Pope John Paul II: a conservative who revolutionized the papacy

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VATICAN CITY (AFP) - Pope John Paul II, who died at age 84, revolutionized the papacy, contributing to the collapse of communism in eastern Europe but alienating many Roman Catholics with his conservative social views.

Pope John Paul II celebrates a mass. The Pope died after a long struggle against crippling infirmity which inspired Christians the world over, ending a tumultuous 26-year reign that shaped world politics.(AFP/File/Gabriel Bouys)The first non-Italian pope in four-and-a-half centuries, and the first from eastern Europe, the Polish-born Karol Wojtyla was immensely popular, imposing his own style and agenda on the papacy, eschewing the pomp that surrounded his forebears and seeking contact with ordinary people.

 He travelled to 129 countries, taking his message directly to his flock of more than one billion believers and displaying public relations skills unknown to his predecessors.

Born in a small town near Krakow, in southern Poland, the son of an army officer, on May 18, 1920, he was brought up by his father after the death of his mother when he was eight.

He became a parish priest and rose steadily through the Church hierarchy until, as bishop of Krakow, he became widely known to Western ecclesiastical authorities during the Second Vatican Council from 1962 to 1965.

When Cardinal Wojtyla was elected pope in October 1978, he was 58, a robust sportsman and a relative outsider amid the vast bureaucracy of the Holy See.

The advent of a Polish pope catalysed the anti-communist working class movement, the birth of the communist bloc's first independent trade union, Solidarity, and the steady thaw of the communist glacier that lay over eastern Europe.

In 1981 the pope nearly died when a rightwing Turkish fanatic, Mehmet Ali Agca, shot him at close range in Saint Peter's Square. The pontiff survived after extensive surgery, but his health was badly affected thereafter.

At the same time, Church reformers, the young, and Third World congregations in the grip of a devastating AIDS epidemic became dismayed at his refusal to give ground on contraception and the use of condoms.

In the United States, high-profile scandals involving several pedophile priests shook the foundations of the Catholic Church until the Vatican belatedly sanctioned a policy of "zero tolerance" toward such behaviour.

Under his leadership, the Vatican opened diplomatic relations with Israel in 1993 and he was the first pope to pray in a synagogue in 1986.