The frail Pope of latter years is very much in contrast to the robust, energetic figure chosen to head the Catholic Church in 1978. In the early years he maintained an active lifestyle, spending much of his limited leisure time in the mountains. As the first non-Italian Pope in four and a half centuries the election of Poland’s Karol Wojtyla caused something of a stir. But he quickly endeared himself to Catholics in Italy and around the world. However his desire for close contact with his flock almost cost him his life in 1981.
During a general audience in St Peter’s Square a Turkish gunman fired from the crowd, badly wounding the Pontiff. Surgeons battled for five hours to save his life. Years later he was to meet and forgive his would-be assassin in prison. He escaped uninjured from an attempted knife attack in Portugal a year after the shooting.
Despite the incidents Pope John Paul remained determined to bring the Church closer to people in all walks of life. It is a mission, which has seen him become the most-travelled Pope in history. Over the years he has visited 130 countries, often going to places previously considered out of bounds for the head of the Church of Rome. But life on the road has taken its toll. His well-documented health problems have hindered his itinerary. So far he has refused to rule out travel and has dismissed suggestions of retirement.