I was just 13 the last time that a pope died but I still remember it well. I had just started keeping up with the news at that time reading the local paper and my parents' Time Magazine each week. I don't recall any long accolades to the departed pope at that time, just the excitement over the new guy who had just been selected - Pope John Paul I. And then he dropped dead just 30 days later and they had to rush out and start all over again.
So it seemed like Pope John Paul II got off to a rather bumpy start - having to take another guy's name and starting out with the notion that he was a last-minute replacement like a relief pitcher who comes into the game halfway through the first inning.
But John Paul II has certainly made his mark over the years, making most everybody forget there was ever a John Paul I. He was kind of like Ronald Reagan in some ways - hard not to like even when you didn't always agree with him. And there were a lot of things I disagreed with him on - abortion, contraception, homosexuality, the role of women in the church. It is said that he was very conservative and he certainly didn't budge on any of these issues. But I also remember him as being very liberal, especially when it came to criticizing the U.S. for our foreign and economic policies. He reached out to the world's poor and downtrodden and shamed the world's wealthy nations for doing nothing or not enough to address their problems. He criticized the U.S. for its military adventures in Central America and the Middle East. And he didn't back down from those positions either.
I'm not a Catholic, but I always had a great deal of respect for Pope John Paul II. I hope that the next pope will be someone I can respect and admire as well. They've got some big shoes to fill.
Sister Helen Prejean, who I got to see in person a few months ago at Trinity United Methodist Church, has an Op-Ed in the NYTimes about John Paul II’s principled opposition to the death penalty.