He seemed to speak with nostalgia about Europe's fallen Communist regimes, which, paradoxically, offered a more congenial atmosphere for religious belief. "Eastern Europe, through its experiences imposed by the totalitarian system, has matured," he told journalist Jas Gavronski in a rare 1993 interview. "The East has maintained an extra human dimension... Certain values are appreciated more in the East. ...Perhaps this is why a Polish pope was elected 15 years ago... If a man lives in a programmatically atheistic system, he understands better what religion means. He understands something that people in the West don't always realize: that God is the source of human dignity, the sole, ultimate, and absolute source... In the West, man does not see this clearly... It is a demanding message that not everyone listens to and those who listen do not always take seriously."
Our photo gallery spans the pope's youth to his last days at the vatican.
To many within the church, this search for the absolute meant a return to a closed 19th-century vision. "In 1969, things were fervent," one Rome clergyman said. "Now that's all gone." At Rome's venerable pontifical universities, faculty members no longer dare to hold open debate in their classrooms, the clergyman explained. "There's no debate," he said.
"To the surprise of many Catholic experts, John Paul II restored, in effect, the ancient monarchic and absolute model of the papacy, seemingly abandoning the principles of collegiality instituted, with his participation, by Vatican Council II," wrote biographer Szulc. "Yet his basic approach to his new task was in character: He was not a man who accepted compromise. Under the cheer, the charm, and the charisma, there was pure steel."
These doctrinal debates did not appear to dent John Paul's popularity. Nor, on the other hand, did they win over many people to his position. In his final years, surveys of Catholics in the United States continued to show widespread support for John Paul even though a wide majority disagreed with him on such issues as the ordination of women, divorce, birth control, and the celibate priesthood. In the Third World, millions of Catholic women began to practice birth control in spite of the papal ban.
While closed to discussion on many issues, John Paul tried to open up the church on other fronts. He publicly exonerated Galileo Galilei, the 17th-century Italian astronomer who had been condemned by the church for maintaining that the Earth revolved around the sun. Preparing for the third millennium, he announced that it was time for the Vatican to examine its own sins in the previous 2,000 years. And he created a commission to report on the church's errors in fomenting religious wars and establishing the Inquisition, which imposed religion by force rather than persuasion. The church, the pope declared, "cannot cross the threshold of the new millennium without encouraging her children to purify themselves through repentance of past errors and instances of infidelity, inconsistency, and slowness to act."
He continued the spirit of Vatican II in searching for unity with other religious denominations. He invited leaders of religious groups across the world, from Asian Buddhists to African animists, to large meetings of prayer and discussion at the Vatican. He stressed that the Catholic Church could learn from dialogue with other religions in search of the divine. But also during his reign, the Vatican issued a letter to re-emphasize that there is no salvation outside the Catholic Church.