Pope John Paul II played a larger role in current world events than any other pope in history. In Europe, his name will be inextricably tied to the fall of Communism in eastern Europe.
The pope with Russian President Vladimir Putin
For Europe's smallest state, Vatican City, Oct.16, 1978 was an important day. On St. Peter's Square, a new pope was proclaimed, Karol Wojtyla, the archbishop of Cracow. It was the first time in more than 400 years that a non-Italian had taken over the leadership of the Catholic church.
"Have no fear, open the doors for Christ, yes, tear them open for him!" John Paul II said in his first sermon as the Bishop of Rome.
The Catholic Church in Poland had given impetus to the election of Karol Wojtyla as pope, but the Community Party central committee in Warsaw was worried. At his first mass as pope on Victory Square in Warsaw in July 1979, John Paul II delivered a political message, which he cleverly disguised.
"Do not be afraid. The Holy Ghost will descend and renew the countenance of this earth. This Polish earth," he said.
Stimulus for change
It was a masked call to revolt against repression and inhumanity and the papal trip developed into a political demonstration. Just a year later, the fruits of that trip were evident -- in 1980, the Solidarity movement was founded.
A young Polish girl prepares her poster of Pope John Paul II as she waits for him at the Kalwaria Zebrzydowska Sanctuary, 27 miles outside Krakow, Poland on Aug. 19, 2002.
The pope is said to have met with the movement's leader, Lech Walesa, several times in secret during the 1980s. According to Walesa, the role of John Paul II in the fight against Communism should not be underestimated.
"He helps us get organized to overthrow Communism," he said. "Thanks to the fact that God gave us a pope from Poland, we were able to triumph over Communism."
Dialog between churches
Like hardly any other pope in history, John Paul II promoted ecumenical dialog and worked towards a unity of the Christian churches. For example, in Romania, he lobbied for the normalization of relations between the Greek Orthodox and Catholic churches.
Pilgrims and tourists walk by the Virgin Mary shrine cave associated with miraculous cures at Lourdes, southwest France, Thursday Aug 12, 2004. Pope John Paul II made a trip to Lourdes, near the Pyrenees Mountains.
John Paul II was often critical of the increasing materialism in today's society and exhorted people to remember the poor and the weak. His own health problems underlined his own engagement for sick and fragile people. His last visit to the French pilgrimage site of Lourdes (photo) received special attention, large due to his obviously declining health.
"The head of the church doesn't have to be like California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, some kind of Superman, in order to lead the church," said Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger, former Archbishop of Paris.
Spoke to conservative Anglicans
In Great Britain, the Catholic Church plays a somewhat subordinate role to the state-supported Church of England, of which 57 percent of Britons are members. But several million Irish also live in Great Britain, and they are almost without exception Catholics. Not least because of them, John Paul II decided to visit England, Scotland and Wales in 1982, the first pope in the history of the church to do so.
"I think his greatest conviction lay in the dignity of man," said Vincent Nichols, Archbishop of Birmingham. "He respected life in its every stage, from conception to death."
It was evidently his strong beliefs on the matters of female priests and birth control that enabled the Catholic Church to win converts from the Anglicans. The Anglican Church has been in crisis since controversies flared over homosexuality and women priests. For conservative Anglicans, the Catholic Church represents a Christian world still the way it should be, and many decided to convert to Catholicism.
According to Eamonn Duffy, a professor of Christian history at Cambridge University, the pope's personality made John Paul II into a significant figure on the world stage.
"I think, he will be seen as one of the few really great popes, partly because of his unusual life experience that influenced his time in office," he said. "There hasn't been another pope since the Middle Ages who has had the kind of direct effect of world politics or who has contributed to the political liberation of so many people."
The Slovaks belong to that group. The head of the Catholic Church visited Slovakia three times. It is a small country, with a big Catholic tradition; 60 percent of the population is Catholic. The pope visited all the large cities of the country and took the opportunity to speak with the people directly -- particularly the young. "When I met the Holy Father, I knew that we are not alone in this world," said 22-year-old Juraj. "He is a symbol, proof of our faith."