Pope John Paul the Second, leader of the world's one billion Roman Catholics for more than 26 years, has died, ending a historic reign in which he helped undermine Soviet communism, traveled widely, and upheld church doctrine.

Vatican officials announced the 84-year-old pope died late today (Saturday/ 9:37 pm local time -- 1937 Universal Time) at his quarters in Vatican City, days after church officials said (March 31st) his circulatory system collapsed following an infection that spread throughout his body.

Elected at a conclave of cardinals in 1978, the Polish-born John Paul was the first non-Italian in 450 years to lead the Roman Catholic church.

During more than a quarter century in the papacy, the former Karol Wojtyla [pron: voy-'TIH-wah] traveled more widely than any other Catholic leader had before, delivering the Church's message to hundreds of millions of people throughout the world.

One of the most influential figures of the 20th century, the pontiff is widely credited with transforming the papacy. He repeatedly made efforts to mend fences with other faiths, and was the first pope to visit a synagogue. He later apologized for Catholics who failed to help Jews against Nazi persecution.

Experts say one of John Paul's most lasting legacies will be his influential role in the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe in the 1980s.