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John Paul II Remembered as Unwavering Defender of Poor, Oppressed

Pope John Paul II has died in Rome at the age of 84. The youngest-ever cardinal to be elected pope was a steadfast advocate of conservative social values, but an unwavering defender of the poor and the oppressed around the world.

Pope John Paul II was elected in 1978. When white smoke poured out of the Sistine Chapel chimney on October 16 that year, the world was stunned to learn that the newly elected pope was from communist Poland, the first non-Italian in more than 450 years.

"Habemus papam… sanctae Romanem ecclesiae… Cardinalem Wojtyla. Sia lodato Jesu Cristo… sempre sia lodato."

It had taken the cardinals two days and eight ballots to make their choice. But few people in Saint Peter's square recognized the new pope's name. U.S. Cardinal Edmund Szoka was among those taken by surprise.

"I could not believe it," said Cardinal Szoka. "I never expected that he would be elected pope."

Karol Wojtyla took the name Pope John Paul II. He was just 58-years-old when he addressed the crowd in Saint Peter's square, the youngest pope in the 20th century.

Do not be afraid, he immediately told the faithful. That message was rooted in the pope's own personal background.

Karol Wojtyla was born on May 18, 1920, in Wadowice. In his youth he was a keen sportsman and enjoyed the theater.

He was at university in Krakow when World War II began. When he decided to become a priest in 1942, the Nazis had cracked down on religious teaching. No seminary was authorized and he was forced into underground training.

By 1964 he was archbishop of Krakow, three years later a cardinal. From the day of his election as pope, it was clear the Polish cleric would leave his mark on Eastern Europe.

U.S. Archbishop John Foley believes the pope was one of the major factors contributing to the collapse of communism.

"The event that I have found personally most impressive was the return trip of Pope John Paul II to his native Poland, his first trip in 1979," said Archbishop Foley. "I thought then, and I was on part of that trip, that this marks the end of communism."

Pope John Paul II was dynamic and approachable. He traveled the world, communicating in eight different languages. He celebrated masses and proclaimed more than 450 new saints.

Millions turned out to see him.

The pope said the most moving memories from all his trips were the huge multi-colored assemblies of the people of God.

But perhaps his heart went out most of all to the world's youth.

"The future of the world shines in your eyes," said John Paul II.

But the pope's insistence on getting close to huge crowds almost led to his death in 1981 when a Turkish gunman shot and seriously wounded him. From his hospital bed, the pope forgave his would-be assassin.

One of the pope's most memorable trips was to communist Cuba in 1998. It broke the island's international isolation and raised Cubans' hope for greater religious freedom.

He said a modern state cannot make atheism or religion one of its political standpoints.

The pope spoke out against wars in the Middle East, in the Balkans, in Africa. He appealed time and again to world leaders to use non-violent means to resolve international conflicts.

But on social issues, the pope took a staunchly conservative stand. He strongly opposed artificial contraception, abortion, the ordination of women, and the marriage of priests.

"If a person's right to life is violated at the moment in which he is first conceived in his mother's womb, an indirect blow is struck also at the whole of the moral order," he said.

But he made great efforts to mend differences with other Christians and other religions. He was the first pope ever to visit a synagogue and apologized for Catholics who failed to help Jews against Nazi persecution.

Pope John Paul's overriding message to the Catholic Church was one of hope and reconciliation.

"Do not be afraid. The power of the Holy Spirit is with you, is with you. Amen," he said.