The Pope, who led the Roman Catholic Church as the Bishop of Rome, guided the faith of one billion people worldwide.
But it was not merely Roman Catholics who mourned the death of John Paul.
Because his papacy lasted for 27 years, John Paul was the only pope one-third of the worlds population has known. Thus, his death marks the passing of one of the most recognizable faces of 20th century spirituality.
American critics remember John Paul as a powerful, conservative throw-back to antiquated pre-Vatican II Catholicism.
However, John Pauls involvement in the fall of Soviet communism in Eastern Europe, his interfaith dialogue with the global Jewish community and his clever use of the media to promote concern for the Third World show that he was a dramatically progressive pope who ushered his faith into the 21st century.
Born Karol Wojtyla outside of Krakow, Poland in 1920, John Paul's life was marked with the personal experience of historical tragedy which prepared and influenced his papacy.
While he was studying literature and philosophy in 1939, German forces shut down John Pauls university, and he went work in a quarry.
In 1942, after receiving a calling to the priesthood, Wojtyla enrolled in an underground Polish seminary.
The young priest, who was an avid skier and thespian, quickly rose in the ranks of the Polish church. In 1978, after the sudden death of Pope John Paul I, Wojtyla, Archbishop of Krakow and a Vatican outsider among fellow Cardinals was elected Pope.
John Pauls first words as pope were: Be not afraid. It was this confidence, this deep certainty John Paul possessed in Christ that made millions of Catholics stand up and cheer at his message. In his papacy, John Paul became more than a pope, he became a moral timeline of the 20th century, a man who had seen Nazism and communism and still told the world to remove fear from their hearts.
The Polish John Paul was the first non-Italian pope in 500 years. As the Polish people were quoted following his death, "John Paul was ours, we gave him to the world."
John Paul's identity was as a pope who emerged from a Communist country during the Cold War and helped to strengthen and reinvigorate popular anti-Communist movements throughout the Eastern bloc.
In 1979, the Pope returned to his homeland and in many speeches, reminded Poles that their country was not merely a land of communism and that their human mission was to live in truth.
His historic visit was credited by Lech Walesa, the leader of the Solidarity movement (the labor movement which eventually toppled communism in Poland in 1988) as being the catalyst for the collapse of communism in Europe.
John Paul II defined himself as a catholic first, and a Catholic second. Catholic, un-capitalized, means universal, and John Paul II, like Blessed Pope John XXIII before him, saw how necessary interfaith dialogue was to legitimate churches in the 20th century.
Most noteworthy was John Pauls very public attitude towards the Jewish community. In 2000, the pope, ailing from Parkinsons disease, journeyed on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land.
At a remarkable visit to the Wailing Wall, John Paul left a note of apology for the Churchs failure to protect Jews. Recognizing that the Holocaust was the moral epicenter of the 20th century, Pope John Paul II ended the Churchs tradition of unimpressive statements on the issue of Judeo-Christian and papal knowledge.
The pope will be remembered through the many images he left the world during his traveled papacy. In this way too, the pope was a progressive who knew how to personalize and warm-up the Church to a media-savvy global population.
Often photographed hugging children in impoverished countries and being received like a rock star in stadiums across North America, it went unquestioned that the pope was a popular and likeable public figure. His image was a favorite of the media.
By traveling to Third World countries and focusing his efforts on easing the burden of the poor, John Paul II forced the media to bear witness to suffering and change. He used the media as a tool to create awareness in the minds of millions.
Finally, on a personal note, I was lucky enough to travel to Rome during an Interim program this past January. My class was received in a papal audience at the Vatican, and we were blessed by an ailing but joyful pope.
The highlight of our visit came when a folk-music group from Poland sang a traditional Polish song to John Paul.
With hands shaking and head nodding, the pope clapped to the beat of the song with a smile on his face. Looking at this man, one could think of only one word to describe him: graceful.