Well-read, well-traveled, a crusader for justice, a pastor of the first order - these descriptions of Karol Wojtyla softened the surprise of the Polish cardinal's election to the papacy in 1978 as the first non-Italian pope in half a millennium.
His nationality was different. So was the way he saw the reach and power of the Holy See, in both secular and spiritual matters.
The world, and not merely Catholics, has many reasons to honor John Paul II's life today as he is mourned in death.
He single-handedly brought the Roman Catholic Church out of centuries of
shrouded mysticism and refashioned it as a force for global change. His native Poland unshackled itself from tyranny through his significant role in defying communism, standing with his countrymen just as he had as a younger
For the Catholic faithful, the man from Wadowice was a pastoral symbol, a
pontiff who expressed genuine concern for the lives and spirituality of his
flock, a marked contrast to predecessors who maintained a tradition of distance. Vigorous until age and infirmity caught up with him, he traveled
far more widely than any previous pope. He spoke several languages and on
his many foreign visits - including one to the Valley in 1987 - he often
addressed people in their own tongues. He openly forgave the would-be
assassin who shot him in 1981, making a trip to his prison to pray with him.
John Paul used the force of his personality to draw crowds in the hundreds
of thousands, particularly among the young. He also appeared unafraid before
similarly sized throngs in nations under the thumbs of totalitarian regimes
that ultimately crumbled. He may not have been the primary reason for those
tyrants' downfall, but his message of spiritual renewal and secular liberty
often was a significant factor.
Still, for Catholics John Paul II was in many ways no reformer. Throughout
his reign he maintained traditional stances on church teachings regarding
abortion, divorce, contraception and, more recently, homosexuality. When
opportunities arose for possible modifications to any of those positions, he
did not take up any of them.
Moreover, he often could not see clearly enough the importance of reform
when it was truly necessary. In recent years, the Vatican's inability to
understand the need for sweeping changes to how pedophile priests are dealt
with - American bishops' proposals for hard-line policies were rebuffed by
Rome as too tough - gave the impression that John Paul was more interested
in hierarchy than healing.
We will never know - as he suffered greater and greater ill effects from Parkinson's disease, crippling knee and hip ailments and the lingering results of the attempt on his life - the extent to which he was at the helm of the church in recent years, and how much of its administration had been delegated to his aides.
History likely will judge his long papacy in toto: his championing of freedom and insistence on strict morality and obedience to church teachings that chafed against the changing attitudes of a modern world.
He leaves a church that remains divided on those teachings and far behind in
replacing retiring or dying priests. How the new pope deals with these issues will be of primary importance to the future of the church.
But history also will describe him as a servant and pastor who showed humility from the very start when he turned down a coronation, opting instead for a simpler investiture.
Whatever the new pope's path will be, there is no doubt that because of John
Paul II, the Catholic Church can never retreat into shrouded mysticism again.