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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Pope of a Different Sort

On the night of Oct. 16, 1978, a vast, impatient throng in floodlit St. Peter's Square cheered wildly as white smoke curled from a chimney atop the Sistine Chapel, signaling the election of a new pope. A long wait had ended, but the enthusiasm was somewhat premature.

Cardinal Pericle Felici emerged minutes later to introduce Cardinal Karol Wojtyla of Poland, the first non-Italian pope since 1523. But even he had trouble pronouncing the name -- voy-TEE-wah. Hardly anyone, it seemed, knew who he was. Murmurs and questions rippled through the predominantly Roman crowd.

Then a powerfully built man with slightly stooped shoulders and a small smile on his angular face stepped onto the central balcony of St. Peter's Basilica. Cheers faded into silence. The crowd waited.

He stood at the balcony rail, looking out, a Polish stranger in the fresh white robes of the pope. And there were tears in his eyes as he began to speak.

"I have come," he said in lightly accented Italian, "from a faraway country -- far away, but always so close in the communion of faith."

There were scattered cheers, and they grew louder as he went on.

"I do not know whether I can express myself in your -- in our -- Italian language," he said, pausing.

The crowd roared appreciatively, and the laughter swelled into resounding cheers.

"If I make mistakes," he added, beaming suddenly, "you will correct me."

Tumult erupted.

The cheers went on and on, and then grew into rhythmic waves that broke on the basilica facade and echoed across the square in a thundering crescendo:

"Viva il Papa!

"Viva il Papa!

"Viva il Papa!"

It was an extraordinary beginning. But almost from the start, it was evident to many of the world's Roman Catholics, and to multitudes of non-Catholics as well, that this was to be an extraordinary papacy, one that would captivate much of humanity by sheer force of personality and reshape the church with a heroic vision of a combative, disciplined Catholicism.

It was to be the longest and most luminous pontificate of the 20th century, the second longest in the history of the church, a 26-year era that would witness sweeping political changes around the world, the growth of the Roman Catholic Church to more than a billion baptized members from 750 million, and the beginning of Christianity's third millennium.

The man who would call himself John Paul II was not the traditional papal figure, compassionate and loving but ascetic and remote behind the high walls and the elaborate ceremony of the Vatican. Here was a different kind of pope: complex, schooled in confrontation, theologically intransigent but deftly politic, full of wit and daring, energy and physically expressive love.

More than outgoing, he was all-embracing -- a bear-hugging, larger-than-life man of action who had climbed mountains, performed in plays, written books and seen war, and he was determined from the start to make the world his parish and go out and minister to its troubles and see to its spiritual needs.

Compared to other popes, he did not create many new programs and he sought to clarify and enforce Catholic ideas rather than to reshape or expand them. He was, if anything, more traditional than his namesake predecessors, John XXIII, Paul VI and John Paul I.

But he saw himself primarily as a spiritual figure who transcended geographical and ideological boundaries, and he saw it as his mission to deliver a clear set of Catholic ideas and to foster peace and human dignity through the power of faith and the practical efforts of well-meaning nations.

At the dawn of the millennium and in the twilight of his papacy, he also saw it as his duty to issue a daring, unprecedented apology for the errors of his church and individual Catholics over the last 2,000 years, a catalog of sins that included episodes of religious and cultural intolerance and of historic injustices against Jews, women, indigenous peoples, immigrants and the poor.

While he did not cite specific misdeeds, his apology set out a framework that theologians said appeared to encompass the Crusades, the Inquisition, the burning of heretics and forced conversions of American Indians, Africans and others. The church's response to the Holocaust was not specified, but the apology was dedicated to a "confession of sins against the people of Israel."

And there were other acknowledgements -- notably one in 1998 for the failure of many Catholics to help Jews in the Holocaust, and another in 2002 to the victims of sexual abuse by priests in a scandal that engulfed the church in America with cases of pedophilia and accusations of coverups by bishops and other members of the church hierarchy.

The traumatic scandal, in which scores of priests were accused of molesting children, some repeatedly over many years, led to criminal charges, the removal of many priests and avalanches of lawsuits and multimillion-dollar settlements. It also challenged the moral authority of the church in America and threatened to taint the final years of a papacy whose signet had been human dignity.

John Paul's extraordinary effort to cleanse his church's conscience, along with his global travels, his challenges to human rights violations around the world, his attacks on the economic injustices of capitalism and his steadfast resistance to changes in church teachings on birth control, priestly celibacy, the ordination of women and other issues were among the fundamental traits of his pontificate.

But they were not the only legacies by which history would judge John Paul. Along with the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, the pope played a major role in the collapse of Soviet and European communism, instilling the adversaries of communist governments in Poland and other parts of Eastern Europe with confidence that their cause would outlast the repression of their rulers.

His very election boosted the spirit of believers in Eastern Europe, for whom the appeal "Be not afraid!" -- repeated three times during the sermon he preached at his installation on Oct. 22, 1978 -- had a special meaning.

In June 1979, millions turned out for the pope's first visit to his native Poland, masses of people acting independently of the communist government and gaining a liberating sense of their own autonomy. In retrospect, the visit was widely seen as a detonator of the Solidarity labor movement's challenge to Poland's communist government in 1980 and ultimately of the changes that swept the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe a decade later.

Traveling widely -- through Europe, Africa, the Americas and Asia -- the pope electrified vast crowds with a populist blend of showmanship, evangelism and impassioned appeals for human rights, peace, disarmament and justice for the poor and the oppressed.

On that first papal visit to Poland, he scolded the officially atheistic, communist government for treating people "merely as a means of production."

He went to Brazil and chastised the military junta in power. "Violence," he said, "kills what it intends to create."

He went to Ireland and confronted zealots of the Irish Republican Army and their Protestant foes: "On my knees I beg you to turn away from the path of violence and to return to the ways of peace."

He went to Japan and mourned: "To remember Hiroshima is to abhor nuclear war. To remember Hiroshima is to commit oneself to peace."

He went to Auschwitz and asked, "How far can cruelty go?"

And he went to the United Nations in New York and spoke to world leaders of peace for "all the men and women living on this planet."