Pope John Paul the Second, leader of the world's one billion Roman Catholics for more than 26 years, has died, ending a historic reign in which he helped undermine Soviet communism, traveled widely, and upheld church doctrine.
Vatican officials announced the 84-year-old pope died late today (Saturday/ 9:37 pm local time -- 1937 Universal Time) at his quarters in Vatican City, days after church officials said (March 31st) his circulatory system collapsed following an infection that spread throughout his body. Elected at a conclave of cardinals in 1978, the Polish-born John Paul was the first non-Italian in 450 years to lead the Roman Catholic church. During more than a quarter century in the papacy, the former Karol Wojtyla traveled more widely than any other Catholic leader had before, delivering the Church's message to hundreds of millions of people throughout the world. One of the most influential figures of the 20th century, the pontiff is widely credited with transforming the papacy. He repeatedly made efforts to mend fences with other faiths, and was the first pope to visit a synagogue. He later apologized for Catholics who failed to help Jews against Nazi persecution. Experts say one of John Paul's most lasting legacies will be his influential role in the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe in the 1980s. Pope John Paul was known as a steadfast supporter of the poor and oppressed, and a staunch defender of conservative social values. Throughout his papacy, he spoke out against wars in the Middle East, the Balkans and in Africa, and appealed to world leaders to use non-violent means to resolve conflicts. He was grievously wounded but survived an assassination attempt in Saint Peter's Square in 1981. Karol Wojtyla was born on May 18th, 1920, (in Wadowice), in southern Poland. In his youth he was a keen sportsman and enjoyed the theater. He was a university student in Krakow when World War Two began with the Nazi invasion of Poland. When he decided to become a priest in 1942, the Nazis had cracked down on religious teaching and closed all seminaries, forcing him and others into underground training.
By 1964 he was archbishop of Krakow, three years later a cardinal. From the day of The pope's health had declined steadily since early February, when he was hospitalized for breathing problems caused by the flu and his advanced Parkinson's disease. His health worsened dramatically Thursday (March 31st) after he developed a urinary tract infection, followed by major circulatory, respiratory and kidney problems. Vatican officials said the pontiff decided to remain at the Vatican and to not seek further hospital treatment after his health declined. After intensive treatment Thursday and early Friday, however, the Vatican said the pope was "conscious, lucid and tranquil," and that he had celebrated Mass together with his aides. The anointing of the sick, often known as the last rites (or Extreme Unction), was administered to the pope late Thursday, and he also received Holy Viaticum -- a special form of communion reserved for the seriously ill or dying.