So much was expected of Karol Wojtyla when he became pope in 1978. Here, for the first time, was a pontiff plucked not from the Vatican's perfumed inner chambers, but a man of the world. He was not Italian; he skied, he kayaked, he acted in dramas. His fellow clerics compared him to John Wayne.
His faith, too, seemed tested. He had lost his mother early, lived in the shadow of Auschwitz, performed forced labor in a limestone quarry. "Do Not Be Afraid" was his motto at his inauguration, and one sensed that after living through Poland's brutal mid-century, he no longer was.
So even before his first papal pronouncement, he was granted a place in history as the Roman Catholic Church's first modern pope, charged with leading the centuries-old institution into the next millennium -- the "new springtime of Christianity," as he called it.
And 26 years later, it's by that yardstick that Pope John Paul II's legacy will be judged, both in the church he transformed and in the world he tried so hard to influence.
For those who expected more from the modernization -- American priests ordained in the 1960s, say, Catholic women who wanted to be priests or Latin American leaders who wanted a partner in revolution -- the pope not only betrayed his promise but locked the church in place for years to come.
"I'm of the generation of priests who were euphoric about the idea that the church could change," said the Rev. Andrew Greeley, an author and columnist. "And while I recognize all his great talents, I think he pulled the plug on it, and that greatly dismays me."
But to his many admirers, John Paul succeeded brilliantly. Armed only with the Gospel, using a title that could have easily faded into irrelevance in a secular age, he made himself a world leader on the order of Franklin D. Roosevelt or Winston Churchill.
"Not the man of the Catholic 20th century," his biographer George Weigel has said, "but the man of the century, period."
Less than a year into his tenure, he made clear what feats a modern pope -- especially a former actor -- could pull off on history's stage. June 1979, Victory Square, Warsaw, standing in front of a 36-foot-high wooden cross. "Do not be defeated," he told the gathered masses, and they shouted back: "We want God! We want God!"
For years after, Cold War historians debated how much that nine-day visit helped destabilize the country's Communist government or lent moral force to the Solidarity movement that eventually toppled it.
But even those who give him less credit acknowledge that whatever got stirred in Poland those days, the papacy itself was forever changed. Popes have always been diplomats, negotiating with local powers to protect the church's interests. But here was a pope who defined the church's interest in the broadest way possible -- as the liberation of the human spirit, for Catholics and non-Catholics alike. Here was a pope who saw his role as a prophet for a troubled world, who derived his authority not from the institution but from a transcendent source.
"There is no more clear voice in the world for social justice in our time," said Mary Anne Glendon, one of a generation of philosophers, and not just Catholic thinkers, who credit him as their muse. "Whenever I get discouraged about the state of the world, I turn to his work to get galvanized."
For the rest of his 84 years, he pursued the prophet's calling, taking his portable altar to every forgotten corner, making more pilgrimages in a typical year than any pope before him had made in his entire tenure. The trips produced unforgettable moments: the pope kissing a concrete floor at the Auschwitz death camp; stirring teenagers at Madison Square Garden into rock-concert frenzy; touring a synagogue in Rome; visiting his would-be assassin, Mehmet Ali Agca, in prison to grant him forgiveness.
If a repressive government didn't want him to visit, he pleaded in letters and phone calls until it relented, such as in Chile, Indonesia and former Soviet Union states. When he arrived, he would repeat the performance at Victory Square, if on a smaller scale.