"Karol Wojtyla became the third Pope of 1978, and the first non-Italian to hold the office since Hadrian VI, 455 years earlier. The short rule of John Paul I may have figured heavily in the conclave's choice of Wojtyla - who was a comparatively young 58 - but he'd received votes in 1978's first set of papal elections and was seen as an excellent compromise choice. Whatever the reasons, Wojtyla adopted his predecessor's name to become John Paul II, partly as a mark of respect, and partly to show a continuation of policy.
Wojtyla was born and raised in Poland during a rare period of national freedom which ended, initially under Nazi occupation and then Communist rule. Instilled with a firm religious belief by his father, Wojtyla attended school and then Jagiellonian University, where he balanced studies with an interest in acting and religiously inspired poetry. Although Wojtyla's family initially fled during World War II, the Russian invasion prompted him to return home and study in secret, taking a labourer's job to avoid deportation. A firsthand witness to the cruelty of Nazi occupation, Wojtyla joined a cultural resistance movement, where be began studying for the priesthood.
Wojtyla was ordained in 1946, and over the next few years he wrote doctrinal texts, pursued a higher level of education, taught Catholicism and encouraged religious freedom. The result was a professorship in Lublin, a body of work that influenced the reforms of Pope Paul VI and a reputation for promoting and supporting his church in an oppressive Soviet regime. Elevation to auxiliary bishop soon followed, and while contributing to the 'Second Vatican Council' in 1963 he was made archbishop of Krakow. Four years later, in 1967, he was made a cardinal. During the next few years Wojtyla worked ceaselessly in Poland, gaining concessions from the communist government and widespread support from the public, while contributing to Vatican policy.
Having been a somewhat surprisingly choice of Pope, John Paul has now ruled for over twenty years; opinions on his work are currently divided, not among different those who love him or hate him, but on different aspects of his policy. The Pope is seen to have failed in reforming the Catholic church itself, maintaining increasingly controversial policies on contraception and homosexuality while failing to arrest a decline in both congregations and the relevance of lesser church leaders.
In contrast, John Paul II has been almost universally praised for attempting to build greater understanding between Judaism, Islam and Christianity, as well as for visiting over a hundred countries and promoting non-violent revolution against oppressive regimes, especially communism, in whose collapse he is sometimes given a personal role. His main tool has been travel, and his personal presence has drawn massive crowds, although it has also exposed him to danger: in 1981 John Paul was shot and severely wounded in an attempted assassination by Mehmet Ali Agca. However, this didn't deter the Pope, and even non-Catholics admire his willingness to speak out against certain governments while stood within their country.
Towards the end of his life John Paul has been affected by several health problems, including cancer and an ongoing battle against Parkinson's disease, but such problems have barely dented his schedule. Indeed, in March 2000 the Pope made one of his most noteworthy trips, visiting Jerusalem, where he met Jewish and Muslim leaders and visited some of the city's most holy places.