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"He'll go down in history as the greatest of our modern Popes," the Rev. Billy Graham once said of Pope John Paul II, 84, who died April 2 after a long illness. "He's been the strong conscience of the whole Christian world."
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Pope John Paul II was born Karol Wojtyla on May 18, 1920, in Wadowice, Poland. His schoolteacher mother died when he was 8; an infant sister passed away before he was born; and an older brother succumbed to scarlet fever. His father was a tailor who served in the Polish military. Karol Sr. "tried to develop the same discipline in his son that he instilled in his soldiers," said a childhood friend of the Pope's.
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Wojtyla was an avid athlete – a soccer goalie, swimmer and skier. He was passionate about poetry, religion and the theater. While attending Jagiellonian University, Wojtyla joined an experimental theater group. Part of his later magnetism as Pope was due to "the stage training he had when he was younger," Bishop Raymond Boland of Kansas City-St. Joseph told PEOPLE. "It's his great sense of timing."
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Karol Sr. implored his son to join the priesthood, but died in 1941 before seeing the young man's swift rise through the church's ranks. After being ordained in 1946, Wojtyla was named archbishop of Krakow at age 43. Four years later, in 1967, Wojtyla became a cardinal (pictured in Krakow upon returning from the ceremony in Rome).
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Wojtyla's unexpected election to the papacy in October 1978 made him the first non-Italian pope in more than 450 years. Pope John Paul II (in Vatican City in his first appearance following his election), as he chose to be called, fought the rise of dissent in the church by appointing conservatives to key posts and silencing dissident priests. He became boldly active in politics, supporting the Polish Solidarity trade-union movement. "Unlike politicians, he's not reading the ratings," journalist Carl Bernstein noted.
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The Pope's fearlessness in church policy and politics was often unpopular, but never as violently as in 1981, when right-wing Turkish terrorist Mehmet Ali Agca shot him twice. Agca recanted an initial claim that he was working for the Bulgarian intelligence service, and Soviet leadership has never been linked to the assassination attempt. For his part, the Pope said he was grateful for what he called a "divine test," and he forgave Agca personally during a jailhouse visit.
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The Pope (in Papua, New Guinea, in 1984), who spoke Polish, English, Spanish, French, German, Italian, Latin and several Slavic languages, was an active traveler for most of his reign, visiting more than 115 countries – including a millennial visit to Israel to mark the anniversary of Jesus' birth. "He lived his life at a great pace," a friend told PEOPLE.
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During an October 1995 trip to the U.S., the Pope (with President Bill Clinton, top) spoke before the United Nations, saying he was hopeful for the 21st century because there is a "universal moral law written on the human heart." He became the first pontiff to visit Albania in April 1993 (with Mother Teresa, bottom), where he condemned recent acts of ethnic cleansing in nearby Bosnia-Herzegovina.
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Though he had to ride in a bulletproof bubble after the 1981 assassination attempt, the Pope never failed to draw enormous crowds (such as in Toronto in 2002). He thrived on them, even when health troubles – such as Parkinson's disease, which the Vatican never acknowledged – began to wear down his robustness. "He's invigorated by prayer and by crowds, and people respond to that," said Archbishop John P. Foley.
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Just days before being hospitalized with the flu on Feb. 1, the Pope gazed at doves released by children following a Sunday prayer. "In spite of his (ill) health, once he's with people, he has some kind of energy," said Bishop John Leibrecht of Springfield-Cape Girardeau, Mo. "When he's greeted by young people, you can see in his face and his hands that he has a new strength."