Few would have predicted then that the first non-Italian Pope in 455 years would throw off the stiff trappings of the papacy, travel the globe and leave an indelible mark on history.
In over a quarter century on the world stage, he was both a champion of the downtrodden and an often contested defender of orthodoxy within his own church.
Historians say one of the Pope's most lasting legacies will be his role in the fall of communism in Eastern Europe in 1989.
"Behold the night is over, day has dawned anew," the Pope said during a triumphant visit to Czechoslovakia in 1990.
A decade after witnessing the fall of communism, he fulfilled another of his dreams. He visited the Holy Land in March 2000, and, praying at Jerusalem's Western Wall, asked forgiveness for Catholic sins against Jews over the centuries.
Requiescat in pace.