A personable, deeply spiritual, well-traveled, and once-athletic pope who had endured Nazi occupation, stood firm in communism's face, inspired millions of young people, survived a would-be assassin's bullet and the ravages of Parkinson's disease, in the end fell to flu.
Lingering in and out of the hospital, Pope John Paul II chose to die "at home" in his papal apartment. He breathed his last on April 2 at age 84. "He taught us how to live and how to die," a newspaper quoted one mourner as saying.
Born into a devout Polish Catholic family, Archbishop Karol Wojtyla was elected pope in 1978, to the dismay of the country's communist rulers. They had reason to fear him. His powerful sermon to hundreds of thousands of people in the streets of Warsaw in 1979 gave rise to the Solidarity movement and marked the beginning of the end for communism in Poland.
That sermon was about the rightful place of God in life and history. The theme characterized much of John Paul's papacy of more than 26 years, the third longest in Roman Catholic history. He will be known for his stands on human rights; his advocacy for the world's needy; his opposition to war; his blistering criticism of the West's secularism, materialism, and abandonment of moral values; his defense of life against the world's drift toward a "culture of death"; his clamping down on doctrinal waywardness in Catholic academia; and his keeping Vatican II reforms from veering left or right.
His life and papacy held significance far beyond the Catholic Church and its estimated 1 billion adherents. Major biographies about him hit network TV screens in December.
R. Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Seminary, said that despite important doctrinal differences and "concern" about "the institution of the papacy," evangelicals will long remember John Paul II for his defense of human life at every stage and his defense of "the non-negotiable nature of truth."
Two weeks following the funeral, the cardinals were voting for a successor in strict secrecy. For the first time, it appeared they might choose a leader from Africa or South America. After three ballots, white smoke puffed from a chimney on the Sistine Chapel, signaling a new pope had been chosen. The cardinals chose a European, German theologian Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, 78, on April 19. He appeared as Pope Benedict XVI on a balcony above St. Peter's Square.
Benedict had been one of John Paul's most trusted aides almost from the beginning. He served as the Vatican's chief doctrinal watchdog for 24 years, and he continues John Paul's conservative legacy. In partial response to costly sexual abuse scandals involving some U.S. Catholic priests and cover-ups by bishops, a controversial Vatican directive in November banned homosexuals from Catholic seminaries.
With that kind of leadership, the new year promises to be a noisy one for the new pope.