Video: The life of the pope

By Brian Williams Anchor & “Nightly News” managing editor
NBC News
updated 4/7/2005 8:40:22 PM ET 2005-04-08T00:40:22

It was October 1978, and it wasn't that long after the ceremonial puff of white smoke was visible before people saw the first signs that this new pope would be so very different. His charisma was palpable; his personality, engaging. His touch was that of the common people in his church.

He went on to become the first pope of the media age. Only two popes served longer than John Paul II.

It had been almost 500 years since the last non-Italian pope, before it was announced that Cardinal Karol Wojtyla of Krakow, Poland, would be known by the title Pope John Paul II.

"We are witnessing the global acceleration of that quest for freedom," the pope told the United Nations in 1979.

He saw himself as a contemporary successor to St. Peter. His mission, as he saw it, was to travel — leave the confines of the Vatican and minister to his flock. And he did. He crisscrossed six continents, visiting more than 130 countries. He gave new meaning to the jet age, traveling, by air, the equivalent of 28 trips around the globe. No single person on the planet has been seen by more people in person.

"I come as a friend, a friend of America," he said during a visit to Miami in 1987.

His life before becoming pope was an indicator to all that he would be a different kind of leader for the 1.1 billion Catholics around the world. Young Karol Wojtyla had been a factory worker, a playwright, an actor. He was a superb athlete -- an avid skier. He had seen first-hand, as a young man, the brutalization of Poland, the scourge of Nazism and communism, and it shaped his ideology, and later, his papacy.

"He knew Poland so well, and they trusted him," says Father Thomas Reese, editor of America Magazine. "They were willing to come out and put their lives on the line."

His leadership helped trigger a chain of events that would eventually lead to the fall of communism in the Soviet Union.

"He knew the vulnerability of communism from the inside," says NBC News Vatican analyst George Weigel. "He understood that the emperor had less clothes than the emperor imagined or even that many statesmen around the world imagined."

John Paul II became the model of pope as statesman. He was a constant advocate for peace, confronting world leaders and five U.S. presidents, including the current president, over the mission to topple Saddam Hussein, which the pope saw as an elective war that lacked moral justification.

"John Paul II became a kind of universal moral reference point — a great defender of the human rights of everyone," says Weigel.

He worried about what he saw as excesses of materialism in the prosperous West.

"It is we who must choose between evil and good," the pope told a Denver audience in 1993.

He worried, too, that newly liberated countries of Eastern Europe were following suit, turning away from religion.

"The faithful are constantly challenged by consumerism and a pleasure-seeking mentality," he told a crowd in Los Angeles in 1987.

But he never, ever watered down traditional Catholic doctrine as a way of trying to reach the disaffected. On his core beliefs, he would not waver.

Those who hoped for change on issues like celibacy, contraception and the ordination of women as priests would be profoundly disappointed. And yet, the pope's message of faith — in the face of a sometimes overwhelming popular culture — resonated with the world's youth.

"You are young and the pope is old," he said at World Youth Day in Toronto in 2002.

Something about him seemed to have a magical hold on them.

"He held the bar of expectation high and said to young people, 'don't ever settle for anything less than the spiritual and moral greatness of which, with God's grace, you are capable,'" says Weigel.

But even as he slowed down, as his vitality wavered, he remained one of the world's most popular leaders. The waning years of his papacy were filled with both religious and personal challenges, such as the sexual abuse scandals that roiled the church in America and Europe.

"Let us build a new future in which there will be no more anti-Jewish feeling among Christians and no more anti-Christian feeling among Jews," said the pope at Jerusalem's Yad Vashem holocaust memorial in 2000.

He reached out to Jews, Muslims and Russian Orthodox, to try to bridge the East-West divide, and results were mixed. But he remained indomitable.

His suffering was sad to watch. Parkinson's disease, debilitating arthritis and the many after-effects of the assassination attempt that nearly killed him in 1981. Many westerners openly wondered if he was receiving the best medical care. But the pope truly believed it was part of life's journey, and even that connected him further with so many older Catholics.

He appointed all but three of the cardinals who will now choose the man to replace him. He canonized more saints than all his predecessors combined. His legacy is unshakable.

Those of us who were present on the day he commemorated the 25th anniversary of his papacy in October 2003 saw that he appeared to be saying goodbye, in his way, to an eternal faith and a world profoundly changed, in part, because he lived in it.

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