When Pope John Paul II assumed the leadership of the Roman Catholic Church 26 years ago, he was not the familiar frail figure of recent years, burdened by disease and age. He was a vigorous man of 58, the youngest pope in 138 years and by far the most active. So much so that he was quickly dubbed "God's athlete," and was regularly seen jogging, swimming, even skiing.
The energetic style, perseverance and courage that became the hallmarks of John Paul's papacy were forged in the harsh experiences of his youth. When the Nazis shut down the university he was attending in his native Poland, he continued his studies in clandestine classes at night. When he turned to the priesthood, he was tutored in a secret, illegal seminary run by Krakow's archbishop. Later, when the communists tried to marginalize the church, he defiantly led open-air celebrations of the Mass and pushed ahead with new church construction.
In John Paul II, the first non-Italian pope in four centuries, the church got a startlingly blunt champion of the oppressed, a critic of war and a defender of the church's conservative orthodoxy. He leaves behind fundamental disputes on doctrinal matters from contraception to stem-cell research, but there is no disagreement that he reinvigorated the papacy with leadership that was inspiring and disciplined.
Between his election in 1978 and his death on Saturday, he left a unique imprint. More than any of his 263 predecessors, he broke out of the reclusive world of the Vatican and carried his message around the globe to Catholics and non-Catholics alike, exploiting the capabilities of modern transportation, high-tech communications and his own warm and earthy personality.
"Be not afraid!" John Paul repeated three times during his installation sermon. He practiced the fearlessness that he preached, in challenging communism, in admitting the errors of his church, in his recovery from a 1981 assassination attempt and, finally, in facing a long and debilitating illness.
John Paul's early support for Solidarity, the Polish workers' rights movement, gave confidence to oppressed millions across the Soviet empire that communism could be faced down and would eventually fall. A decade later, it did, crashing like the "rotten tree" John Paul said it was.
In a series of unprecedented and welcome moves, he reached out to other Christians and to other faiths. He was the first pope to preach in a Protestant church or a synagogue and the first to set foot inside of a mosque.
He was a consistent advocate for the poor and downtrodden, attacking not only the abuses of communism but also the excesses of capitalism. "I am the voice of the voiceless," he said, a voice needed in a world dotted with political and economic oppression.
And, in a move almost unheard of for an institution that rarely has acknowledged error, he apologized. He used the advent of the new millennium to issue a sweeping apology for sins and mistakes committed during the church's 2,000 years of at-times bloody existence, implicitly invoking the Crusades, the Inquisition, the Holocaust and Christianity's history of anti-Semitism. He later also apologized to those who have suffered sexual abuse by priests and for the excesses committed by Catholic missionaries.
During his tenure, he traveled to 129 countries and presided over open-air Masses that attracted hundreds of thousands of believers and the curious. A one-time actor and author of several plays, John Paul exploited his mastery of timing, humor and command of languages to communicate in a way that few other world figures have been able to do.
But his travels — particularly in North America and Western Europe — also put a spotlight on the resistance of millions of Catholics to his resolute defense of traditional doctrines as they impact contemporary social and political issues. Many liberals and moderates have ignored his teachings on abortion, contraception, homosexuality and women's issues. Conservatives have gone their own way on the death penalty, nuclear weapons, war and economic policies.
In the United States, solid majorities of Catholics surveyed in a USA TODAY/CNN/Gallup Poll on Friday and Saturday said the next pope should allow Catholics to use birth control, permit priests to be married, liberalize church doctrine on stem-cell research and let women become priests.
These fundamental disagreements with church doctrine, however, did not detract from their admiration for John Paul. Two-thirds of those surveyed called him "one of the greatest" popes. In a problem-plagued world, a leader who stands by his principles, popular or not, commands respect.
That grit and determination became all the more evident as John Paul became a bent and pained figure, weighed down by the ravages of arthritis and Parkinson's disease. He repeatedly brushed aside any suggestion he might have to step down, declaring he wanted to continue his mission "until the end."
That end came peacefully, in his apartment three stories above St. Peter's Square. History will eventually judge John Paul's role in the ongoing arguments within Catholicism over points of doctrine and administration of the church.
The verdict is already in, however, on his role as an unafraid champion of peace and humanity: God's athlete was a giant.