A Look at Pope John Paul II's Legacy

Pope John Paul II leaves the papacy and the Roman Catholic Church two very different institutions from what they were when he was elected pope in 1978.

John Paul II seemed to be a new kind of pontiff almost from the instant he was elected the 264th leader of the Roman Catholic Church.

At 58, Cardinal Karol Josef Wojtyla of Krakow, Poland, was a relatively young and vigorous pope and was the first non-Italian to assume the papacy in 455 years.

He took the name John Paul, following the lead of his predecessor, Pope John Paul I, who died after just 33 days as pontiff, and showed that he was not afraid to show his warmth for his faithful. He was often seen wading into crowds of worshippers like a talk show host.

"He was someone who was very comfortable on the stage, someone who could communicate to young people," said the Rev. Thomas Reese, author of "Inside the Vatican." "And we saw that at these world youth days. He was there like a superstar, a rock star, with all these kids just loving him."

The Traveling Pope

The pope went on the road almost immediately after his election -- and his travels became a trademark of his papacy. In the 2,000-year history of the church, no other pope traveled as far. Fluent in eight languages, John Paul II visited more than 100 countries on every continent but Antarctica, making a point of seeing not only world leaders, but those in hospitals, slums and prisons.


The pope's travels and ability to talk plainly to the people who came to see him gave him a connection with his audience and a popularity his predecessors may have lacked.

"Paul VI had made a number of trips to other countries, [but] he just never had that charisma ... and those number of people [who came to see him]," said ABC News Vatican correspondent Bill Blakemore, who covered Pope John Paul II during his entire 26-year papacy. "John Paul, when he traveled, pulled out these enormous crowds believed to be the largest crowds ever yet assembled on Earth."

Mixing Religion With Political Activism

John Paul often stunned political leaders by setting diplomacy aside and speaking out on controversial issues.

His activism was rooted in the experience of his youth in southern Poland, where, as he began his priesthood, Jews were sent by the thousands to death camps and Catholics participated in their persecution. During World War II, he was active in an underground Christian democratic group that helped Jews escape the Nazis.

In March 2000, he apologized for mistakes committed in the name of the church over the past two millenniums, including the Inquisition, the Crusades and the persecution of Jews. In January 1998, he made a historic visit to Communist Cuba where his appeals for freedom of speech, human rights and the release of political prisoners were the first noncommunist public speeches since 1959.

His trip, the first to Cuba of any pope, revitalized the Catholic religion on the island nation after almost 40 years of repression, prompting President Fidel Castro to lift the ban on Christmas celebrations.

The peaceful revolution John Paul sparked in Cuba was much like the ones he supported in Eastern Europe and his native Poland. As a cardinal, he secretly aided the anti-communist struggle by smuggling money and supplies to the Catholic underground in what was then Czechoslovakia.

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