Poles had packed the hall for "Jesus Christ Superstar" one night in Krakow a few years ago. A large man slipped into the crowd, a raincoat over his robe. Word spread quickly.The cardinal had come and was joining delightedly on the occasion.

It was, say those who know him, a characteristic gesture for Cardinal Karol Wojtyla, the new Pope John Paul II. In more than a decade as archbishop of Krakow, he earned far more than the dutiful reverence of religious Poles. He won their deep respect and their friendship.

The ascent of Cardinal Wojtyla brings to the papacy a man whose perspective is youthful in a land of traditional church conservatism, a man experienced both in philosophy and manual labor, a man of proven political skill and personal dynamism.

John Paul's life has been a mirror of Poland's fate for much of the 58 years since he was born in the village of Wadowice [WORDS ILLEGIBLE] on May 18, 1920. Suffeted by the [WORDS ILLEGIBLE] of 1939, subjected to brutal occupation and Stahnist terror, Poland has maintained faith in its nationalism largely through adherence to the Church.

And Wojtyla clung to that faith as a forces laborer in Nazi times and later as a parish priest when other priests were being condemned as saboteurs and spies.

In recent years, along with his colleague Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski, patriarch of Warsaw, Wojtyla increasingly emerged as a spirtual leader in the political opposition that the church in Poland has come to represent.

Wojtyla's special mix of talents and experience made him especially well suited for that role. With a background in philosophy - the pope has published three books and dozens of scholarly articles - Wojtyla could deal as the intellectual peer of other cardinals. With his time as a working man he could rival the Communists' appeal to proletarians.

Numbering 31 million Catholics, about 92 percent of the country's population, the Polish church is as strong as any in the world. But its strength has also been threatened repeatedly by the officially atheistic policies of the government in power.

Exploiting the vigor of Poland's faithful while holding off party efforts to close churches, has been the challenge to Wojtyla and Cardinal Wyazynaski. They have succeeded.

One of his greatest accomplishments was the opening in the summer of 1977 of a massive cathedral in Nowa Huta, the first city built by the Communists after the World War II as a symbol of the new order. It took 25 years for the task and required determined pressure on local authorities.

Finally, when Wojtyla became cardinal in 1967, a permit was issued and workers by the thousands volunteered their time and materials to help in the construction.

"Did it have to be done this way? Wojtyla asked. "Couldn't it, and can't it still go a different way for the building of churches that are so necessary for the Catholic population of Poland?"

As he spoke, a crowd of 50,000 stood on pouring rain and many wept. It was a scene as much given to political symbol as to religious fervor.