthrow of communism. After the Polish government imposed martial law in 1981 and banned Solidarity, the pope met frequently, sometimes in secret, with Lech Walesa, the shipyard worker who became the union's leader.
Our photo gallery spans the pope's youth to his last days at the vatican.
At the same time, the pope shrewdly tried to assuage the fears of the Polish Communist establishment by cultivating a close friendship with the man who imposed martial law, Wojciech Jaruzelski. "General, I have nothing against socialism," he told Jaruzelski. "I just want socialism to have a human face."
He also actively encouraged peaceful change in the Soviet Union and became the first pope to establish diplomatic relations with the nation founded on the principle of godless communism. "Everything that happened in Eastern Europe in these last few years would have been impossible without the presence of this pope," wrote Mikhail Gorbachev, the last Soviet premier, in 1992 after the collapse of his empire. The pope declined to take credit for the change. "In a certain sense," he said, "communism as a system fell by itself...as a consequence of its own errors and abuse."
For all his worldliness and political acumen, Wojtyla was best known for his profound religiosity. Each morning at 5, he woke for two hours of solitary prayer, then celebrated a private mass for a few invited guests. In numerous public appearances, he appeared to be able to shut the world out during moments of profound prayer and meditation. In some periods, he was said to have spent seven hours a day in prayer.
In 1981, Mehmet Ali Agca, a self-described "international terrorist" from Turkey, shot and wounded the pope in St. Peter's Square. In a characteristic gesture of humanity with a strong sense of theater, the hospitalized pope publicly forgave his would-be killer. Two years later, he visited him in prison.
John Paul believed that his life was saved by the Madonna of Fátimaa vision of the Virgin Mary first sighted in Fátima, Portugal, in 1917 on May 13, the same day as the 1981 attempt on his life. He even presented the bullet that had been removed from his body to the Virgin's shrine during a pilgrimage he made to Fátima in 1982.
John Paul made an impressive, full recovery from the attack, and by 1982 he had resumed his blistering schedule. In the three years after the shooting, he made 15 foreign trips to 33 nations, including Nigeria, Benin, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Belize, Haiti, Thailand, Papua New Guinea, Canada, and the United States. The ubiquitous image of the white-cassocked pontiff, bending over and kissing the earth of the latest nation to receive him, became a standard feature of the television news. During his pontificate, John Paul spent more than a full year outside Italy and was said by associates to become restless and impatient when he was confined for long periods to tend to papal business at the Vatican.