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Monday marks the centennial birth of Karol Wojtyla, who became Pope John Paul II in 1978 and was canonised a saint following his death in 2005.

Saint John Paul II, who was born on 18th May, 1920, was elected pope by the second papal conclave of 1978, which was called after Pope John Paul I died after just 33 days at the helm of the Roman Catholic Church.

Pope John Paul II and Cardinal Ratzinger

In this 1979 file photo, Pope John Paul II, left, poses with Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who was elected Pope on 19th April, 2005 and chose Benedict XVI as his papal name. Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI is honouring St John Paul II on the centenary of his birth and floating the idea that he should be called “the Great,” as only two other popes have been. PICTURE: AP Photo/File photo

The first non-Italian elected pope in 455 years, John Paul II is largely credited with having ended communism in his native Poland and eventually across Eastern Europe.

John Paul II’s legacy also includes improving the Catholic church's relationship with Christians of all denominations, Judaism and Islam, while also being a staunch supporter of traditional church teachings on issues like abortion, the ordination of women and a celibate clergy.

Wojtyla was canonised a saint in 2014 - his feast day is celebrated on 22nd October - and had previously served as the Archbishop of Krakow until he became the second longest-serving pope in modern church history after Pope Pius IX. Some Catholics refer to him as “John Paul the Great” - although that title has no official recognition by the Vatican.

Wojtyla was canonised a saint in 2014 - his feast day is celebrated on 22nd October - and had previously served as the Archbishop of Krakow until he became the second longest-serving pope in modern church history after Pope Pius IX. Some Catholics refer to him as “John Paul the Great” - although that title has no official recognition by the Vatican.

Upon his election on 22nd October, 1978, John Paul II, then 58 years old, began his pontificate by addressing the crowd in Rome’s St Peter’s Square this way: “We are saddened at the death of our beloved Pope John Paul I and so the cardinals have called for a new bishop of Rome. They called him from a faraway land - far and yet always close because of our communion in faith and Christian traditions. I was afraid to accept that responsibility, yet I do so in a spirit of obedience to the Lord and total faithfulness to Mary, our most Holy Mother. I am speaking to you in your - no, our – Italian language. If I make a mistake, please correct me.”  

From that humble start, John Paul II would lead the church through good times and bad, some claiming he did very little to stem sex abuse among clergy that was largely exposed years after he had died. A week after addressing the crowd for the very first time as pope, John Paul II gave a homily that would resonate throughout his pontificate: “Brothers and sisters, do not be afraid to welcome Christ and accept his power. Help the Pope and all those who wish to serve Christ and with Christ's power to serve the human person and the whole of mankind. Be not afraid. Open wide the doors for Christ. To his saving power open the boundaries of States, economic and political systems, the vast fields of culture, civilization and development. Be not afraid. Christ knows “what is in man.” 

“Be not afraid” would come to define his papacy. While John Paul II lived a very public life, there is plenty that people don’t know about him. In honour of what would have been his 100th birthday, here are six things you probably didn’t know about the late pope:  

1. He logged more miles than any other pope
During his pontificate, John Paul II really put on the frequent flier miles, visiting 129 countries and logging nearly 700,000 miles.

He attracted large crowds wherever he went - some among the largest ever assembled in history. One such gathering, the Manila World Youth Day in 1995, drew four million people, a record for a papal gathering.

2. He became the first pope to visit a mosque
In May 2001, during his second trip to the Middle East and just four months before the 11th September attacks, Pope John Paul II became the first pope to enter a mosque.

In a speech at the Olmayyad Mosque in Damascus, John Paul II said he was mindful of past centuries of conflict between Christians and Muslims and that he hoped the two faith traditions could “find new ways, at the start of the third millennium, to present their respective creeds as partners and not as adversaries.”

3. He had been an actor and playwright
It’s fitting that the two men who were instrumental in the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the breakup of the Soviet Union - both President Ronald Reagan and John Paul II - were also both actors. While Reagan made movies in Hollywood, Wojtyla’s primary ambition growing up in the city of Wadowice was to be an actor.  

In those years, he described himself as “completely absorbed by a passion for literature, especially dramatic literature, and for the theater.” When he entered Krakow’s Jagiellonian University in 1939, the future pope was involved with an avant-garde student theater troupe called Studio 39. The Nazis invaded Poland that year, forever changing Wojtyla’s life and eventually leading him to the priesthood. Nonetheless, his body of work as a playwright (the play The Jeweller’s Shop that was made into a movie in 1988 featuring Burt Lancaster is among the most famous) is considerable. Eno is considerable. Enough so that he has his own IMDb page.

4. He survived and assassination - and forgave the shooter
Like Reagan, John Paul II also survived an assassination attempt in the 1980s. It was 13th May, 1981 when the pope was shot and wounded by Mehmet Ali Agca while entering St Peter’s Square. John Paul II was struck four times.

Agca was arrested by Italian authorities and later sentenced to life in prison. The pope later forgave Agca, even meeting with him. Agca was pardoned by Italian President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi at the pope's request and was deported to his native Turkey in 2000.

5. He spoke a dozen languages
Yes, the polyglot pope spoke 12 languages. In addition to Polish, John Paul II could communicate in Latin, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, French, English, German, Ukrainian, Serbo-Croatian, Slovak and Esperanto.

The pontiff would use most of these - particularly Italian and Spanish - during his many papal visits across the globe.

6. He appeared at both Yankee Stadium and Madison Square Garden
John Paul II is the only pope to have appeared at two of the world’s best-known sporting venues. While he was an avid skier throughout his life and played soccer as a child, John Paul II could have never imagined that he’s play both Yankee Stadium and Madison Square Garden.

John Paul II’s visit to the famed New York sports venues took place during a papal visit to the United States in 1979. He visited the city a second time in 1995, conducting Mass at Giants Stadium and Aqueduct Race Track, adding two more Big Apple landmarks to his long list of travels. Even Michael Jordan never did that!

Clemente Lisi is a senior editor and regular contributor to Religion Unplugged. He is the former deputy head of news at the New York Daily News and teaches journalism at The King’s College in New York City. Follow him on Twitter @ClementeLisi.