In more than 100 overseas trips that more than twice covered the distance between the Earth and the moon, John Paul transformed the papacy into a truly global office. In doing so, he reoriented the church away from Rome and Europe, its center for most of the first 2,000 years, toward the poorer nations of the Third World, where the majority of Catholics now live.
Our photo gallery spans the pope's youth to his last days at the vatican.
"Perhaps more than any pope in history he has made the basic teachings of the Catholic Church known throughout the world," Cardinal John O'Connor, the late archbishop of New York, once observed. "They've often been rejected. They've angered people, but he's made them known, and it's been through the force of his own teachings and his incredible travels."
In his Third World journeys, John Paul walked a fine line, making calls for religious freedom and social justice without identifying the church with left-wing political movements. He reacted harshly to liberation theology, a populist blend of Catholic and Marxist doctrine developed by priests operating in the impoverished military dictatorships of South America. In 1985, the Vatican sentenced the Brazilian priest Leonardo Boff, a leader of the liberation theology movement, to a year of silence. The Vatican was also notably cool to other priests who became deeply involved in politics: Oscar Romero, the archbishop of El Salvador, who was assassinated by a right-wing death squad, and Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the Haitian priest who went on to become the president of Haiti.
But Cardinal O'Connor, among others, believed John Paul helped bring about the peaceful democratization of some Third World countries. "When he visited Nicaragua for instance, I think he started the fall of the Sandinista regime...and the restoration of democracy there."
Third World visits made John Paul acutely aware of the problem of overpopulation and, under his guidance, the Vatican for the first time openly acknowledged that the Earth must control its growth. But he was perhaps even more adamant than his predecessors in opposing all forms of artificial birth control. On one South American trip, he was counted using the word contraception 60 times in 10 days of speeches.
Paul VI's original ban on all forms of birth control in 1968 made no claims to infallibility. By contrast, John Paul II may have placed the Vatican on an irreversible course by proclaiming Humane Vitae a matter of fundamental Catholic belief. Although his presence at the Vatican Council made him appear to be a modernist reformer, he was a strict traditionalist on many doctrinal issues.
He is believed to have had a major role in drafting Paul VI's birth-control decree. He saw little room for differing interpretations on important matters of faith and personal morality. As pope, he insisted that nuns and priests wear religious garb at all times. Often, in secularized societies of Western Europe and North America, he encountered stiff opposition. There, bishops faced a set of modern challenges: teenage pregnancies, broken families, drugs, AIDS, the steady decline in numbers of priests and nuns, and the desire of women, homosexuals, and divorced people to play a more active role in the life of the church. Parishioners expected their priests to reason with them and not simply lay down the law. "We cannot fulfill our task simply by an uncritical application of solutions designed in past ages for problems which have qualitatively changed or which did not exist in the past," said Archbishop John Quinn of San Francisco during one of the pope's visits to the United States.