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Pope John Paul II, whose indomitable will and uncompromising belief in human dignity helped bring down communism in Eastern Europe and reshaped Christianity's relationship to Judaism, was indisputably the most influential pope of the 20th century.

The first non-Italian elected pope in 455 years, John Paul energized the papacy through much of his reign, traveling as evangelist and champion of religious freedom even as he imposed a rigorous moral discipline and more centralized authority on his sometimes rebellious church.

Karol Wojtyla's journey began in Wadowice, south of Krakow, Poland, where he was born May 18, 1920. His father, also Karol, was a master tailor and a recruiting officer for the 12th Infantry Regiment of the Polish army. His mother was Emilia, a convent-educated daughter of a saddle-maker.

Young Karol grew up in simplicity, sometimes poverty, in a town shared by Catholics and Jews.

As a youth, Wojtyla swam in the Skawa River and was a devoted soccer goalie who often stopped to pray on his way home from school.

In 1929, just before he turned 9, his mother died of a heart and kidney ailment. Three years later, his older brother, Edmund, a hospital intern, died of scarlet fever, contracted from a patient.

After his mother's death, Wojtyla would wake up at night to find his father on his knees, praying to Our Lady of Czestochowa, the Black Madonna.

When Wojtyla was 18, he moved to Krakow with his father to study at Jagiellonian University. In summer 1939, Wojtyla completed military training with the Academic Legion. Two months later, on Sept. 1, 1939, Germany invaded Poland, and tanks reached Krakow five days later. The university was closed; the professors were sent to a Nazi concentration camp.

Wojtyla continued his studies secretly and began underground activities, including performing in and writing plays steeped in Polish nationalism. Then, in 1941, his father died. Wojtyla was 21.

Shortly before his father's death, Wojtyla was drawn into religious life by a lay mystic, Jan Tyranowski. As the Nazis began deporting priests, Tyranowski organized and led the Living Rosary, a clandestine group of devout young Catholics. Wojtyla became one of its group leaders.

It was Tyranowski who introduced Wojtyla to the writings of St. John of the Cross, the 16th century Spanish theologian and mystic. St. John's idea of the "dark night of the soul" held that hardship, doubt and suffering purged the soul so that it could be filled by divine knowledge.

Wojtyla, at that point, had no thought of the priesthood. "I was completely absorbed by a passion for literature, especially for dramatic literature and for the theater," he recalled. But, as biographer Darcy O'Brien observed, his love of the dramatic was not a passing phase, but a portal.

The war, the occupation of Poland by the Nazis and the sight of Jewish friends and neighbors sent to concentration camps moved Wojtyla to reconsider his future as an actor.

"To this day," he wrote in "Crossing the Threshold of Hope" (1995), "Auschwitz does not cease to admonish, reminding us that anti-Semitism is a great sin against humanity, that all racial hatred inevitably leads to the trampling of human dignity."

He began studying for the priesthood in a clandestine seminary in 1942 while keeping his job at a chemical plant to avoid raising Nazi suspicions. He also worked as a laborer in a rock quarry.

In 1944, the Gestapo swept through the city, arresting young men, but Wojtyla avoided arrest. Later, his name appeared on a Nazi death list.

He eluded capture again and continued his studies. He was ordained a priest Nov. 1, 1946., His bishop sent him to Rome for graduate studies at the Pontifical Angelicum University, where Wojtyla earned a doctorate in ethics in 1948. He returned to Poland as a parish priest and began to write in earnest.

Wojtyla earned a doctorate in theology from Jagiellonian University in 1948, taught moral theology at the seminary in Krakow in 1953 and became a professor of ethics and chairman of the philosophy department at Catholic University in Lublin in 1954.

In 1964, he became archbishop of Krakow. In 1967, Pope Paul VI made Wojtyla, then 47, a cardinal. He quickly earned a reputation within the highest circles of his church as a thinker and philosopher who stood up to communism and integrated traditional teachings with modernity.

As archbishop of Krakow, Wojtyla had named a commission in 1966 to look at the issue of human sexuality, based in large part on his own pastoral experience counseling young people and couples. His commission's findings laid the groundwork for Humanae Vitae, the controversial encyclical issued by Pope Paul VI in 1968 that banned artificial birth control.

As a cardinal, he also participated in the August 1978 conclave to choose a successor to Pope Paul VI. He was, therefore, no stranger to his fellow cardinals, who less than two months later gathered again in the Sistine Chapel to elect a successor to Pope John Paul I after his sudden death.

Just after dusk Oct. 16, 1978, reportedly on the eighth ballot after a deadlock between two principal Italian candidates, the 58-year-old Wojtyla became the youngest pope in more than 120 years and the first non-Italian pope since1522.

In his 26-year papacy, John Paul II made 104 trips outside Italy to 129 nations.

In the search for truth and meaning, John Paul made the repeated exhortation of Jesus -- "Be not afraid!" -- his own rallying cry for the faithful around the world. A witness to the Holocaust as a young man, John Paul led the Catholic Church on a pilgrimage of repentance and reconciliation with Jews, culminating in the establishment of diplomatic relations with the state of Israel.

In his final years, he made a crowning pilgrimage to the Holy Land and became the first Catholic leader in nearly 1,300 years to visit Greece, trying to bridge the centuries-old theological divide with Eastern Orthodoxy.

By 2003, John Paul's journeys had been scaled back, but he continued to press on. His final trip was in August 2004, returning to France to visit the miracle shrine of Lourdes.

He apologized to Jews, females, Orthodox Christians and others for his church's failings and sins against them throughout history. He apologized to Muslims for the Crusades. He acknowledged that Galileo wrongly was censured in 1633 by the Inquisition for asserting that Earth is not the center of the universe. He said Charles Darwin's theory of evolution, proposed in the 19th century, was credible.

For the impoverished masses in the nations of Asia, Africa and Latin America that he so assiduously visited, John Paul was often a revolutionary icon demanding social justice: jobs, respect for human dignity, a decent standard of living, education and health care.

His uncompromising positions on issues of morality, particularly those involving sex and gender, were a constant irritant to Catholic liberals.

In his final years, people became accustomed to the sight of the pope stooped by age and walking with a cane. His face by then only hinted at his once-vigorous countenance. His words were slurred. His hand trembled from Parkinson's disease. As the disease progressed toward the end of his life, the pontiff could no longer walk, even with the cane. Papal aides bore John Paul wherever he went.

It was the pope's unbending will that kept him traveling, though the journeys decreased in number. In his view, his physical limitations were not only part of his ministry and duty, but bespoke of redemptive suffering.

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