John Paul II, the third-longest-serving pope who was known for his conservative theology and ambitious travel schedule, was beatified Sunday, the last step before what many hope will be his eventual canonization as a saint in the Catholic Church.

John Paul spent more time abroad than any of his predecessors, preaching a message of peace and respect for human rights over the course of his nearly 27-year reign. He visited almost 130 countries and traversed 1.16 million kilometres.

More than a million people, including a large number from Poland, John Paul's country of birth, turned up for the ceremony, which took place on May 1 in St. Peter's Square.

His beatification has turned a spotlight on the former pontiff, with many touting his role in bringing an end to communism in his home country and his support for human rights.

His detractors, however, have criticized him for not doing enough to deal with the church's sexual abuse scandals.

Here is a look at the life and times of John Paul II.

Early life

Born Karol Wojtyla on May 18, 1920 in Wadowice, Poland, about 50 kilometres southwest of Krakow.

His mother, Emilia Kaczorowska, died when he was eight years old. Three years later, he lost his older brother to scarlet fever. Wojtyla's father, who was a sergeant in the army and bore the same name, died in 1941.

As a young man, he enjoyed many outdoor activities, including hiking, skiing and kayaking, and was a keen student of the stage.

Also a superb linguist, he would become fluent in 11 languages.

In October 1942, and during the Nazi occupation of Poland, Wojtyla began clandestine studies for the priesthood in an underground seminary in Krakow.

He was ordained as a priest by Archbishop Sapieha in Krakow on Nov. 1, 1946.

He became the youngest bishop in modern Polish history at age 38. Nine years later, he would become the youngest cardinal.

3rd-longest-serving Pope

On Oct. 16, 1978,was elected by the College of Cardinals to lead the church, following the death of Pope John Paul I.

Elected at only 58, John Paul II was the youngest pope of the 20th century, and the first non-Italian since the 15th century.

Sometimes called the Pilgrim Pope, he travelled to more places and spoke to more people than any other pontiff in history. He made 104 pastoral visits outside Italy, 146 within, and visited 129 countries.

This was a radical departure from previous popes, most of whom elected to remain within Rome and is one of the defining features of his pontificate.

On Sept. 9, 1984, John Paul began a 12-day tour of Canada, the first of three trips to the country.


Pope John Paul II, talks with his would-be assassin Mehmet Ali Agca on Dec. 27, 1983. (Arturo Mari/Associated Press/L'Osservatore Romano)

He also survived an assassination attempt on May 13, 1981.

Mehmet Ali Agca, a Turkish national, fired three shots at the pope as he rode in an open car in St. Peter's Square in the Vatican. John Paul was wounded in abdomen, left hand and right arm, but the bullets failed to hit any major organs.

John Paul forgave Agca when he met with him at Italy's Rebibbia prison in 1983.

His nearly 27-year reign was the third longest, after Pius IX and St. Peter.

Stance on human rights, abortion

John Paul II was a conservative pope by doctrine, rejecting the ordination of women and forbidding priests from marrying.

In a 1993 letter to his bishops, John Paul said both sex before marriage and contraception were intrinsically evil.

His May 25, 1995, encyclical, "Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life)," took a firm stand against abortion and euthanasia.

He was known for his international support of human rights, criticizing dictators like Fidel Castro for suppressing religious freedom.  

"The social concern of the Church, directed towards an authentic development of man and society which would respect and promote all the dimensions of the human person, has always expressed itself in the most varied ways," he wrote in the 1998 encyclical, "Solicitudo Rei Socialis (On Social Concern)."


Faithful stand by a giant poster of the late Pope John Paul II, in St. Peter's square at the Vatican on April 28, 2011. (Domenico Stinellis/Associated Press)

He was also a vocal critic of war, including the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.

"Wars generally do not resolve the problems for which they are fought and therefore, in addition to causing horrendous damage, they prove ultimately futile," he said in 1999.

Many have credited John Paul for helping end communism in Poland, pointing to a June 1979 visit in which he told Poles to "not be afraid."

His pontificate was said to provide inspiration to Lech Walesa's 1980 Solidarity movement, which served as a catalyst for the end of communism in Poland.

To his detractors, however, he was a reactionary trying to turn back the clock on modern reality for his views on female priests, and a failure to endorse the use of condoms in the face of the AIDS crisis.  

He has also been criticized for not doing enough to deal with the Catholic Church's abuse scandals, in which some priests were accused — and convicted — of molesting children.

In some cases, the church has been accused of failing to inform parishioners of offending priests. His critics say John Paul was slow to respond to claims of abuse.

However, in April 2002, John Paul called 12 U.S. cardinals to the Vatican for a two-day session to discuss the growing scandal of priestly sexual abuse of children in the U.S. He told the visiting cardinals that sexual abuse of children by priests and religious figures is "rightly considered a crime" and is "an appalling sin in the eyes of God."

Later life and death

Health problems were common towards the end of his life, though he continued to travel the world.

He had a tumour removed from his colon in 1992, dislocated his shoulder in 1993, broke his femur in 1994 and had his appendix removed in 1996.

During a visit to Slovakia in September 2003, John Paul was unable to complete his arrival remarks — the first time that had happened. In 2004, he was forced to limit his travel schedule.

In February 2005, John Paul was rushed to hospital with severe respiratory problems. Weeks later, he underwent a tracheotomy and had a breathing tube inserted in his throat to ease his breathing difficulties.

His health continued to worsen and he died April 2, 2005. He was 84 years old.

The road to sainthood

On May 13, 2005 — mere weeks after John Paul's death — Pope Benedict XVI said he would fast-track the late pope's canonization, waiving a mandatory waiting period.

What does it take to be declared a saint?

1. Investigation: A postulator (advocate) examines the nominee's life, writings, and religious acts. That evidence is presented to the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, a special panel of theologians and cardinals. If the case has merit, the nominee is declared "venerable" — a role model of Catholic virtue.

2. Beatification: The Congregation for the Causes of Saints must verify a miracle before beatification. Miracles are considered as extraordinary events produced by God, acting through others and verified by witnesses.

3. Canonization: The Vatican’s Congregation for the Causes of Saints must be presented with evidence of a second posthumous miracle.

Normally, the church must wait five years after a candidate's death before beginning an investigation to determine if an applicant can be declared "venerable," or a role model of Catholic virtue.

On Jan. 14, 2011, Benedict attributed a miracle to John Paul — a requirement for beatification — saying he had cured a French nun of Parkinson's disease.

Two months after John Paul's death, Sister Marie-Simon-Pierre claimed she woke up and was suddenly healed. The nun and the others in her order had prayed to John Paul, who also had Parkinson's.

A Vatican-appointed group of doctors and theologians, cardinals and bishops agreed that the cure was a miracle because of the intercession of the late pope.

The May 1 beatification, which was the fastest in modern times, allows John Paul to be honoured within his own diocese, region or religious order, and confers the title of "Blessed."

However, a second miracle needs to be attributed to John Paul before he can be declared a saint, and receive church-wide recognition.

Many around the world — especially in Poland — hope the speedy beatification will lead to an equally quick canonization.

"For us, in fact, the Holy Father was already a saint during his lifetime, and after his death even more," Ewa Filipiak, mayor of Wadowice, told the Associated Press.

During his pontificate, John Paul declared 476 saints and beatified 1,320 people.

With files from The Associated Press