John Paul II, the Polish-born pope whose strong-willed activist papacy helped unravel the Soviet Union and redefined the office's relationship to the world as he led the billion-member Catholic Church, died Saturday (April 2) at the age of 84.

John Paul's death ended a pontificate of more than a quarter century. He was the longest-serving pope of the 20th century and the third-longest in history after St. Peter and Pope Pius IX.

He died at about 9:37 p.m. (2:37 EST). Archbishop Leonardo Sandri, Argentine deputy secretary of state and a member of the papal household, announced the death to tens of thousands of people gathered in St. Peter's Square to say the Rosary prayer on behalf of their beloved pontiff.

On Sunday, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, Vatican secretary of state, will preside over a Mass in St. Peter's Square for the repose of the pope's soul. The Vatican said John Paul's body is expected to be taken to St. Peter's Basilica no later than Monday afternoon. That same day, the College of Cardinals will hold its first meeting to decide the date of the pope's funeral and the opening of the conclave of cardinals that will choose his successor.

Ailing from Parkinson's disease and rapidly declining health in his last week, the pope succumbed to heart and kidney failure after a bacterial infection weakened his body. His fate seemed sealed when aides administered the Sacrament of Anointing, or last rites, on Thursday (March 31).

Though John Paul had weathered ill health for several years, he took a downward turn on Feb. 1 when he was hospitalized with the flu. An emergency breathing tube inserted three weeks later allowed him to recover enough to return to the Vatican for Holy Week and Easter, although he was too weak to preside or speak.

In his 26 years in office, John Paul touched the lives of lepers and heads of state, and hundreds of millions of people in between who saw in this stoop-shouldered leader the vision of a better humankind.

Death came to John Paul after years of frailty. The world watched as Parkinson's disease and arthritis slowly changed him from the robust hiker of his early papacy to a hunched old man unable to walk and barely able to speak. Still, he was unwilling to lay down the duties of his office and the global stage he commanded so well.

A younger, more vigorous John Paul shattered the familiar image of a bureaucrat pope who merely managed the church from afar. Instead, he burst out of Rome and brought the church — and the papacy — to the world. "The Catholic Church has lost its shepherd. The world has lost a champion of human freedom," said president Bush, appearing with his wife, Laura, in a televised comment from the White House.

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"Throughout the West, John Paul's witness reminded us of our obligation to build a culture of life in which the strong protect the weak. And during the pope's final years, his witness was made even more powerful by his daily courage in the face of illness and great suffering."

His legacy to Catholics was twofold. Admirers credit him with instilling clear direction among a divided and widely scattered church, but critics accused him of clamping down on the tides of reform unleashed by the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s and of being too slow to confront worldwide reports of sexual abuse by priests.

From the start of his papacy, John Paul was a pilgrim pope who traveled the world to spread the gospel. Everywhere he went, his charisma drew crowds — sometimes in the millions — to celebrations of Masses on airport runways, in sports stadiums and in city squares.

Biographers often recounted the story of a young boy in Rome who once asked the pope why he traveled so much. "Because the world is not here!," the pope replied. "Have you heard what Jesus said? Go and evangelize the whole world. And so I go to the whole world."

The globalized papacy that John Paul leaves behind is coupled with the activist role he played on the international stage, particularly his skillful use of the papacy as a bully pulpit to challenge — and outlive — communism.

His election in 1978 came months before the Solidarity movement in his native Poland confronted the country's communist regime, setting in motion a decade of challenges that would — with the pope's moral and financial support — eventually see the Iron Curtain collapse from within.

His appearances in Poland during the first year of his papacy electrified millions of Poles, to the discomfort of party bosses who dared not bar his entry to the country. Along with President Reagan and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, John Paul emerged as a global leader willing to vigorously challenge communism.

"He certainly didn't do it by himself," said the Rev. Tom Reese, editor of the Jesuit weekly America. "But he was the right man, at the right place, at the right time to be the catalyst to make that happen."

John Paul also did not hesitate to open the doors of the Vatican to the leader of the officially atheist Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev. "Without this pope, it would be impossible to understand what happened in Europe at the end of the 1980s," Gorbachev said.

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Yet interwoven with John Paul's global legacy was a central theme of what he called "the culture of life," a responsible use of political and economic freedoms to promote human dignity. At the same time, he condemned what he saw as "the culture of death" marked by abortion, euthanasia, totalitarianism and an unrestrained consumerism. It was an agenda that left him unbeholden to the political left or the right.

In a larger sense, John Paul saw humanity imperiled by twin threats — the economic brutality of globalization and runaway capitalism, and old-fashioned political tyranny, which trampled individual dignity and freedom. He worried about both when he described the state of man in 1991: "At times it seems as though he exists only as a producer and consumer of goods, or as an object of state administration," he said.

Still, he will be remembered less for humbling the mighty than for lifting up the young, the poor, the sick and the disabled. He was happiest when surrounded by hundreds of thousands of young pilgrims at World Youth Days or in moments such as a visit to Los Angeles in 1987 when he startled security guards by climbing over barricades to embrace and bless with a kiss a young man with no hands playing the guitar with his feet.

Tony Melendez, who was turned down for the seminary because he did not have a thumb or a forefinger with which to hold the Eucharist, later would say from the moment the pope embraced him, "it was for this that I was born. It was for this that I came into the world."

Karol Jozef Wojtyla was born on May 18, 1920, to a devout Catholic family in the industrial town of Wadowice, Poland, near Krakow. His father, also Karol Wojtyla, was an army officer and his mother, Emilia, a schoolteacher.

"She wanted two sons, one a doctor and the other a priest," the pontiff told French writer Andre Frossard about his mother. "My brother was a doctor and, in spite of everything, I became a priest."

His compassion for others was forged early in his own suffering. He never knew an older sister, Olga, who died a few days after birth. His mother died of kidney and heart failure when he was 8. When he was 12, his brother Edmund died at age 26 from scarlet fever while serving in a hospital.

Raised by his father, the young Wojtyla immersed himself in his studies and in prayer. The young boy nicknamed Lolek was also an athlete who swam, skated, boated, skied, played ice hockey and hiked in the nearby Carpathian Mountains. He was goalkeeper for a soccer team of Jewish schoolmates.

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As he grew older, Wojtyla began writing poetry and plays, and he acted with an underground theater company during the Nazi occupation of Poland in World War II.

Wojtyla was studying philosophy at the Jagiellonian University in Krakow when the war broke out. The occupying forces closed the university, and he went to work in a quarry as a stone cutter and later in a chemical plant to avoid deportation to Germany.

His father died of a heart attack in 1941, and in 1942, Wojtyla began studying for the priesthood in an underground Krakow seminary. Ordained a priest in 1946, he was sent to Rome where he earned doctorates in theology and philosophy.

In 1958, Pope Pius XII named the 38-year-old Wojtyla, then a professor of Catholic ethics at Jagiellonian University and Catholic University of Lublin, auxiliary bishop of Krakow. He was named archbishop of Krakow in 1964 at age 44, and elevated to cardinal in 1967 at age 47.

Wojtyla attended all sessions of the landmark Second Vatican Council in the 1960s and later assisted Paul VI in drafting the 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae — helping to convince the wavering pope to affirm the church's ban on all forms of birth control.

When Pope John Paul I died after only 25 days in office, the College of Cardinals elected 58-year-old Wojtyla on its eighth ballot on Oct. 16, 1978, as the 263rd successor to St. Peter. He was the first non-Italian pope since the Dutchman Hadrian VI was elected in 1522.

But the reign of the youngest elected pope in 138 years almost was cut short in May 1981 when Ali Agca, a murderer who escaped from an Istanbul prison, shot John Paul as he greeted the faithful from an open car in St. Peter's Square.

Five hours of surgery and months in the hospital saved his life. In his first public message a few days later, the pope said, "Pray for the brother who shot me and whom I have sincerely pardoned." In one of the most powerful images of his papacy, the pope embraced his would-be assassin in a prison visit on just after Christmas in 1983.

John Paul's papacy was one of superlatives. He outdid all his predecessors in travel, literary output and creating modern-day saints of the church.

By the 26th anniversary of his election in 2004, he had made 146 trips inside Italy and 104 abroad, traveling 773,520 miles, the equivalent of 31.19 times around the world.

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In the same period, John Paul issued 14 encyclical letters, 11 apostolic constitutions, 42 apostolic letters and 18 "motu proprio," letters written on his own initiative to the whole church. He also called 15 synods of bishops.

He beatified 1,345 candidates for sainthood and proclaimed a record 483 saints — far more than all his predecessors combined over the last five centuries since the modern sainthood process was reformed in 1588.

According to the records of the papal household, he met at the Vatican with 803 heads of state and government, prime ministers and foreign ministers.

John Paul called nine consistories to create cardinals. With his last consistory in October 2003, the College of Cardinals swelled to a record 194 members. By the time of his death, the number had cardinals eligible to elect his successor fell to 117, with all but three appointed by John Paul.

As John Paul ushered the church into the 21st century, he became a vigorous opponent of cloning, euthanasia and embryonic stem-cell research even as he battled his own illness. As the AIDS pandemic raged, John Paul drew fire for opposing the use of condoms to help contain the disease.

And, despite declining health, John Paul clung to his role as a lion of orthodoxy in church teaching, resisting calls to open the priesthood to married men or women, opposing growing acceptance of homosexuality and gay unions and instructing priests to bar Catholics who had divorced and remarried from receiving Holy Communion.

John Paul's relations with the American Catholics — and vice versa — were more ambivalent. While praising the U.S. church for its moral commitment and generosity, he deeply distrusted the intensity with which some sought reform.

On his first visit as pope to the United States in 1979, he ignored an appeal by a prominent nun, Sister Theresa Kane, for "the possibility of women as persons being included in all the ministries of the church." The topic, the pope said, was not up for discussion.

In 1987, during his fourth visit to the United States, John Paul lectured American bishops on their softness toward "cafeteria Catholics," who pick and choose between church teachings.

Critics contended that John Paul's own training and background in Eastern Europe left him ill-equipped to understand American Catholicism, with its democratic instincts and appetite for dialogue.

"He was not one who could understand that opposition did not mean hostility," said the Rev. Gerald Fogarty, a University of Virginia historian. "I don't think he's a good listener. I think he has trouble understanding a country like us, even though we're one of the more vibrant branches of the church in the West."

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John Paul's over-riding desire to preserve conservative church doctrine also conflicted at times with his efforts to promote Christian unity and interfaith understanding.

Though ecumenical dialogue — especially with Orthodox Christians — was a hallmark of his papacy, John Paul angered many non-Catholics in 2000 by approving the "Declaration Dominus Iesus," a document that said only Catholics "have the fullness of the means of salvation."

In 1983, John Paul became the first pope to visit a Lutheran church, and in 1999, the Roman Catholic Church reached consensus with Lutherans on the issue of how the faithful are saved, a key stumbling block between Catholics and Protestants since the 16th century Reformation.

John Paul also reached out to Jews with unprecedented initiatives that some predict will be his most enduring papal legacy. John Paul called Jews "elder brothers in faith" and in 1986 became the first pope since St. Peter to step inside a synagogue. In 1994, he opened diplomatic ties with Israel.

"I think those will come to be seen to be of historic, millennial importance," said Reese, of America magazine. "We may continue to have occasional arguments, but from now on they'll be family fights."

And while John Paul signaled early in his tenure a desire to reach out to Muslims, he spent the twilight of his papacy confronting the rise of militant Islam. In 2001, he became the first pope to visit a mosque, during a trip to Damascus, Syria.

On three occasions — at the height of the Cold War, during the Balkans conflicts and after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks — the pope led leaders of the Orthodox, Anglican, Protestant, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Sikh, Jain, Zoroastrian, Tenrikyo, Shinto and traditional African faiths on inter-faith peace pilgrimages to the medieval hill town of Assisi, home of St. Francis.

During the landmark Holy Year of 2000, John Paul rebuffed the advice of Vatican bureaucrats in seeking a "purification of memory" by formally asking forgiveness at a Mass in St. Peter's Basilica for the errors committed by Catholics over the past 2,000 years and especially in the 20th century.

A Holy Year pilgrimage in March 2000 took him to Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian Territories. He visited a Palestinian refugee camp and Israel's Yad Vashem memorial to Jews killed in the Holocaust and prayed at the Western Wall, Judaism's most sacred site.

Now, in every corner of the world touched by John Paul, people are mourning the loss of the priest Italian biographer Luigi Accatolli refers to in the title of his book as "Man of the Millennium."

David Briggs and Bruce Nolan contributed to this report.