Prague, 15 October 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Twenty years ago, on Oct. 16, 1978, Karol Wojtyla, the former archbishop of the Polish city of Cracow was elected the 264th Pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church.
The election ushered in a new chapter in the Church's history. John Paul, as he called himself in homage to his immediate predecessors, became the first non-Italian pope in 455 years. This alone was important, signaling as it did a departure from tradition.
That he was a Slav and a Pole was equally important. The new pope encountered at first hand the tyranny of Nazism and Communism, an experience that turned him into a foe of totalitarianism and an eloquent critic of collectivism.
This has been particularly apparent in John Paul's frequently repeated insistence on the inalienable rights of man, including the right to religious liberty, as the foundation of all human activities. Equally strong has been his determined support for, and defense of, the rights of workers, the poor and the underprivileged.
John Paul has been active in promoting ecumenism and toleration among various religious creeds, and promoting dialogue with the Orthodox Churches, Jews and Muslims. His efforts have been only partially successful.
John Paul's pronouncements have a special importance owing in large measure to his personal appeal. This pope has a particular ability, much more striking than that of his immediate predecessors, both to generate public enthusiasm for himself and to convey an important message in easily understandable and acceptable terms.
During his 20-year pontificate, John Paul has established a phenomenal record of traveling to all corners of the world to preach the Church's doctrine with zeal.
Arguably, no other leader, political or religious, has ever succeeded in captivating diverse international audiences the way Pope John Paul has. His intellectual agility and wit, projected through the international mass media to large numbers of people throughout the world, have made him a universally acknowledged leader to be reckoned with and listened to.
The large receptions John Paul has received on trips throughout the world have repeatedly shown his remarkable ability to mobilize the public in support of religious causes and Church activities.
But he has been a controversial pope. Some of his critics have claimed that John Paul has imposed brakes on progressive and modern trends which, they say, were introduced into the Church during the Second Vatican Council --a gathering of the Church's leaders to discuss and shape policies and methods-- in the 1960s.
John Paul has insisted, however, that his teachings and his actions reflect both the continuity of the established Church doctrine and the direction adopted by the Council rather than a deviation from its principles. Still, he has been determined to restore order and discipline in the Church, which has been shaken by rapidly changing social mores.
John Paul has, for example, strongly defended the Church's long-established opposition to birth control, abortion and divorce.
Many people have found this message difficult to accept. The Pope's condemnation of birth-control devices appear to some almost irrational when so many underdeveloped countries suffer from overpopulation, poverty and AIDS.
There is little likelihood that now, approaching the twilight of his pontificate, John Paul will bow to the pressures and trends of the moment. He has stood fast in defense of continuity and tradition, and can be expected to do so to the end.
John Paul is 78 years old and suffers from a variety of illnesses. But the frailty of his health has not diminished his pastoral energy. He has by now put a distinct stamp on the papacy through his dynamic personality and clear, albeit controversial, policies. His influence will continue to be felt no matter who follows him.
(This is the first feature in a three-part series marking the 20th year in the papacy of Pope John Paul.)