Born in Wadowice, Poland, on May 18, 1920, Karol Josef Wojtyla was the son of a retired army officer and a school teacher. He studied literature and philosophy and later was a playwright and poet.
Wojtyla secretly studied theology during the Nazi occupation of Poland. By the age of 36, he had two doctorate degrees and was a professor of ethics. He became a cardinal at age 47 and led the only moral and social force in Poland that could counter communism.
In October 1978, Wojtyla became the first Slavic pope ever and the first non-Italian pope in 455 years. He took the name John Paul II.
Within months of his election, the pope went home to Poland for a June 1979 papal visit that some historians say helped end the Cold War. He gave his blessing to an underground labor movement called Solidarity that would later emerge to reshape Poland.
While Pope John Paul II was circling St. Peter's Square before his Wednesday general audience at the Vatican in May 1981, a Turkish gunman named Mehmet Ali Agca opened fire on the pontiff. The pope spent more than two months recovering in a Rome hospital. The gunman had also stalked John Paul during a visit to Turkey in 1979.
In December 1983, the pope offered forgiveness to Agca during an arranged meeting in prison. During the trial, Agca had claimed that East European communist agents had helped him set up the attack on the pope, but he later recanted.
By the 1980s, Pope John Paul II had reaffirmed the church's position on controversial issues such as abortion, birth control and the ordination of women. He could communicate his message in eight languages, and traveled widely throughout his papacy.
A recording of the pope reciting the rosary in Latin was set to music and was sold commercially in 1994. In a publishing deal, an Italian journalist who asked 20 questions about the pope's life and philosophy published John Paul's written responses in a book that later became a best-seller.
The pope wished a Happy Easter to the world in 58 languages as part of his "urbi et orbi" (to the city and the world) during Easter Mass at the Vatican in April 1998. Deteriorating health and age forced the most traveled pope ever to cut back on his visits.