John Paul II was pope when I was born. To me, growing up as a non-Catholic, he was the face of Catholicism. My impressions of him as an outsider, were that he was kind, very holy and very funny. No matter his age, he had an uncanny ability to connect with young people (perhaps that is why so many Catholics of my generation revere him so). He once made light of this fact, saying "I am a young person aged 83 -- speaking to youths."
He was in the news a lot, because he traveled so much. "The pope cannot remain a prisoner of the Vatican," he explained. He visited his flock on nearly every continent and the news media could not get enough of him. And as he grew older and the ravages of Parkinson's disease began to take over his body, I saw in him something very familiar because he reminded me very much of my grandfather -- a kind, holy and funny man who worked into old age until the devastating effects of Parkinson's forced him from his beloved job. Like John Paul II, the disease took him away very slowly, in an increasingly-debilitating way which took its toll on all of us who knew and loved him.
John Paul II was also pope when my wife and I were received into the Catholic Church in 2002 and when our first-born son was baptized a few months later. Needless to say, he holds a very special place in my heart and I credit his example and his influence as ones that made it much easier to follow the spiritual path that God set before me; one that would finally lead me, a descendant of first-generation French Huguenots, to be the first in eleven generations of my family to return to the Catholic Church. As with any difficult decision, I agonized over following my informed conscience to embrace the fullness of truth preserved in the Church that Christ founded. John Paul's words provide solace to difficult decisions, too:
What really matters in life is that we are loved by Christ and that we love him in return. In comparison to the love of Jesus, everything else is secondary. And, without the love of Jesus, everything is useless.
Pope John Paul II is set to be beatified on May 1 of this year. In preparation for his beatification, the Vatican has set up two new websites celebrating his life and his legacy. One is on Youtube and the other is on Facebook. You'd do well to check them out.